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If you want to see the real build-up to the G8 summit in Scotland next month, spend a little while on the web. The official side is here, of course, but so are the alternatives: the official opposition (leader Sir Bob Geldof) and the unofficials (no leader). If one group really does have the web as its binding force, it is the Global Federation of Protesters.
The official site, run by the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office, is an eclectic mix of the high-minded and the practical. Here (at www.g8.gov.uk) is concise briefing material on the two big issues – climate change and Africa – less concise communiqués from previous summits, and a link to the Rough Guide to a Better World (www.roughguide-betterworld.com). This is a co-production between Rough Guides and the UK’s Department for International Development – it can be viewed on screen or downloaded, unusually, as an e-book.
Practical content on the G8 site includes a frequently asked questions page for people who live near the Gleneagles Hotel, where the summit is bring held. The section on insurance is to the point. ‘What about damage caused by a riot?’ (You should be OK), ‘My policy seems to exclude damage resulting from terrorism’ (contamination is the only problem, apparently). Then there is a display of the special G8 tartan; I suppose there must be a point.
This is a well-presented site, accessibly written, but it does little to square up to the opposition. It hardly needs to with the Geldofian sites, which are only mildly confrontational. Make Poverty History (www.makepovertyhistory.org) and Live 8 (www.live8live.com) are similar, using slick graphics, animation and videos. They prefer soundbites to detailed argument, and often put design above wordcount. I was struck by the carefully-created typography in Make Poverty History – no gaps between words – and the quality of the Flash-driven videos: the shorts, such as the film of the girl bedding down in India, are particularly powerful.
The raw opposition sites are more of a problem for the authorities – they are packed with propaganda, advice and tools, and by clicking links they seem to go on forever. A bewildering array of groups has been preparing for the summit for a long time – I wonder what they really think about the Sir Bob’s high profile intervention - and the place they meet is the worldwide web.
One of the best-known activist sites is Indymedia. It has many country versions, but the UK’s (www.indymedia.org.uk) is leading the countdown to Gleneagles. Links in its Summit Update lead to a list of ‘existing mobilisations’ (ie not Geldofian) and of planned demonstrations. Here we have the G8 Bike Ride, the G8 Cycle Caravan, G8 Feminist Action Scotland and the People’s Golfing Association, which is planning to play on Gleneagles courses during the summit (good luck to them). The list is long, though I doubt very helpful to the authorities.
Dissent! (www.dissent.org.uk) is an impressive resource aimed solely at the G8. It starts tongue in cheek – ‘From July 6th to 8th, violent extremists will be converging on Scotland. They’ll be trying to meet at the Gleneagles, and we’ll be trying to stop them’. But most of it is nitty-gritty advice. There is a guide to being approached by the police (don’t say anything), advice on food (email firstname.lastname@example.org if you can help), and also links to specialist support groups. G8 Legal Support (www.g8legalsupport.info) has an activist’s guide to Scottish law, which it describes as ‘disturbingly flexible’, while Action Medics (www.actionmedics.org.uk) is ‘a network of activists who have first aid skills’. It is using the site as a rallying point: ‘We want to get in touch with action medics from other countries’.
Corporate Watch (www.corporatewatch.org.uk) is an established anti-business group that targets the G8 as one of its ‘projects’. The section on the Gleneagles Hotel is intriguing, because it is not emotive but highly descriptive – a feature of many protest sites is that they provide great detail on locations activists may want to target. On another site I even found a police map of planned roadblocks.
The one thing you don’t find in any of these sites is detailed argument. It is not that they prefer soundbites, as the Geldofian sites do, they just don’t see the need. The most content-rich sites, such as Indymedia and Corporate Watch, have plenty of words, mostly well written, but they are preaching to the converted. Corporate Watch’s aim is to pin every sin on big business, and has a dozen sections headed Scotland PLC, looking at everything from the oil industry to transport. The immigration and asylum chapter homes in on private contractors, for example. What Corporate Watch doesn’t do is to explain why private involvement is such a bad thing.
I know I’m being naive, but this does highlight the point that the web is poor at helping the undecided make up their minds. If you want to come to a conclusion about, say, debt relief, you are still better off looking at a handful of newspapers than the web. Good news for the mainstream media, I’d say.
David Bowen is a website effectiveness consultant for Bowen Craggs Co (www.bowencraggs.com)