Published in the August 4, 2003 issue of the Nation
The Web Rewires the Movement
by Andrew Boyd
The Battle in Seattle brought to the world's attention a new global resistance movement that was not only made possible by the Internet but, as Naomi Klein has deftly pointed out, was shaped in its image. Sharing the Internet's architecture of interconnected hubs and spokes, the new movement was a coalition of coalitions, a decentralized network of campaigns "intricately and tightly linked to one another."
The net allows large mobilizations to unfold with minimal bureaucracy and hierarchy. "Forced consensus and labored manifestoes are fading into the background," Klein wrote in 2000, "replaced instead by a culture of constant, loosely structured, and sometimes compulsive information-swapping."
But if Seattle was the birth of this new kind of organizing, last February 15's global peace demonstration marked its coming of age. That day, some 400,000 people turned out onto the streets of New York to protest Bush's impending war on Iraq, and close to 10 million more turned out in cities across the globe. It was arguably the single largest day of protest in world history; the New York Times dubbed its participants "the other superpower."
The day sent a clear message about the grassroots organizing power of the net: It enabled the antiwar movement to turn out its base quickly and cheaply, do an end run around corporate-controlled media and reach into the politically disaffected American mainstream. The coming months and years will test how deeply the new movement can tap this potential, and to what extent "nets roots" organizing will be adopted by more established political players, liberal and conservative alike.
Given this deepening embrace of the net by movement culture, it is fitting that the website of United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ), the national coalition at the heart of the February 15 protest, not only anchored the massive mobilization but preceded the existence of the organization and helped it to coalesce. In December, UFPJ did not have an office or a paid staff. The website, however, was already a one-stop shop for the many disparate strands of the peace movement. Launched the previous October, it was getting hundreds of thousands of hits a day.
"At the beginning, we had almost no money, not even enough to do a major mailing," says L.A. Kauffman, a staff organizer for UFPJ. The Internet allowed UFPJ to start serious organizing with only $5,000 to $10,000. "We pulled off a demo in five weeks that would normally take five or six months," she says.
Providing one place for UFPJ's hundreds of member organizations to list their actions and report their activities, the website quickly became an antiwar hub. Organizers put campaign materials and action kits online, and 15,000 copies of the February 15 flier were downloaded. People could easily find and plug into local peace activities in their towns or states, and time local events to coordinate with broader efforts. In the end, 793 protests happened around the world on that day, including more than 200 across the United States and Canada, with paid organizers put to work only on the biggest, in New York. All the others were self-organized by UFPJ affiliates--local church, labor and peace groups who used the website to facilitate their own coordination.
When I asked Leda Dederich, UFPJ's web director, where her organization would be without the Internet, she said, "Mostly, we wouldn't be."
A follow-up demonstration, on March 16, on the eve of the invasion of Iraq, was even more a creature of the web. A wave of candlelight vigils, following the dusk west across the Earth, involved an estimated 1 million people in more than 6,000 gatherings in 130 countries and every state in the nation. This global action was put together in even less time--six days--by an organization with only five staff people, MoveOn. What MoveOn did have was a nearly 1.5-million-person e-mail list and a piece of web software known as "the meeting tool."
The meeting tool allows anyone anywhere to propose a meeting time and place in his or her own neighborhood--and makes it easy for others to sign up. The day before that Sunday in March, I went to the MoveOn website, entered my ZIP code and learned that three vigils had been scheduled in my neighborhood of Park Slope, Brooklyn, including one outside the apartment of prowar Senator Chuck Schumer. The website told me how many of my neighbors had signed up for each. It was already well into the hundreds, and I made it one more.
That Sunday evening, I joined 1,500 of my neighbors. Someone handed me a candle and lit it for me; at some point a rabbi and a pastor spoke to the crowd. But otherwise, there was no obvious leadership, and it didn't seem to matter. There had been no meetings, no leaflets, no clipboards, no phone calls--we were all there, essentially, because of an e-mail we trusted.
The global vigils were but one of a string of Internet-enabled antiwar actions facilitated by UFPJ and MoveOn. MoveOn itself was founded well before the war, or even Bush's presidency, as an effort during Bill Clinton's impeachment to push Congress to censure the President and "move on." The petition went viral, gathering half a million signatures in a few weeks. After that, the group used its list to raise money for progressive Democrats, and by the time Bush was threatening war, MoveOn had become a well-oiled machine. The group raised millions of dollars online to run national TV spots and print ads, delivered a petition of 1 million signatures to the UN Security Council and got 200,000 people to call Washington on a single day. MoveOn facilitated leafleting efforts in cities and small towns across the country and coordinated volunteer-led accountability sessions with almost every member of Congress. None of this stopped the war, but it did help put antiwar sentiment squarely on the political map--and made the case for how powerful the net can be in mobilizing social protest.
"You could say that MoveOn has a postmodern organizing model," says Eli Pariser, the organization's 22-year-old campaigns director. "It's opt-in, it's decentralized, you do it from your home." MoveOn makes it easy for people to participate or not with each solicitation--an approach that embraces the permission-based culture of the Internet, and consumer culture itself. "If Nike hadn't already taken it," Pariser says, "our motto would be 'Just Do It.'" MoveOn has set the threshold for involvement so low that it has provoked skepticism among some activists--and jokes on The Daily Show. Nevertheless, this organizing model has allowed MoveOn to play an important role as a campaign aggregator--inviting people in on one issue--say, the war--and then introducing them to additional issues, from Bush's tax plan to the deregulation of media ownership. "We're helping to overcome the single-issue balkanization of the progressive movement," Pariser says.
By now, many well-funded advocacy groups (Common Cause, Environmental Defense) have developed e-mail lists topping 100,000, which they typically use to run traditional, tightly controlled campaigns, using e-mail as they would direct mail or a phone bank to mobilize their base to lobby legislators. Within the more radical global justice movement, on the other hand, there are a multitude of resource-poor grassroots groups whose e-mail lists are relatively small (5,000 to 50,000), but who use their websites to foster self-organizing--putting their organizing kit online and trusting their activist base to run with it. "What MoveOn has done," says Tom Matzzie, 28, the AFL-CIO's online mobilization manager, "is to bring the core elements of these two models together for the first time." MoveOn has a huge list that it carefully manages, and it also provides web tools that enable members to organize themselves. In the past eight months, as antiwar organizing exploded, their membership more than doubled, to a global total of more than 2.1 million.
A good e-mail list is not something you can buy or borrow. "Every MoveOn member comes to us with the personal endorsement of someone they trust," Pariser says. It is word-of-mouth organizing--in electronic form. E-mail is cheap, fast and easy to use, and it has made mixing the personal and the political more socially acceptable. Casually passing on a high-content message to a social acquaintance feels completely natural in a way handing someone a leaflet at a cocktail party never could.
This "tell a friend" phenomenon is key to how organizing happens on the net. It gives people who feel alienated from politics something valuable to contribute: their unique credibility within their particular circle of acquaintances. A small gesture to these friends can contribute to a massive multiplier effect. It is a grassroots answer to the corporate consolidation of media, which has enabled an overwhelmingly conservative punditry to give White House spin real political momentum, and the semblance of truth, simply through intensity of repetition.
MoveOn is often criticized from the left for not attempting to build permanent local structures or on-the-ground leadership. "They're great at getting new people involved, but it's not true self-organizing," says UFPJ's Dederich. The criticism is fair, but MoveOn's strength lies elsewhere, in providing a home for busy people who may not want to be part of a chapter-based organization with regular meetings. And given what MoveOn is doing--activating people on two or three different issues at a time, often for short durations as legislative targets change--it's hard to imagine a more appropriate model. By combining a nimble entrepreneurial style with a strong ethic of listening to its members--via online postings and straw polls--MoveOn has built a responsive, populist and relatively democratic virtual community.
Although MoveOn does not track member demographics, anecdotal evidence suggests that its base is disproportionately white. (Al Sharpton and Carol Moseley Braun, for example, faired poorly in the group's recent "primary.") This reflects the persevering digital divide, in which, according to a recent Pew survey, a full 24 percent of Americans are totally offline, and those who are online still tend to be younger, whiter, suburban, better-off and better educated. But defying online trends, the majority of MoveOn's active volunteers are female. And staffers says its members are diverse in other ways, with thousands in each state, ranging in age and income.
Zack Exley, a former SEIU organizer and MoveOn's organizing director, says that the group reaches deep into politically disaffected middle-class constituencies--what he calls America's "silenced majority." Unlike the traditional left, he says, "we trust people. We don't think Americans are crazy or stupid or brainwashed or apathetic. We're not trying to drag them kicking and screaming over to our view. We know that there are millions of Americans in every community and walk of life who already know that something is terribly wrong with our country and who are as angry as we are and who are mostly just looking for a meaningful way to do something about it."
According to Pariser, most MoveOn members do not define themselves as activists. Rather, MoveOn is often their first step into political action--and what brings them to take that step is usually an e-mail message. "A lot of 'Take action now' e-mails feel like they were written by a focus-group e-newsletter robot," says Madeline Stanionis, who as a senior consultant for San Francisco-based Donordigital has developed scores of online advocacy campaigns. "MoveOn e-mails feel personal and fresh. They write from their hearts." The e-mails about the global vigil came directly from Pariser. His voice was strong yet level-headed. There were no ideological digressions. He got to the point early and kept it action-oriented. It was easy to trust.
Pariser says he crafts his messages with an eye toward taking MoveOn members on a journey, by providing a narrative that connects them to an ongoing social movement. As each campaign proceeds, short e-mail updates ("50,000 of you have already signed up...here's a typical response from a schoolteacher in New Mexico...") build excitement and a sense of community. This feedback loop is an example of how the Internet, when well used, can extend the shoulder-to-shoulder solidarity one feels on the street to fellow participants across the nation and around the globe.
Returning to the MoveOn website a couple of days after the global vigil, I was able to browse through photographs and personal commentaries from vigils all over the world--Kazakhstan, Korea and Kenya, as well as the one I attended in Park Slope. All in all, some 10,000 photographs were uploaded that week. Through the Internet we had found our way into the streets, and the streets had then found their way right back onto the Internet. Our local protest was immediately reflected back to us as part of a larger story of national and global resistance.
Now that the war on Iraq--or one phase of it--is over, last winter's intense outpouring of antiwar sentiment feels like a distant episode. The peace movement is collectively catching its breath and wondering what to do next. At a June convention in Chicago, UFPJ consolidated its far-flung coalition by forging a unifying program for a new wave of movement-building. Many in the peace movement are looking to the 2004 elections, when MoveOn's fundraising and outreach muscle--the group seeks to raise tens of millions of dollars and mobilize a million volunteers--could be a factor. In a much-debated experiment in online democracy, MoveOn challenged the power of pundits and wealthy campaign donors to wield control over the presidential nomination process, by asking its 1.5 million American members to vote on which Democratic candidate the organization should endorse. Howard Dean and Dennis Kucinich, the top two vote-getters, have both emerged as magnets for antiwar Democrats disaffected by the party's tepid opposition to Bush's extreme agenda. But Dean, who outfundraised his competitors last quarter through a torrent of small online donations, is the only one of the pair to have caught the Internet wave. His campaign manager, Joe Trippi, sees the net as the missing element that will make Dean's 2004 run a "perfect storm." (It couldn't hurt that MoveOn was a paid technical adviser to Dean's campaign, prompting charges of partiality from the Gephardt and Edwards campaigns during the MoveOn primary. Exley says other Democrats declined such assistance, but wouldn't say which ones.)
QUOT-Whether it has coalesced around the outsider candidacies of Ross Perot or Jerry Brown, grassroots disaffection and energy have always been there," Trippi says. "What's changed this time around is the maturity of the Internet as a peer-to-peer tool."
Dean enthusiasts have made great use of a free web service, meetup.com (a commercial cousin of MoveOn's meeting tool). It allows users to identify and then meet face to face with like-minded locals who might share an interest in knitting, motorcycles or, say, Howard Dean for President. Anyone who joins a meet-up can volunteer as a "host," someone who shows up a half-hour early to meet and greet. Members vote on a public venue for the get-togethers from a preapproved list in their area.
Tim Cairl, 28, a financial consultant whose only previous political involvement had been to call his Congressperson a few times when prompted by MoveOn, put himself forward as host of the Atlanta Dean meet-up when it was first coming together. In March, forty-two Dean fans crowded together in the back room of a downtown restaurant. The group was mostly white but ranged widely in age and occupation; the majority were new to political involvement of any kind. The typical attendee--upset about the war, and curious about Dean after seeing him on TV--had browsed his campaign website, and then found her way to meetup.com. "Meetup.com gets us in the same room," Cairl says. "We have to take it from there."
The feeling was social, almost fraternal. The agenda was simple: introductions, then, What do we like about Dean? What should we do? What the group did, given that no campaign organization yet existed in their late-primary state, was create one, appointing county leaders, scheduling tabling and showing up to local Democratic Party meetings. Subsequent meet-ups became a way to funnel new volunteers into this work; attendance grew to sixty-five in April, 150 by May, and soon meetings sprang up in cities across Georgia. Nationally, the 500 people who had signed up for Dean meet-ups in January grew to 60,000 by mid-July.
Trippi says traditional campaign structures run on a military model--from the national campaign director down to local precinct captains--are deadly for an Internet strategy. Indeed, the more typical Kerry and Edwards campaigns have only 5,600 and 1,000 members, respectively, on meetup.com. "The other campaigns see this Internet activity as chaos. They can't control it, so they don't want to waste time on it. We trust our members to be good representatives of their own views. Instead of trying to control the chaos, we feed it and give it a little direction."
Matzzie says all this activity is impressive, but could prove irrelevant in the general election if it doesn't take place in the right precincts. He notes that in 2002 only 94,000 well-placed votes would have given the Democrats control of Congress. He quotes recent studies from Yale's Institution for Social and Policy Studies showing that e-mail on its own--just like direct mail and commercial phone banking--does not increase voter turnout. "Anyone who gives you his e-mail is already with you," says Matzzie. "The trick is to get those people to talk to their neighbors, friends and colleagues offline. Those are the people we need to mobilize." He's been growing the AFL-CIO e-mail list by hundreds of thousands in the past few months with this goal in mind. But he'll combine online work with shoe leather and door-knocking. Stanionis says the discussion among online advocacy experts is similar--how to get beyond the just-send-an-e-mail consumer model to "escalate the ask" and achieve more real-world involvement.
Matzzie is keeping a close eye on how the two major parties leverage technology in the months ahead: The Republican National Committee recently launched an "on-line toolbox for Republican activists" at GOPTeamLeader.com, and the Democrats will be bringing a similar site online soon. The net does not favor left or right, but it may favor outsiders who don't have access to the power of incumbency, and progressives seem to have been quickest at putting it to use. For the moment the biggest and best-managed e-mail lists are in the hands of liberal advocates who are allies of the Democrats. But the Republicans, Matzzie says, have the stronger field organization, once a Democratic strength.
Matzzie is not the only organizer rejecting Internet hype for a more measured view of its capabilities. "The Internet has been an enormous boon to grassroots mobilizations," says UFPJ's Kauffman. "But it can't replace old-fashioned face-to-face organizing, especially when you're trying to build something as delicate as a multiracial coalition." The polarizing debate about how to take up the issue of Palestine, for example, which roiled the UFPJ listserv in May, was handily resolved in the more goal-oriented and accountable setting of the coalition's June conference. E-mail is a notoriously bad way to resolve serious disputes over contentious issues, since it easily leads to harsh tones and misunderstandings. The Internet is best for pulling together a coalition when there is already a broad base of agreement--as there was for UFPJ and MoveOn around the Iraq war. And fault lines in the MoveOn consensus may yet emerge if a prowar Democrat gets the nomination.
Thenmozhi Soundararajan, executive director of Third World Majority, a digital media collective, says the racial skew to who's online further limits the usefulness of using e-mail to hash out political disputes. With only 3 percent of the world's population online, the divide is even more pronounced in international campaigns. "When you're online," she says, "a whole lot of people are not in the room." Kauffman says that UFPJ organizers, conscious of these demographics, were careful to use a mix of outreach strategies for the February 15 mobilization, distributing 1.2 million pieces of literature in six languages in every corner of New York City.
In some ways, the debate over whether online organizing is as "real" or as effective as face-to-face organizing misses the point. What's interesting about meetup.com, the UFPJ website and MoveOn's meeting tool is how they leverage the Internet to get people together face to face in ways (and at speeds and costs) that were simply not possible before. As with the phone, the television or computer-generated direct mail, the Internet won't replace traditional organizing, but it does alter the rules in important ways. Because e-mail is near-instantaneous and costs just fractions of a penny, one can communicate very quickly with a lot of people at the speed of word of mouth. Because it is browsable from home, at any hour, it provides a much easier first point of contact between a campaign and interested participants. Because it is a peer-to-peer tool open to all, it allows geographically dispersed people to find each other easily and coordinate. Because it is still an open-publishing model, free from the constraints of corporate-owned media, it can carry the channels of alternative information essential for sustaining social movements.
Although it replaces some organizing structures (e-mail makes for a far better phone tree than phones ever did) and invents whole new ones, like the campaign web hub or the meeting tool, the Internet is no silver bullet. But what organizing tool ever is? Rather, contemporary social movements will, more and more, straddle both worlds, in a synthetic feedback loop, at once real and virtual, online and off.
Last December in South Korea--the most densely wired country on the planet--a grassroots revolt streaming rich media across high-bandwidth connections helped elect an outsider human rights activist as president. Where will our own Internet-fueled movements take us?
In the first month after MoveOn installed its meeting tool on the Dean campaign website, supporters self-organized more than a thousand local events--testament, perhaps, to the stirrings of a democratic revival, in which large swaths of disaffected Americans are finding forms of political participation that feel fulfilling, effective and connected. MoveOn's Zack Exley asks us to imagine a political landscape, five years from now, with fifty MoveOns, each tapping different political currents, with a whole new ability to mobilize grassroots power. In June, United for Peace and Justice announced plans for a protest during the Republican National Convention in August 2004. But unlike the Philadelphia demonstrations in 2000, this protest will go global. Such plans are a sign of activists' growing confidence, post-February 15, in the potentially explosive convergence of common global concerns and the wide reach of the Net.
Whatever else it has done, the Internet has helped to level the playing field between an entrenched government and corporate and media power, and an insurgent citizenry. The future might indeed be up for grabs.
Copyright © 2003 The Nation