Online organizing doesn’t create substantive change. Hashtag activism is a waste of time. These sentiments frequently echo through the halls of activist communities trying to understand the role that technology, the Internet and social media play in our movements.
But what if you could force the hand of a major corporation to change its labor practices with some well-executed media-driven trickery? This week, a small online organizing group threw punches at one of America’s largest corporations in an effort to change the international labor practices of the Gap.
18 Million Rising, an online organization dedicated to “activating Asian America” pulled off a Yes Men-style hoax targeting the Gap. Posing as the clothing company’s public relations department, Cayden Mak and fellow 18MR organizers launched an impeccably designed fake website called Gapdoesmore.com and released a statement coinciding with the company’s shareholder meeting on Tuesday. The statement announced that Gap had signed on to a significant labor accord in Bangladesh. Gap has released a response confirming the site as a fraud and serving them a take down notice. Despite the corporation’s statements, 18MR continues to plan for escalation in its ongoing campaign to expose Gap’s unjust labor practices.
WNV sat down with Mak, the New Media Director of 18MR, to discuss media organizing and what lessons can be learned from these kinds of creative tactics.
How did the idea for this hoax come about?
We’ve been engaged in some different things around worker’s rights in countries like Bangladesh and Cambodia [where Gap clothes are produced]. A lot of people in our constituency have direct connections to those countries, workers and industries. Seventy-five percent of Asian Americans are immigrants or first generation Americans. So, as a result, we started exploring ways of getting involved in international labor struggles about six months ago.
When Gap announced that it was raising the minimum wage in its U.S. stores to $10 an hour, it launched a micro website that was super self-congratulatory. And I was like, “That’s great for you but $10 an hour isn’t even a living wage in the United States.” Gap consistently paints itself as this super ethical company, but it’s really doing the bare minimum.
For instance, Gap refused to sign on to the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety, which is a legally binding agreement written up and ratified by Bangladeshi labor unions, factory owners, and a handful of European and American brands. Instead, it decided to go ahead and start its own thing called the Bangladesh Alliance for Worker Safety, which includes basically just them and Wal-Mart. Nothing about this group is legit in the eyes of the labor movement. There’s no third party inspections or oversight at all. Labor leaders in Bangladesh weren’t consulted. There are also a lot of immediate human rights issues that Gap has pushed under the rug. It still hasn’t compensated the families of the people who died in the fire in October 2013. Even now, we are hearing reports that its suppliers in Cambodia are jailing labor leaders.
So this is what you were responding to with Gapdoesmore.com?
We saw [Gap not taking responsibility for its actions] and we realized that we had an incredible opportunity to really push back in a creative and impactful way. I started building out the Gapdoesmore.com site in March, but we were looking for the right opportunity to launch it. Gap’s shareholder meeting took place on Tuesday and it seemed like as good a chance as any. I think that’s part of why people bought into our narrative. They were like, “Well, we know that Gap’s annual shareholder meeting is happening today. This seems like something that would come out of that.”
We wanted to start raising questions about Gap in a way that would inject the story back into the news cycle before more people died. One of the problems we have in organizing Americans around disasters in places like Bangladesh is that we often have to wait until more people die in order to get a media movement. Being creative allows us to avoid that trap.
18 Million Rising identifies as a racial justice online organization in a broader racial justice movement. How do you see 18MR’s work connecting to the ongoing fight against corporate exploitation and corporate power?
The Bangladeshi garment industry has exploded over the past five years and it’s been a major driver in the economy. It makes a huge impact on economic opportunity in that country and even Bangladeshi labor organizers have said, “Don’t boycott products made in Bangladesh. That’s not what we want. We want these jobs, but we also want self-determination, rights at work, a living wage, protections and proper precautions taken for our safety.”
That’s important in thinking about what a global racial justice movement might look like in the 21st century because it’s more nuanced and difficult to navigate than it used to be. It’s easy to say “Let’s boycott something.” It’s harder to say, “When we boycott something, who are we really hurting?” That’s the kind of thing that requires a nuanced analysis of what global capitalism looks like and paying attention to what the folks are actually asking for. If we boycott, and companies start leaving Bangladesh, folks won’t have jobs. How do you inject yourself into the narrative that requires more than a 10 second sound bite? It’s a challenge.
There’s been a push back against online organizing and “hashtag activism” recently in some activist communities. How do you respond to those who say that online campaigns or actions like this don’t create change?
People are getting used to the petition, social media share and then deliver model of online campaigning and then turning out a bunch of people to a protest. But these corporations are already in the public narrative. We already know that they are fucking up. A corporation like the Gap is a little more difficult to tackle. We need to ask ourselves: How do we mobilize people, while also being cute and funny and really breaking through the norms of people talking about different labor exploitation issues on the Internet? That was a big part of watching this campaign play out online the way that it did.
The relationship to what we do online and what we do in our communities, locally or in real life — as if the Internet is not real life — is complex. It requires a deeper analysis of how technology is integrated into our lives and the way in which media can shape public perceptions of things. When Forbes calls Gap the number three most ethical corporation in the world, that’s a very particular narrative about its practices. It’s something that then lends legitimacy to efforts like the Bangladesh Alliance for Worker Safety, which has been decried by labor leaders as something that is really sketchy and not legit. That media narrative is really difficult to counteract, but then the question becomes: How do we insert an analysis that is counter-hegemonic without being boring? That’s when the fun starts.
What lessons can be learned from these kinds of creative actions?
The ability of small groups or individual organizers to catch people’s attention on the Internet is something that’s really powerful. It requires imagination. Our original Twitter account for this was called Gap Does More, which has been disabled. So, I opened a new Twitter account called Gap Does Nothing. And one of the things I’ve been saying over this account is “We prefer not to think of ourselves as hoaxers. We prefer to think of ourselves as aspirational.”
That’s the core of thinking about media activism. In this work, we get to model what we want to see and lay out a vision for a future — even something as humble as getting one corporation amongst many to sign on to a legally binding labor agreement.