Many years ago I fearlessly founded the facebook group “Joining Facebook Groups is My Way of Changing the World.” This past weekend my sarcastic cause lost a bit of steam as facebook contributed in earnest to real-world political action. While Canadian politics usually make dishwater seem exciting and important, lately we’ve had a fair bit to be upset about. In a political move to (or so his detractors insist) avoid answering tough questions about Canadian Armed Forces turning over detainees to Afghan, where they would likely be tortured, Canada’s Prime Minister prorogued our federal parliament–this is roughly equivalent to the president putting congress on a time out (with the added bonus that the president would have to first ask a British appointee for permission to do so). Canadians got angry.
Christopher White, a University of Alberta graduate student, responded to the prorogation by forming a facebook group, Canadians Against Proroguing Parliament (CAPP). People joined in droves. To date, the group is almost 220,000 users strong, and there was hardly a single time I logged into facebook for a period of 2-3 weeks when I didn’t see that at least 4-5 more of my friends had joined the group. I thought then, as I did before, that this was just armchair democracy, and no one really cared about the issue with more energy than it would take to click a link, and people on both sides of the issue agreed that that was a very likely assessment. When facebook invites started going out asking Canadians to rally in their prospective cities on January 23rd to protest, I was skeptical that turnout would exceed more than a few hundred in any one place.
Boy was I wrong.
On Saturday I went downtown to take a look at the protest, and snuck onto a nearby patio to get a view of the turnout.
(Click for full)
By my estimate, there were some 3200 people in Toronto’s Dundas square, not all of them were there to learn about the Gumwich. Whether or not the protests will make a difference in the long run remains to be seen, as we’re still pretty far from an election, and it’s entirely possible that only a few of the attendees voted for our current ruling party. But this clearly puts to rest the idea that civic engagement online begins and ends with clicking a button to join a link.
I’m glad I was wrong, and I’m glad that I was around to witness this social media-organized peaceful assembly for political action.