Your E-Activism Toolkit: Following the Rules
Having an ethics chapter in a book about activism is in some respects superfluous because every chapter in the book should reek of ethics and morality and decency and all that noble, wonderful stuff. And I think that's more or less true when we're talking about very specific issues—Chapter 7 deals with multimedia, for example, so that's the place to go if you're looking for hints about tagging people in photographs—but some general ethical principles echo throughout the book that are worth keeping in mind here.
If I were a real ethicist, a real moralist, the central message of this chapter would be "do unto others as you would have them do unto you." (I did, in fact, write Que Publishing's The Absolute Beginner's Guide to the Bible, published in 2005.) But this book is primarily about the how of changing the world, not the why, so the message is a little simpler: "Do unto others as is most likely to advance your cause, within reason."
It should go without saying that I'm not writing this book with white nationalists, violent international terrorists, and other perpetrators of human evil in mind, so I'm not writing this chapter for them. I'm writing this chapter for you, the well-meaning online activist, and this means that you already have a pretty good idea of what sort of behavior falls under the heading of "within reason" and what sort of behavior doesn't.
But we get distracted. In a very real sense, every human being who has ever lived has at least a mild case of attention-deficit disorder—because being able to control our focus is difficult. And this applies even to our moral focus.
So even good people can make the mistake of committing one of the previously described Deadly Sins. I've committed a few of them myself—activism is a great social outlet for me, for example, so I'm really bad about self-promotion. Other bolder, less egotistical people might need to be talked out of using hacktivism as a way to promote their causes.
On the face of it, that sounds silly—Patrick Henry didn't say, "Give me liberty or give me death, but I draw the line at appearing in public with my shoes unbuckled"—but when we're talking about behavior that is going to be detrimental to the causes we're fighting for, it makes sense to talk, in a general sense, about ethics and netiquette. So we've talked about it. Read, mark, and inwardly digest. And as we go through other kinds of activism, look at how the basic principles of this chapter might be relevant to them.
If you're designing a website, for example, Deadly Sin #1 is a serious risk—plenty of activism websites (I won't name names) are all about promoting the prestige of the organization rather than the cause, or even promoting the personality cult of an individual associated with it. And I do discuss this in a freestanding way in Chapter 3, but the basic principle of not promoting yourself or your group at the expense of your cause is crucial to online activism because it is so easy to make that mistake when you have a potential audience of near-unlimited size.
Email netiquette is discussed in greater depth in Chapter 8, which focuses on how we get people in the loop and keep them there, but Deadly Sin #2 is worth highlighting here because unsolicited bulk email is an idea that sounds worthwhile but isn't. Likewise hacktivism, Deadly Sin #3. The same could be said, really, of any item on this list.
Deadly Sins #5, #6, and #7—don't nag, don't violate privacy, don't use "terror-lite" techniques (even accidentally)—are all about not turning into the sorts of people who are detrimental to our cause. Because humanity is central to what we do as activists; because we need to maintain the ability to connect to people; because if we lose our humanity, scandals will follow us, and our movements will suffer as a result. Activism is one of the very few areas of life where being a good person and having noble priorities almost always pays off because activism attracts noble people and, online or offline, they can usually tell if you're faking it sooner or later.