Facebook College Protest Fizzles
Eleven Ontario colleges were supposed to grind to a halt Tuesday afternoon, with furious students marching out of class to protest a looming teachers' strike. Instead, a few solitary souls were left to do the dirty work after thousands of their Facebook friends let them down.
A strike vote Wednesday by faculty at 24 schools could result in the second college shutdown since March 2006, when classes were cancelled for three weeks.
The question is if the province's 450,000 college students care.
In a spectacular case of diminishing returns, a Facebook antistrike group drew 22,000 members. Then came 4,000 signatures on an online petition, and 356 students – representing 11 schools – promised to walk out of class.
At Humber College's Lakeshore campus, however, one solitary student, Beth Corbett, turned out to carry a copy of the petition into administration and union offices.
Graeme McNaughton, founder of the antistrike Facebook group, said he had found volunteers at 11 colleges who were willing to lead student walkouts. In the end, however, turnout was meagre, and in no case exceeded 20 people.
Hundreds, maybe thousands, of Canadian protest and political groups are on Facebook. In Toronto, people sign up to brand themselves as everything from Slow Food advocates to, sadly, skinheads.
One group getting plenty of attention lately is "Canadians Against Proroguing Parliament." As of Tuesday evening it was nearing the 175,000 mark. Its founder, University of Alberta student Christopher White, hoped to spur online activism, mainly emails to MPs.
Now, he hopes to get its members off the Internet and onto the streets for a cross-country protest on Jan. 23. With luck, he won't fall prey to "slacktivism" – the skeptical term for those who sign online petitions or Facebook groups and wash their hands of other political activism.
"The challenge of this is making people take the next step and get involved," says White, an archaeology grad student who says he hasn't organized anything like this before.
At the Casa Loma campus of George Brown, 22-year-old Stepan Sukiasyan did go offline for Tuesday's antistrike protest, doing the legwork to collect 250 actual signatures from fellow students who said they would join him at the noon walkout. Fewer than 20 showed up.
McNaughton, who studies journalism at Humber's north campus, said only a dozen-odd students joined him there. "We didn't get the numbers we were hoping for," he said. "But the whole meaning was to hand over the petition."
Toronto protests organized on Facebook have a history of flopping. In August 2007, after Toronto Humane Society investigator Tre Smith was suspended for handcuffing the owner of a dehydrated dog to his car, 5,000 people joined a Facebook group to support him, but only 25 or so showed up for a rally.
The organizers behind the anti-prorogue protest want more than that. University of Toronto student Justin Arjun joined the Facebook group way back when it had a mere 6,000 members. There were rumblings on the group about a rally, but no concrete plans.
Last Friday, he and about 200 other wannabe organizers held an in-person meeting to plan the rally, which will start at Dundas Square around 1 p.m. Yes, they're spreading the word on the Internet – but they're not stopping there.
An outreach committee is working to "blanket the city," says Arjun, putting up posters and flyers about the issue, even knocking on doors.
In Alberta, White points to the number of emails sent to MPs and journalists as a sign the anti-prorogue group has already made an impact. But he acknowledges the real test, on Jan. 23, is yet to come.
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