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8 January 2011

Hacktivists of the world unite

A report from Netroots UK.

By Duncan Robinson

“Hackitivists of the world, unite!” was the main message of the first annual Netroots UK meeting, held today at the TUC in London.

Hundreds of union members, politicos and tweeters were joined by grand figures of the progressive left to discuss the best ways to fight coalition cuts. There was a single message from the speakers: the left can’t fight cuts unless it fights them together.

Brendan Barber, head of the TUC, opened the event and spoke about the need to “work together and campaign together”. Sunder Katwala, general secretary of the Fabian Society, implored activists to look to the bigger picture.

Our job is to convince 15-20 million people of these arguments that coalition policy could be changed. And when we do this, we’re not going to all agree. Some just want to prevent cuts to their local school; some people want a revolution. The thing we’re not going to do is create a leadership that agree on everything. We have respect for these differences: we don’t just say it’s the fault of Ed Miliband or Caroline Lucas. We should not make these differences the primary issue. We need to take the macro argument about fair and unfair cuts and put them on the micro level: give them examples and testimonies.

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One website that makes use of local examples and testimonies is False Economy. Its creator, Clifford Singer (who also created the infinitely amusing, stressed the importance of taking macroeconomic policy and placing it within a local, micro level. False Economy aims “to create a bridge between those who provide services and those who use them,” according to Singer. Personal testimonies and mapping exactly where cuts are happening will help people realise how they, and others, are being affected by the cuts, he argues.

Singer also talked about the efforts of groups such as UKuncut, which attracted huge media coverage with high-visibility, effective protests. In the process, UKuncut gained an extremely effective and very surprising ally: the Daily Mail. “If you won’t pay your taxes, we won’t buy your cheese” read a petition that the Mail ran against Kraft, when it took over Cadbury, echoing UKuncut’s own slogans.

With even the Daily Mail gaining 20 per cent of its traffic from Facebook, it was inevitable some of the discussion would focus on the role that social media can play in fighting the cuts. Brendan Barber was clear about the need to grab this opportunity.

The information revolution we’re living through is as profound as the Industrial Revolution. We either shape that change or let it shape us. While we’ve come a long way in embracing that technology there is a lot to learn. Progressives in the US are ahead of us in the UK, while our political opponents of the right have so far had a more forceful presence in cyberspace.

Social media will continue to play a role in the anti-cuts movement, if today is anything to go by. So perhaps this wasn’t the best occasion to hand out 150 free copies of this week’s New Statesman bearing the strapline “Don’t believe the hacktivists: the internet hasn’t set us free”. Despite its focus on technology, the overall message of the event was a more conventional one: to fight the cuts, the left needs to work together.