When is an activist intervention impactful?

Updated: Dec 16, 2021

In a society, there are certain power forces besides its citizens. On one hand, having specific institutions to preserve the order and work for the functioning of a society is extremely important for future generations. On the other hand, there are cases when that power is abused for personal interests, in which those who lose the most are the citizens. However, choosing the wrong people in leadership positions strengthens wrong ideas, stereotypes, acts of discrimination because if their values are wrong, that is exactly how their leadership would be. Even in these cases, the citizens have to obey the rules, whether they accept them or not.

Now, the question is to what extent do these wrong values start to harm society or even the future generations?

There are people who noticed wrongdoings and got fed up with the “order”, starting movements eventually to solve the issues. However, even if a crowd protested, their movements were not as exposed as they are in the 21st century. Since the emergence of media outlets, the message is communicated faster to a wider, sometimes even global audience. In 2002, Steyerl discussed in “The Articulation of Protest” two examples of movements that were documented through one digital medium, montage.

“Every articulation is a montage of various elements – voices, images, colors, passions, or dogmas – within a certain period of time and with a certain expanse in space. The significance of the articulated movements depends on this. They only make sense within this articulation and depending on their position.” – Steyerl, 2002.

What is montage?

Montage is “the production of a rapid succession of images in a motion picture to illustrate an association of ideas.” - Merriam-webster Dictionary.

Therefore, the activists chose to document their movements against various political forces through montage by combining images, videos, effects, landscapes, and many more elements to articulate a message. Because the internet, as well as television, has made communicating messages faster, and easier, Steyerl discusses the examples of the film Showdown in Seattle (produced in 1999 by Independent Media Center Seattle) and Ici et Ailleurs (produced by Godard/Mieville from 1975). According to her, both of them deal with “transnational and international circumstances of political articulation” (ibid.).

Showdown in Seattle documents the protests against the WTO negotiations in Seattle and the internal articulation of these protests as the heterogeneous combination of diverse interests. The theme of Ici et Ailleurs, on the other hand, is the meanderings of French solidarity with Palestine in the 70s in particular, and a radical critique of the poses, stagings, and counterproductive linkages of emancipation in general.” – ibid.

Now, these are examples of people that got fed up with the system and tried to make a change in the societies they lived in. My focus is not on these films, since they are already popular, and, at that time, they were impactful, but on a certain journalistic video, that I consider it be an activist movement.

On the 12th of October, the media organization Recorder published an eight-month investigation into the system of Romanian religion. For several years, the Romanian Orthodox Church has tried to finish building a new church in the middle of Bucharest, the Romanian capital. Recorder started the investigation with the question of “How legal were the methods adopted by the Romanian Orthodox Church to raise the money for that building?”.

After eight months of having a journalist infiltrated into the system, they found out that illegality does not stop the Church (the institution) to abuse its power since most of its building contracts were realised and signed in a corrupt manner.

On the first day, when they published it, the investigation became a trend in Romania on YouTube, as well as appearing on almost all TV channels. Romanians, through sharing and posting on various social media platforms, became change agents by putting pressure on the Church, and on the authorities. One of the reasons why the investigation became popular extremely fast was because of exposing the system of the Romanian Orthodox Church as being a true Mafia, where “Marele Alb” or the “Big Boss” was a Mafia leader that just wanted to expand his business, not to preserve the Church's values.

Ultimately, people were not pleased, which, consequently, made the Romanian Police and other relevant institutions raised questions about the legality of the new building's construction. However, I am wondering if their activist movement against the Church was impactful enough to shift the ideologies of the Romanian Church.

The answer is no; it was not impactful enough.

While the pressure should have been on the “Marele Alb”, the leader of the Romanian Orthodox Church, it remained only on a few people, that were just pawns in the big picture. The only result was the resignation of two men, who appeared frequently in the investigation as being close to the Patriarch Daniel, "Marele Alb", and bragged about the illegality of the contracts.

To better understand if their investigation was impactful, what does the word ‘impact’ mean?

“a powerful effect that something, especially something new, has on a situation or person.” – Cambridge Dictionary.

So, can Recorder’s investigation be considered an impactful intervention?

After knowing this definition, it is safe to say that the investigation was not impactful, since it had an effect on Romanian society for only a few weeks, resulting in the resignment of two people. Patriarch Daniel was not pressured through the investigation, nor by the authorities. In the end, the faulty system stayed in its place, while the story will be forgotten completely in a matter of years.

However, there were certain movements throughout history that had powerful effects on several societies, their digital documentation contributing significantly to their popularity.

“I have a dream” speech

In 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. “described his vision of America” (History Editors, 2021) in front of more than 250.000 people at the March on Washington by delivering an impactful speech on the marble steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

More than 50 years ago, Martin Luther’s speech made an entire nation think and consider inequality issues, becoming one of the “signature moments of the civil rights movement” (ibid.). Therefore, because this speech is still debated and talked about nowadays, as well as having a successful result (helped in securing the creation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964), it is safe to say that it was extremely impactful. Besides the speech itself, its popularity was influenced by reaching a wider audience by being televised.

“But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself in exile in his own land. So we have come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.” – Luther’s speech quoted in ibid.
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
I have a dream today.
I have a dream that one day down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification, that one day right down in Alabama little Black boys and Black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.
I have a dream today.” – ibid.

Reference List:

Diaconu, R. (2018). De la Catedrala Mântuirii Neamului la Catedrala Națională - istoric și câteva cifre - CursDeGuvernare.ro. CursDeGuvernare.ro. Available at: https://cursdeguvernare.ro/de-la-catetadrala-mantuirii-neamului-la-catedrala-nationala-istoric-si-cateva-cifre.html (Accessed 13 December 2021).

Dictionary.cambridge.org. (n.d.) impact. Available at: https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/impact (Accessed 13 December 2021).

HISTORY. (2021) ‘I Have a Dream’ Speech. Available at: https://www.history.com/topics/civil-rights-movement/i-have-a-dream-speech (Accessed 13 December 2021).

Montage entry. (n.d.) Merriam-webster.com. Available at: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/montage (Accessed 10 December 2021).

Steyerl, H. (2002) The Articulation of Protest. transversal texts. Available at: https://transversal.at/transversal/0303/steyerl/en (Accessed 10 December 2021).

This article is written as part of an assignment for the Digital Activism class in the MA Media and Creative Cultures program at the University of Greenwich.

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