Online activism explored

Above: The TTIGF Gender Activism panel, Jacqueline Morris, Ian Royer, Atillah Springer, Rudolph Hanamji, Sue Ann Barratt. Photo by Mark Lyndersay.
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Above: The TTIGF Gender Activism panel, Jacqueline Morris, Ian Royer, Atillah Springer, Rudolph Hanamji, Sue Ann Barratt. Photo by Mark Lyndersay.

BitDepth#1135 for March 08, 2018

At the recent TTIGF discussion on matters of concern to the digitally enabled, one unusual and inspired panel discussed the rise of online activism with a particular focus on gender based responses to the status quo.

Atillah Springer opened the discussion with a considered evaluation of the nature of online activism as it’s expressed locally.

Her own work with online activism began with the successful anti-smelter movement in Chatham in 2006, which she noted, “went out over dial-up and became a global phenomenon.”

Making a difference, said Springer, was “a mix of physical activism in the space and online response to the stories that were shared with the world.”

In 2016, appalling comments by Port of Spain Mayor Raymond Tim Kee prompted outrage on social media, which had become deeply entrenched as the medium for sharing deeply felt opinions.

“A physical call for something to happen started online,” Springer recalled, “we thought we should do something about it and then there was a physical protest.”

That protest was captured in galleries of images that were in turn widely shared and commented on. In short order the comment driven trial of the Mayor was over with his departure from office.

“We have created a whole out of the fragments that we brought to the Caribbean,” Springer said.

“It gives us a different perspective on how we interact and engage with issues.”

But that perspective and approach is far from perfect in its execution in the digital realm.

Opinion-led discussions are often fractured by dramatically different perspectives on crucial matters, even among people who agree on the core issues.

These readily available media empower those who are most skilled in using them and most capable of holding an audience, not exclusively those who are most capable of having a sensible or informed discussion about the matters at hand.

“How often do we get criticism based on race and class about our cultural actives, which are our root and soul?” Springer asked.

“I feel that there’s a lot of noise that masquerades as activism on Facebook. I think that some activists need to examine their reasons for sharing.”

“There is a lot of tragedy porn masquerading as activism on Facebook. If I ask you to share your story, how am I helping you to deal with your trauma?”

The deeply emotional nature of much of these exchanges and the massive constituencies of digital readers and listeners that influencers can bring to the table are significant problems for both professional communicators who are trying to bring an official response to these discussions.

Faring even less well are the hapless folks who tend to be the target of digital lynching parties, many of whom find themselves roasting in fires of completely unknown origin.

Alcoa’s stumbling through the Chatham protests and Mayor Tim Kee’s determined efforts to shove his conversational foot ever deeper into his mouth are only the most publicly memorable examples of unhappy and unsuccessful defenses against digitally enabled protests.

During Carnival 2018, a small procession of activists staged a protest funeral at the site of the demolished Greyfriars church.

This was a very modern social media enabled event. Staged with stealth, there was no official response until a caretaker for the grounds chased the trespassers out, but by then, photographs had been taken, a story recorded and perhaps even video footage captured.

From there, it becomes a very different type of communication and one that’s very difficult to respond to.

Artists should be free to respond to what they see as the desecration of art and culture, but what’s been missing from the discussions about the destruction of Greyfriars has been the views of actual Presbyterians.

As it turns out, I happen to be one, but I haven’t chosen the rather Sisyphean task of rebutting these anguished cries of a terrible loss to the built landscape, an opinion I don’t happen to share.

I went to Sunday School at that church, attended masses there and various fund raising events and Christmas fairs and in May, 2000, was married there.

I am also aware of the deeper history of the Presbyterian Church in Trinidad, which is deeply fractured along lines of race and class.

Worshippers at Greyfriars wouldn’t go to the Church of Scotland, just a few blocks to the northeast of the Frederick Street building.

A church is only as strong as its congregation, and over decades I saw the numbers drop precipitously at Greyfriars.

The building might have been old, but it was architecturally unimpressive, its massive pipe organ its most distinguishing characteristic.

In the end, Scotland won, absorbing the remaining congregation and the building was sold to consolidate the more distinctive house of worship on Charlotte Street.

There is, of course, more to the story than that, but there are many reasons beyond simple greed why the building, more valuable as real estate than as architecture or as a memento of the history of the church is gone, and why there are no mourning Presbyterians in these extended laments for Greyfriars.

“Social media and Facebook in particular were made for a TT mindset,” said social media consultant Ian Royer.

“We are very good at the picong, but we need to get better at using the tools to make things happen.”

“The rhetoric of the calypsonians was what we had before,” Royer observed, raising the example of online activist Rhoda Bharath’s use of wit, picong and technology to raise significant questions about the tenure of a President of Trinidad and Tobago. 

“Once you identify yourself as an activist, particularly as an activist for LGBTQI, you have to expect backlash, sometimes severe backlash,” said Sue Ann Barratt, a lecturer at the Institute for Gender and Development Studies at UWI.

“It takes a lot to care, and the backlash is part of the disruption, and a response to ideas that are unsettling and perhaps unpalatable to people who are asked to change their perspective, their way of thinking and living.”

“How do we take advantage of our stories, our narratives to communicate and to inhabit the space? We have to understand what we are culturally tied to.”

“Immediacy is a change agent. You don’t have to wait for it to be covered. It happens, it’s reported and responded to in near real time.”