National

Activist rallies go online during pandemic

By AAP Newswire

How do you effectively lobby for change when gatherings of more than two people are banned, your audience is at home and media attention is held captive by a global pandemic?

That's the question activist groups across Australia are grappling with as their plans for the coming months have been thrown into disarray.

Fighting for change during the pandemic is one of the biggest challenges the sector has ever faced, according to Amnesty International Australia's movement manager Sarah Gooderham.

"It affects everything," she told AAP.

"It's changing the way that we can do activism, it's changing the way people feel about their time and their energy.

"Trying to cut through and make sure our calls for really important human rights issues are still heard is a challenge."

Many groups are now hosting "online rallies".

They can include gathering virtually to hear from live-streamed speakers, checking in to virtual locations on social media and inundating elected representatives with messages.

During the Palm Sunday rally for refugees last weekend, participants were encouraged to share and hashtag photos of themselves holding protest signs on social media.

But the virtual turnout was a shadow of the thousands who took to the streets for the same event in 2019.

The hashtag didn't crack the top-10 daily Australian Twitter trends and the rally failed to capture mainstream media attention.

"It is experimental for us," Justice for Refugees Melbourne organiser Marie Hapke told AAP this week.

"Obviously we've been, like everyone else, sort of forced into this space and didn't have much time to do a lot of preparation."

The Student Strike for Climate rally and Extinction Rebellion events scheduled for May are facing similar issues.

A month out from the global events, organisers aren't sure of their plans.

"At this point it is pretty hectic - no one really knows what is actually happening," school striker Ella Simons, 13, told AAP.

Both groups hope to recapture the momentum created from their successful 2019 rallies but acknowledge that's unlikely.

Ms Gooderham says hashtags and photos aren't enough.

She argues more creative solutions are needed to ensure messages are heard.

For example, her team recruited volunteers online to make thousands of origami flowers to send to the Iranian embassy to call for the release of a Yasaman Aryani, who was arrested while advocating for women's rights in Tehran.

"We need to make physical symbols or something that will actually show the magnitude of the community's feelings," Ms Gooderham said.

GetUp! organising director Miriam Lyons says it's important not to underestimate the power of smaller, community-focused activism events.

"That was always the most effective way to do things ... this is just making it necessary," Ms Lyons told AAP.

GetUp! plans to host online town hall meetings, facilitate live Q&A sessions between communities and their elected representatives, and upskill volunteers to make change through their own social networks.

While the period will be a challenge for activists, Ms Lyons says it's also an opportunity to grow supporters.

"Obviously, there's a lot of people out there with a lot more time on their hands and they really want to make sure that no one gets left behind.

"Physical protests are absolutely critical but they're not the only way to make change."