Internet activism

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Internet activism uses Internet communications technologies to enable faster communications and coordination by citizen movements.

The sophistication and impact of Internet activism seems to be growing. In 1999, opponents of corporate-led globalization used the Internet effectively to coordinate protests against the World Trade Organization that came to be known as the "Battle in Seattle." Groups like MoveOn and StopDrLaura.com have successfully used the Internet to raise funds and push their causes. Corporations also use the Internet to mobilize support for their causes.

Electoral activism

President Barack Obama was elected in large part because of his unprecedented success in utilizing internet activism via his Obama for America efforts.

Previous U.S. election campaigns that have used the Internet successfully for fundraising or other purposes have included:

  • Bill Bradley, who raised more than $2 million via the Internet in his 2000 Democratic U.S. presidential primary race
  • Howard Dean, in his 2004 Democratic U.S. presidential primary race
  • John Kerry
  • John McCain, who used the Internet to raise $6.4 million in his 2000 Republican U.S. presidential primary campaign
  • Jesse Ventura, in his successful third-party run for governor of Minnesota

Corporate activism

"The Internet's not just for underdogs anymore," reported Business Week in January 2004. "Increasingly, corporations are using the Web to mobilize support for their causes. Big companies are launching sites to lobby legislators, win support for takeovers, and turn up the heat on partners. When cable giant Cox Communications wanted to pressure ESPN and Fox Sports Networks to lower their programming charges, it launched makethemplayfair.com. Cox claims the site's visitors sent 25,000 angry e-mails to the networks. Brewers and beer distributors, meanwhile, lobby for lower taxes through rollbackthebeertax.com. And Kmart briefly operated kmartforever.com to bolster morale during its bankruptcy." [1]

Empowering insurgencies

Carol Darr, director of the Institute for Politics, Democracy & the Internet in Washington, thinks the Internet works best as an organizing tool for "charismatic, outspoken mavericks" with "outsider" appeal in elections. "The Internet is tailor-made for a populist, insurgent movement," says Joe Trippi, who managed the Howard Dean campaign. In his campaign memoir, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, Trippi notes that the Internet's "roots in the open-source ARPAnet, its hacker culture, and its decentralized, scattered architecture make it difficult for big, establishment candidates, companies and media to gain control of it. And the establishment loathes what it can't control. This independence is by design, and the Internet community values above almost anything the distance it has from the slow, homogenous stream of American commerce and culture. Progressive candidates and companies with forward-looking vision have an advantage on the Internet, too. Television is, by its nature, a nostalgic medium. ... Look at Ronald Reagan's campaign ads in the 1980s - they were masterpieces of nostalgia promising a return to America's past glory and prosperity. The Internet, on the other hand, is a forward-thinking and forward-moving medium, embracing change and pushing the envelope of technology and communication" (p. 102).

The Internet also invites a decentralized approach to campaigning that runs contrary to the traditional controlled, top-down, message-focused approach. "The mantra has always been, 'Keep your message consistent. Keep your message consistent,'" said John Hlinko, who has participated in Internet campaigns for MoveOn and the electoral primary campaign of Wesley Clark. "That was all well and good in the past. Now it's a recipe for disaster. … You can choose to have a Stalinist structure that's really doctrinaire and that's really opposed to grassroots. Or you can say, 'Go forth. Do what you're going to do.' As long as we're running in the same direction, it's much better to give some freedom." [2]

According to some observers, the Internet may have considerable potential to reach and engage opinion leaders who influence the thinking and behavior of others. According to the Institute for Politics, Democracy & the Internet, "Online Political Citizens" (OPCs) are "seven times more likely than average citizens to serve as opinion leaders among their friends, relatives and colleagues . . . Normally, 10% of Americans qualify as Influentials. Our study found that 69% of Online Political Citizens are Influentials." [3]

The Internet has also made it easier for small donors to play a meaningful role in financing political campaigns. Previously, small-donor fundraising was prohibitively expensive, as costs of printing and postage ate up most of the money raised. Groups like MoveOn, however, have found that they can raise large amounts of money from small donors at minimal cost, with credit card transaction fees constituting their biggest expense. "For the first time, you have a door into the political process that isn't marked 'big money,' " says Darr. "That changes everything." [4]

Criticisms

Internet activism has been criticized on grounds that it gives disproportionate access to affluent activists, because poor people, minorities and elderly citizens either lack access or are inexperienced in the new technologies. Another concern, expressed by author and law professor Cass Sunstein, is that online political discussions lead to "cyberbalkanization" - discussions that lead to fragmentation and polarization rather than consensus, because the same medium that lets people access a large number of news sources also lets them pinpoint the ones they agree with and ignore the rest. "The experience of the echo chamber is easier to create with a computer than with many of the forms of political interaction that preceded it," Sunstein told the New York Times. "The discussion will be about strategy, or horse race issues or how bad the other candidates are, and it will seem like debate. It's not like this should be censored, but it can increase acrimony, increase extremism and make mutual understanding more difficult."

Other critics of Internet activism have suggested that it can be counterproductive because it "makes people feel like they've done something when they haven't," in the words of Allen "Gunner" Gunn of The Ruckus Society, a training group for activists based in Oakland, California. "That's the low-hanging fruit and doesn't really mean they've embraced the issue ... and politicians understand that."

"The Internet connects an ideologically broad anti-war constituency, from the leftists of ANSWER to the pressed-for-time 'soccer moms' who might prefer MoveOn, and conservative activists as well," observes Scott Duke Harris. According to University of California professor Barbara Epstein, however, the Internet "allows people who agree with each other to talk to each other and gives them the impression of being part of a much larger network than is necessarily the case." She warns that the impersonal nature of communication by computer may actually undermine important human contact that always has been crucial to social movements. [5] However, some Internet sites, such as Meetup.com, have been used by activists for the very purpose of overcoming the social isolation that has become common in modern, TV-fed society.

Software

A number of companies sell software to power activist websites along with the expertise needed to install and maintain it. They include:

Open source software is also available, including:

See also

Websites

External links