Understanding activism

By Cameron Shorter

A holistic look at activism, and activist techniques.

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In my experience with activism, I have met many activists who have not grasped a holistic understanding of all the players in the activism game.

As a computer hacker and being involved with the leaderless critical mass, I have seen group dynamics and communication tools which can improve the effectiveness of activism.

In this paper I aim to identify who makes decisions which cause social change and how activists can influence these decisions.

The key players

Activism is about instigating social change and involves influencing decisions made by corporations, governments and/or the population at large. Before we can look at effective activist techniques, we need to know who the key players are and what motivates them.


Career politicians make all major decisions in a country. Assuming they are not corrupt, or exceptionally moral, their primary motivation is to get back into office by initiating popular policies. However, it is difficult for the politicians to know what the population is thinking. They get indications from letters written to them, seeing the number of people turning up at demonstrations and Morgan-Gallet type polls.

At the same time, politicians try to sway the public opinion using spin-doctors. They buy advertising space in the mass media - something which costs money and hence political parties are dependent of financial sources and may offer political favours for financial contributions. Organisations can finance a party with beneficial policies, giving the party an advertising budget to get into power and ensuring the organisation gets the policies it wants. [TBD I'm looking for a reference which explains this in more detail.]

Government Departments

If you have watched the TV series Yes Minister you will understand that government departments run ministers rather than the other way around. Well, it's at least partly true. Government departments are experts in their areas and ministers use the departments to advice them on policy.

Government departments are made up of public servants whose primary aim to keep their jobs and increase their power. So the departments are forever advising their ministers that they need more big projects to manage. John Bignicolo wrote an excellent article about the Roads and Traffic Authority on this very subject.

The RTA [Roads and Traffic Authority] depends of increasing traffic congestion to justify its continued expansion of the road system. It just moves the gridlock around to where it wants to build the next bit of its 1948 County of Cumberland road network. Having destroyed the urban amenity of a particular area, it waits for local political pressure to generate calls for a "solution" to the terrible traffic faced by residents. "Well," says the RTA, "we have these plans for a motorway that are just what you need". And on it goes. An article by Linda Morris, entitled "Pressure on for underground link as M2 opens", in the Sydney Morning Herald of Monday, May 26, 1997 provides a perfect example of this process in operation.

The RTA will never countenance giving cyclists decent conditions because it would threaten the level and rate of increase in traffic congestion that their budget and their control of transport and urban planning in Sydney depends upon. (They of course deny this, but please judge them by what they do, not what they say.)

A seasoned activist once explained that when lobbying to stop road construction, you should also lobby to build railway lines. This means that the public servants and construction companies would stay in work and hence would be less likely to resist your proposals. [TBD Nick Possum, these are your words. Please correct. Also, how should I refer to you?]


Corporations' primary aim is to make money for shareholders. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as long as the money is made ethically. Because corporations are in the business of making money, they usually have access to money, which can be used for donating to political parties, advertising, influencing media stories, or even owning sections of the media.

Like everyone else, corporations are capable of performing socially unethical acts, which can become the focus of activist activities. For instance, the baby milk industry and Nestles in particular, have been using unethical marketing techniques in third world countries to sell their product.

Without breast feeding babies don't get the benefit of passive immunity normally passed on in the mothers' milk. The risk of contracting serious diseases from bottle feeding is therefore high, but it is further compounded by the fact that, in the Third World, many people don't have access to a clean water supply with which to make up the formula and poverty can lead to mothers over-diluting the formula to make it go further. Waterborne diseases fed straight to vulnerable babies causes what is now a common condition in many parts of the world - diarrhoea, vomiting, respiratory infections, malnutrition, dehydration and commonly death - known as Bottle-Baby disease.

The companies know this happens. Concerns over 'bottle baby disease' in the Third World and the aggressive promotional activities of the companies, led to the drawing up of the WHO/UNICEF International Code of Marketing of Breast milk Substitutes in 1981.
Nestle encourages bottle feeding primarily by either giving away free samples of baby milk to hospitals, or neglecting to collect payments. It has been criticised for misinforming mothers and health workers in promotional literature. Nestle implies that malnourished mothers and mothers of twins and premature babies are unable to breast-feed, despite health organisations claims that there is no evidence to support this.

Evidence of direct advertising to mothers has been found in over twenty countries such as South Africa and Thailand. Instructions and health warnings on packaging are often either absent, not prominently displayed or in an inappropriate language. All of these actions directly contravene the Code regulating the marketing of baby milk formulas.

In a modern tale of David and Goliath, McDonalds dragged two activists through the courts for producing and distributing a fact-sheet called 'What's Wrong With McDonald's? - Everything they don't want you to know'. The trial turned out to be the longest in English history. In the end, the judge ruled that,

Helen and Dave had not proved the allegations against McDonald's on rainforest destruction, heart disease and cancer, food poisoning, starvation in the Third World and bad working conditions. But they had proved that McDonald's "exploit children" with their advertising, falsely advertise their food as nutritious, risk the health of their most regular, long-term customers, are "culpabably responsible" for cruelty to animals, are "strongly antipathetic" to unions and pay their workers low wages.

NB. 'Not proved' does not mean that the allegations against McDonald's are not true, just that the Judge felt that Helen and Dave did not bring sufficient evidence to prove the meanings he had attributed to the leaflet.

The media called the trial 'the biggest Corporate PR disaster in history'.

Two days after the verdict Helen and Dave were leafleting outside McDonald's again, in defiance of any injunction McDonald's may serve. They weren't alone: over 400,000 leaflets were distributed outside 500 of McDonald's 750 UK stores and solidarity protests were held in over a dozen countries.

Meanwhile,The Sunday Times (UK) reported that Ed Rensi, President of the McDonald's Corporation, had, along with his staff, been removed as Chief Executive following falling US market share, promotional flops and franchisee discontent.


According to Inspector Dave Darcy, the police officer charged with dealing with Critical Mass Sydney, the police's duty is to "Keep the peace" and to use the minimum number of police to do it.

It is usually better to keep interaction with police to a minimum, as activist energies are better spent elsewhere. However, as an activist movement becomes more successful, especially if demonstrations and publicity stunts are used, then police are bound to want to become involved. This isn't all bad, as the media has a fascination with police work and the police department has it's own media unit. If you play your cards right, you may even be able to get the police media unit working for you.

Spending hours converting officers assigned to your demonstration is a waste of time. They are not the people who make decisions. Save your energies for the cameras and politicians. Even worse is being drawn into fighting with police. Sure allow police to arrest you non-violently, but make sure the cameras are filming it. Use it as a publicity tool.

If you are expecting arrests, then it is wise to have someone carrying a video camera. The footage can help in a court later, or can be given/sold to TV stations for news stories. Undercurrents have a good tutorial titled How to become a video activist. [TBD Link to Dave Darcy's new web pages. Maybe more police comments here.]

Spin Doctors

Spin Doctors, also known as Media Liaison Officers and Publicists are hired by all the big players. Spin Doctors are hired to manipulate the media to present a positive image for their client.

[TBD I'd like some good examples of spin doctoring here. Does anyone know of a good spin doctor howto reference?]

Many of the successful activist campaigns have learnt and emulated spin doctor techniques and then beaten the spin doctors at their own game.

Mass Media

The mass media is owned by corporations and hence its primary motivation is to make money. Theoretically the media has ethics whereby it provides an unbiased view of events, covering all angles. In practice the media produce stories that will not offend their advertisers and which will attract a greater audience.

Blatant media bias was evident during protests of the World Trade Organisation in 1999, as summed up by Bryan Pfaffenberger in In Seattle's Aftermath: Linux, Independent Media and the Survival of Democracy.

If you get your news only from mainstream media, you'd think a "guerrilla army of anti-trade activists" disrupted the WTO's recent Seattle conference (Washington Post, 12/1/99) and what's more, that the Seattle police responded with force only after a "small band of self-described anarchists" started smashing downtown merchants' windows (CNN, 12/1/99). Animating the protesters, as stressed repeatedly by the media, was a grab bag of ill-formed, far-fetched ideas. To explain the protesters' concerns, a CNN reporter sought out the president of the National Association of Manufacturers (certainly a highly objective commentator) who could discern only "a lot of crazy different messages" from the "loopy protesters". A New York Times columnist summed up the demonstrators as a "Noah's ark of flat-earth advocates, protectionist trade unions and yuppies looking for their 1960s fix" (FAIR Media Advisory, December 7, 1999).

What you don't know has been reported only by the independent media movement; a coalition of web sites, progressive radio stations, book publishers, newspapers and magazines devoted to providing an alternative to the world view offered by multinational corporations (Hazen and Winokur, 1997). Only through such outlets as The Independent Media Center could you learn the following:

In short, you weren't told the truth. And believe me, this wasn't the first time.

[TBD This is not the most relevant reference. I have seen a better one, but I'd be damned if I can remember where I saw it. It basically stated that when corporations owned the media, you will get biased media coverage. Quoted a number of sources, included people from 100 odd years ago. Noted that the mass media did cover both sides of the WTO, but only the most radical side of the activists in order to trivialise the activists as dangerous anarchists. Please send links to more relevant articles if you can.]

Unfortunately, the mass media is by far the most effective tool available to shape public opinion and since public opinion is what drives politicians, activists usually focus their energies into wooing the media.


The general public play a pivotal role in activism. They vote politicians into office and they buy the products produced by big corporations. Hence everyone is trying to influence the opinions of the general public. Corporations spend billions on advertising. Politicians spend significant portions of their time standing in front of TV cameras selling their policies and it is the public that ultimately vote the politicians into power. So, a successful activist campaign should devote significant resources into wooing the general public.


Activists are part of the public that feel strongly enough about a cause that they are prepared to do something about it. The secret to a successful campaign is to harness as many of these people as you can and to make them as effective as possible. How to do this requires an understanding of the activist psyche.

Activist techniques

Initiating social change usually involves convincing decision-makers that voters/consumers believe in your cause and that they are prepared to change their voting/consuming habits to reflect this. The most successful campaigns use as many of these techniques as they can.

Mass media

The reason corporations spend fortunes on advertising and politicians are always giving interviews is because the mass media influences public opinion and public opinion converts directly to votes and consuming habits. Consequently, the mass media is one of the most effective tools for activists.

Unfortunately, activists don't have the financial resources for advertising, so they need to be creative. Usually this means targeting news, documentaries, or talk back type programs. Remember, corporations own the mass media and their aim is to make money. This means increase advertising revenues by increasing audiences, which in turn means that news isn't news, it's infotainment.

In order to get into the news, you need to be entertaining. In the media world this means you need a hook. You need an interesting angle to hook in an audience. You need to be new, funny, exciting, confrontational, different, shocking, visually stimulating.

Once in the news, you need to ensure that your message is woven into the story. Don't kid yourself, this is a difficult task, but the rewards are large, so it is worth the energy. A good article on working the mass media can be found at http://www.urban75.com/Action/media.html.

Because media is owned by, or services big corporations, it is difficult to get air time and if you do, to get the right message across. However, don't be discouraged. While media corporate ethics are usually questionable, there are many highly ethical reporters who will go out of their way to help an ethical cause.

Fringe media

There are plenty of small newspapers, magazines and community radio stations that have a small but targeted audience who will publish verbatim anything you give them, or if they interview you they do it in a friendly non-confrontational way. This is a good place to train up and coming spokespeople.

Create your own media

The man who calls himself Nick Possum started up an occasional broad-sheet newspaper called Hell on Wheels. For $xxx he printed off ?? thousand copies of a 10 page newspaper. It contained in depth articles about the negative impacts of road building. [TBD Need more input from Nick Possum here.]

Like many other protestors, critical mass riders traditionally hand out fliers to passers by to explain why people are riding. This also turns out to be a good opportunity to talk to observers which is a very effective way to sway people (if it is done in a non-aggressive manner).

When I was growing up, many of the smoking billboards were defaced. "What a sterling idea" became "What a stupid idea" and "Anyway, have a Winfield" became "Anyway, have a Windfail".

Hanging banners or posters next to roads can be used in a similar manner to push a cause. This is often used to advertise a demonstration.

Print media, especially the fringe media and magazines, are always asking for photos. Documentary makers are always looking for film archive of previous riders, TV news will often want footage of the last police confrontation or publicity stunt that they missed and radio stations sometimes ask for background soundscapes. So build up your own archive of these.

Similarly, build up a well referenced fact pack. A fact pack is a great way to bring a new spokesperson up to speed and facts add significant weight to any story you have in the media.

One of the problems with posters and fliers is that there is not much room to write detailed arguments about your cause, however, there is enough room to print your web address and on your web page you can store all the information you can get your hands on. For instance, at [TBD www.macliable.???] there is XXX Megabytes of data pointing out the shady side of Mac Donalds. This includes XXX Meg of court transcripts from the Annie MacLiable court case. [TBD Check details here].

Web sites

Many activist campaigns have developed their own web sites using simple HTML, however, more advanced technology can be harnessed by activists to work more efficiently.

Radio For All acts as a repository for alternative radio interviews by providing a simple web based interface to a sound archive database. They use this site to share interviews between community radio stations. [TBD Find one for photos as well]. I'd like to see a similar database for facts about activist causes.

Databases can be used to create news and talk back sites. For instance, Slashdot boasts to be news for nurds, ABC News is a commercial news site and Active Sydney is an activist news and calendar site I've worked on. The reader feedback sections are especially good for developing ideas in a similar manner to an email listserver.


Historically, demonstrations are the bread and butter of activism. They provide a way for of people to show they care strongly about an issue, which shows politicians there are votes in your campaign. It is important to ensure your demonstrations are well attended.

This has another benefit. People are attracted to effective demonstrations and one measure of success is to see the demonstration reported in the media.


Midnight Oil have been writing political songs for years. More recently, the song "Backdoor Man", which sent up Pauline Hanson's homophobic comments, became one of the most requested songs on triple j before Pauline took out a court injunction to stop it from being played.

Do it yourself

One of the most empowering acts an activist can perform is to change their environment themselves. It also provides an opportunity to create positive media stories.

Copenhagen in Denmark has set up a free city bike program where anyone can pick up a free city bike, ride it across town and then leave it at the destination. When politicians in San Francisco were unable to deliver a similar scheme, critical mass cyclists stole the initiative and fixed up old bikes, painted them yellow and then left them around the city for anyone to ride.

A group of cycle activists in Sydney who saw local councils shelve bike plan after bike plan, took matters into their own hands. At 2:00 in the morning they took to the streets with spray cans and painted their own bike lanes.

Another problem cyclists face is that their favourite bike routes often go over gutters, but the wheels of their bikes do not. So one activist carries a hammer and chisel with him and stop every now and then to chisel out a ramp in gutters.

Not only do forest activists lie in front of bulldozers, some also grow and plant new trees. [TBD Can a forest activist fill in some details here, I just saw this on a documentary somewhere.]

Direct Action

Lying in front of, or chaining yourself to bulldozers, sailing a rubber dingy between a whaling boat and a whale, or [TBD another example please] are examples of direct action. You are making it difficult/preventing people from doing damage to the environment. This may send them bankrupt and hence win you a campaign, but more likely it will only buy you time and publicity. Direct action is usually best done in conjunction with other activism techniques. [TBD I have little expertise in this area. Comments here would be good.]

Legal Challenges

[TBD Comments from Truth About Motorways please. More examples here please.]


spiking trees, sugar in petrol, ... [TBD Check out Earth First web site.]

Letter writing

Writing letters to politicians is a way to change a politician's perception of the amount of support there is for a certain issue. If you are lucky, a well written letter may change a politician's opinion on a subject. Not many people write letters, so when a politician receives a letter voicing an opinion, they can assume that there are a significant number of other silent people in the public who believe the same thing.

Building a movement

Sustainable Movements

Just before I finished high school and left my beachside home and headed for Sydney, the local council decided to build a sewage pipeline off the end of our headland so they could pump sewage into our sea. Funnily enough, neither my family, nor anyone else in the community wanted the sewage. So I saw my respectable parents and siblings grow into seasoned activists. It took ten years to beat the council. In that time my family lay in front of bulldozers, wrote lots of letters, talked to politicians, became experts in sewage treatment and made a lot of friends in their local community. Most of the time my parents didn't think they were going to win, but the community never gave in. One thing I learnt from my family's experience was that winning a small, localised activist campaign takes a long time and if a movement wants to win, it needs to be sustainable.

In business, good managers move people around the company to hedge against the Mac Truck Principle. That is, they want to ensure that when an employee is flattened by a Mac Truck, the company or project won't suffer significantly. In activism this principle is equally valid and with critical mass cyclists, being taken out by a Mac truck is a definite possibility.

The obvious way to protect against loosing key people is to train volunteers so that key roles have two or more people capable of performing them. However, a more effective strategy is to not have any key roles in the first place. Critical mass always rides on the last Friday of the month, leaving at the same time from the same place. All participants know this and no organisation or advertising is required to make this happen. While publicity, press stunts and lobby politicians make the movement more effective and build up numbers, they are not essential for the survival of the movement. This is one of the reasons critical mass has maintained a presence in so many cities around the world.

However, having said that, activists aren't about being in a movement for the sake of the movement. They are about instigating social change and that involves, any of the techniques described in this paper. To be effective and sustainable the movement must

A movement's life cycle

[TBD I'm looking for examples to fill out this section.]

As a movement matures, it attracts and needs different types of people. Initially, there needs to be radical visionaries who are prepared to challenge public opinion and start agitating with little or no support. If these people are inspirational enough, they will attract others and the movement will grow. As the movement grows, it needs organisers, networkers and strategists, along with more specialised roles like spokespeople. Slowly a successful campaign will educate the population and mainstream will adopt the cause. At this point the radicals become disillusioned and move on. Sure, they wanted to see the population become radical and take on their cause. However, they didn't realise that when everyone believes in a cause, the cause becomes mainstream. Eventually the campaign will either dwindle into nothing, or will redefine itself in a more radical form.


Money can break down the very fabric of the culture.

If some of the volunteers start being paid for their work, other potential volunteers don't step forward, as they expect the paid people to do the job for them. This problem can be mitigated if the volunteers are paid a minimalist salary which allows them to work full time on a project, however they are still seen to be giving to the movement by passing up a significant portion of their salary. [TBD I believe this is how Greenpeace works. Can someone confirm this.]

The gift culture does not suffer if activists buy material goods, like banner material, paint, faxes and so on, although it is better if you can find someone to donate or make it.

Unfortunately we have developed a society which encourages suing others whenever possible. Consequently, many organisations shy away from slightly risky activities, or are forced to take out insurance which significantly eats into the activist budget. However, with critical mass we were able to avoid this problem by not having much money to loose and by having a leaderless structure that cannot be sued. Since no one officially organises critical mass, everyone takes responsibility for their own behaviour, just like they would if they were going for a walk down the beach.

Know the law

[TBD Maybe write something here. Currently I'm planning to cut it.]


To maximise the effectiveness of a movement, it is important to understand the motivations of all the players in the activism game and especially understand the psyche of activists.

Build up the communication channels between activists and lever the new tools provided by the internet. They are a gift for activists.

Consider using a loosely structured organisation model, with no specified roles. This is the natural form of a gift culture and I believe it is the most effective model for an activist culture.

Save the world and don't forget to have fun.

About the author

Cameron Shorter likes to describe himself as a hackivist, a computer hacker who uses his hacking talents in activist projects.

He has invested significant time promoting critical mass in Sydney, Australia, giving interviews to the media, building up a fact pack on cycling, designing web pages and organising publicity stunts. He rides a bicycle to work.

He is one of the hackers who helped develop the activist calendar and news site http://www.active.org.au.

In his normal life he is a software engineer with a wife and two young children. He figures that he only has fifty years to live, and wants to squeeze as much as he can out of life.


[TBD Give credit to people who have shaped my ideas and contributed to this essay.]

Bibliography and further reading