The Internet for International Political and Social Protest: the case of Seattle


by Stefano Baldi

Introduction | Preparations for Protest | Creation of Fake Websites | Discussion Boards | The Virtual Sit-in | E-mail | Information and Misinformation | Alternative Information | Conclusions | References

(Note - some of the snapshots of Webpages shown can be different from the current layout)


The recent protests which took place in Seattle during the third World Trade Organization (WTO) Ministerial Conference (29 November - 3 December 1999) for the tentative opening of the "Millennium Round" were widely covered by mass media. Many political analysts have tried to explain the reasons for and the nature of this original protest. It was a very complex phenomenon which can be seen from many different perspectives. One interesting perspective is the role of new Information Technologies (IT) in preparing for the protest and spreading it worldwide. This aspect is particularly relevant for the future development of international political protest, especially for those issues which have a global scale.

In the case of the Seattle protest, the use of IT was extensive and employed various different Internet tools. The Seattle protest provides a very good example of the methods future protest is likely to exploit to give voice to dissent. These methods range from extensive use of e-mail and discussion boards to creation of fake websites, virtual sit-ins, use of Internet for information and counter-information, and Internet audio and video broadcasting.

In fact, new IT tools are playing a growing role in the organisation and the management of political and social protest worldwide. Electronic activism and electronic civil disobedience are becoming a means of protest at a worldwide level. Electronic activism is a wide concept which covers the use of a variety of tools, ranging from word processors to write newsletters, to live Internet broadcast of demonstrations; and from virtual sit-ins to mail spamming and virtual attacks to computer networks. The number of politicised hackers is increasing together with the number of computerised activists. The number of web pages dedicated to explaining political events to the general public has rapidly increased since the first cases of electronic activism which appeared in the USA a few years ago. These means of protest are new and still need to be explored and exploited. New tactics are likely to be invented and tested in the future to improve the impact of electronic protest and to complement traditional demonstrations. ………………..


Preparations for Protest

The Internet has been used since its early days for announcing all kinds of events. Many social, cultural and political events have been advertised over the Internet in many different ways. Demonstrators and protesters quickly realized the potential of the Internet for spreading information and co-ordinating protests concerning specific issues. In particular, radical and social movements have used e-mail and website communication since the Internet became more widespread, after 1994.

The pro-Zapatista movement and the WTO protests in Seattle provide recent examples of the use of Internet for protest. The pro-Zapatista movement was among the first to use IT for political protest. Immediately after the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas, Mexico, Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) communiqués began to be e-mailed through listservs all over the world. This rapid and wide distribution of information and the subsequent creation of international networks of solidarity contributed to the survival and the visibility of the Zapatista movement. On the low end of cyber-activism people sent large amounts of e-mail to selected e-mail targets. In some of these cases, the intent may have been only to deliver a powerful message. But if pushed to its limits, massive amounts of email may cause system overload.

In the case of the Seattle protest many websites were created to prepare for the event. Under the code N30 (November 30) a series of actions were organized using the Internet. For example, the site "A Global Day of Action" ( called for action in ten different languages and provided a directory of local contacts all over the world (Fig. 1). The spirit of the contents of the site is clearly summarized by the slogans reported in the homepage: "Resistance, and Carnival against Global Capitalist System" or "May our resistance be as transnational as capital".

Fig. 1 - "A Global Day of Action" Website



It is interesting to note the contents of the Peoples Global Action (PGA) appeal:

The November 30th global day of action would be organised in a non-hierarchical way, as a decentralized and informal network of autonomous groups that struggle for solidarity and co-operation while employing non-authoritarian, grassroots democratic forms of organization. Each event or action would be organized autonomously by each group, while coalitions of various movements and groups could be formed at the local, regional, and national levels. A strategy that may be useful at the local level is that various groups co-operate in creating a surrounding atmosphere of carnival and festivity as a setting for their various actions. Examples of conceivable actions are: street parties - strikes - handing out flyers - street theatre - pickets - demonstrations - occupations of offices - blockades and shutdowns - building gardens - speeches - appropriation and disposal of luxury consumer goods - critical mass bike rides - banner hangings - sabotaging, wrecking, or interfering with capitalist infrastructure - carnivals - appropriating capitalist wealth and returning it to the working people - handing out free food - mock trade fairs - marches - music - dancing - solidarity actions - declaring oneself independent from global capitalism and authoritarian governments - setting up grassroots' community councils and holding meetings outside city halls - setting up economic alternatives, like workers' co-operatives - offering no interest loans outside major banks - reclaiming space (streets, government land, office buildings, etc.) for living, playing, etc. - free distribution of community controlled newspapers. We expect to communicate internationally primarily by email, and so encourage all groups and individuals who plan to take action to subscribe to suitable mailing lists, and in general make efforts to stay in touch through this and other means. There is a list of available mailing lists in the appendix below. Please join one, and share your thoughts and plans with the rest of us.

This proposal must be translated into as many languages as possible, and as soon as possible, since the availability of translations will very much affect our chances of spreading it at a truly global level. If you wish to translate it into some language, please start as soon as possible, and let the rest of us know that you are doing it. Write with offers or requests for translations.

Please forward this proposal to appropriate lists and to people who will be interested, reproduce it and circulate, put it on a web site, and most importantly, act.

It is evident that the whole appeal was based on an extensive use of IT. It is also interesting to note that the aim was to gather as many groups as possible in the protest. Even the wide range of local initiatives suggested is a clear sign of the wish to enlarge and diffuse the protest as much as possible.


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