Online Activism: Rainforest Action Network Takes On Mitsubishi

By Howard Rheingold

...a central claim of "electronic democracy" enthusiasts faces a test.

Does the Internet enable small public interest organizations such as environmental activists to challenge multinational corporations in the battle for public opinion? Now that the Rainforest Action Network (RAN) has squared off with Mitsubishi Corporation on the World Wide Web, a central claim of "electronic democracy" enthusiasts faces a test.

In the world of environmental activism, where small nonprofits struggle against well-funded multinational corporations, the RAN-Mitsubishi square-off could be a harbinger of cyberpolitical conflicts to come.

Mitsubishi, one of the most powerful industrial conglomerates in the world, has its own web site: . So does Rainforest Action Network (RAN).. On its own website RAN challenged Mitsubishi, point-for-point, on Mitsubishi's claim that they run an environmentally clean operation. RAN's site linked its rebuttals back to Mitsubishi's site, so readers can check RAN's rebuttals directly against the statements they refute.

To Mitsubishi's statement that "In all our commercial activities, we exercise extreme care to ensure sound environmental policies and sustainable development, in keeping with our founding principles," RAN replies, on its own site: "Mitsubishi Corporation is among the world's worst corporate destroyers of forests. It is one of Japan's oldest timber traders and one of the largest importers of logs from Indonesia, Malaysia, Chile, Australia, Canada, U.S., and now Siberia. There is no evidence that any of Mitsubishi's operations or suppliers are logging in an environmentally sustainable manner. In fact, while it continues to claim that its environmental policies ensure sustainability, it refuses to allow an independent commission to analyze any of its logging operations to verify this claim."

"The web is an equalizer," said Rainforest Action Network executive director Randy Hayes. "It gives us a level playing field to confront Mitsubishi Corporation's attempts to cover up the damage they do to the environment. We call it 'greenwash.'

"The web is an equalizer."

Allan Hunt-Badiner, RAN's board chairman and "guiding light" behind RAN's web strategy, says:

"We're all learning how the architecture of the World Wide Web has taken the game into a new arena. Unlike TV where corporations bought attention with impunity, suddenly it's the consumers that decide who they want to listen to. The magic of the ever-encircling web should clarify for corporations that there is, in fact, a "wash," and that, indeed, everything will "come out in it.""

RAN's site offers links to other sites to back up its claims, responds to alleged misrepresentations in Mitsubishi's site, and includes a "Boycott Mitsubishi" documenting Mitsubishi's environmental offenses around the world. A "Duel" button on RAN's home took readers directly to the action. On its web site, RAN encouraged readers to let Mitsubishi know how they feel about its policies, linking directly to the "comment form" at Mitsubishi's web site, which gave readers the power to send an electronic message to Mitsubishi.

According to Hunt-Badiner,

"Since Mitsubishi was flooded with critical messages on their feedback page, they eliminated it and the pages where they claimed to be champs of the environment. So we had to remove the DUEL button, but the Boycott Mitsubishi section, complete with a fax server into their offices, remains."

Does a small organization, with thousands of dollars to spend, and access to the Web, successfully compete for public attention with a corporation that has millions?

Langdon Winner, in his essay "Mythinformation," warned, TEN years ago:

"Of all the computer enthusiasts' political ideas, there is none more poignant than the faith that the computer is destined to become a potent equalizer in modern society....Using a personal computer makes one no more powerful vis-a-vis, say, the National Security Agency than flying a hang glider establishes a person as a match for the U.S. Air Force."

I'm not yet ready to agree completely with Dr. Winner, but I agree that his is the first question an enthusiast must answer.

The next few years will show us whether "netizens" can wield political influence in the real world. Is the Net an "equalizer" or a "hang glider?" The answer is, in part, up to us. Wishing doesn't make it so. Making it so is the only thing that makes it so.