WASHINGTON --When International ANSWER held a peace rally in October
in Washington, officials who had picked the date in August immediately
started calling member groups for support - then turned to the Internet
for spreading the word.
It worked. But it may not work next time.
The summer campaign was a success, as 100,000 protesters gathered
Oct. 26 near the Vietnam Memorial, trampling wet grass, waving anti-war
placards and lambasting President Bush for his stance toward Iraq.
"I've been doing this since the Vietnam War, and even 10 years ago,
to get people to be on the same page meant you had to ship out thousands
of leaflets, frequently to different cities," said ANSWER spokesman
Brian Becker. "Now we can put a leaflet up as a PDF file. People
take it down and make their own copies."
Internet communication has given rise to stronger, faster grass-roots
organizations over the past five years, allowing fringe movements
to coordinate simultaneous demonstrations around the globe in less
than half the time it would have taken during the Persian Gulf War.
But as some experts praise the World Wide Web for rejuvenating political
efficacy, others are starting to question just how effective the
Internet can be in solving social ills.
"I get probably 70 to 100 e-mails a day because of all the lists
I'm on," said David Levy, an anti-globalization activist. "If the
subject line is not compelling or the e-mail is not sent to me several
times, I might miss it. E-mail gives the illusion of doing activism,
when, in fact, sending out a mass e-mail could be considered equivalent
to throwing your work into a black hole."
Web-based organization took root three years ago in Seattle, when
anti-globalization protesters coordinated events during the World
Trade Organization's annual meeting. Roughly 50,000 people converged
downtown, closing streets and leading to more than 400 arrests.
On a smaller scale, hundreds of demonstrators protested the Republican
and Democratic 2000 national conventions in Philadelphia and Los
Angeles, respectively. In both instances, Internet bulletin boards
helped plan events.
Grant Reeher, an associate professor of political science at Syracuse
University, co-authored a book this year that followed one such
political demonstrator. Reeher said the Internet promoted camaraderie
with like-minded activists who had never met.
"Large-scale political movements are built on trust," he said. "When
you engage in this type of behavior, the risks can be very, very
high. Anytime you run against the grain, you need the support of
people engaged in it with you."
That isn't all. According to Reeher, political efficacy - the idea
that someone's actions can effectively create change - has grown
because of the Web. This newfound sense of purpose strengthens ties
between groups of various interests.
The Pew Internet and Political Life Project reported in April that
13 million Americans have participated in online lobbying campaigns,
while 23 million Americans have sent comments via the Internet to
public officials about policy choices.
Such use prompted activists to shift their tactics. The Internet
allows planners to coordinate simultaneous events in different regions.
Evan Henshaw-Plath co-started and runs protest.net, a clearinghouse
for grass-roots protests across the globe. He estimates about 10,000
page views per day on his site, which lists times, dates and locations
of any organized event that gets posted.
"People aren't relying on seeing a flier at a campaign or coming
across some notice stapled to a telephone pole," he said. "They
have a way of finding that information in their own home."
But some scholars say the Web is damaging nongovernmental organizations
that, before Internet technology, maintained control of their individual
Lance Bennett, a professor at the University of Washington, began
following social movements after the WTO protests in 1999. Bennett
said that because anyone with a modem can establish websites or
send out e-mails, it is harder to manage scripted messages.
"When networks are less controlled, some campaigns that begin with
strong support may go on long after [reputable groups] decide
their goals are satisfied," Bennett said. "If you're a credible
actor, people will believe you can stop the campaign."
Grass-roots movements also use e-mail to communicate with lawmakers,
excessively at times. A 2001 report issued by George Washington
University and the Congressional Management Foundation found that,
on average, senators receive as many as 55,000 e-mails a month.
House offices fare better, attracting as many as 8,000 e-mails a
month. Combined, 117 million constituent e-mails flooded Capitol
Hill in 2001. An August 2002 update found this year's House volume
is expected to grow 2.5 percent, with Senate volume increasing 24
Politicians have taken note. Despite initial burdens on congressional
staff, legislators adapted to online activism. House and Senate
sites are updating Web pages that allow visitors to post comments
rather than e-mail specific accounts.
However, the biggest problem groups must solve is how to avoid relying
on the Internet as a sole means for activism.
"It's a question of disciplining ourselves," said Medea Benjamin,
spokeswoman for the San Francisco-based Global Exchange peace coalition.
"It's easy to spend your whole day responding to people, reading
articles, and in the end feel like you haven't done very much."
And no matter how much e-presence grass-roots movements possess,
it remains difficult to spread their messages to passive observers.
Unlike mass media, the Web caters to those people who seek specific
"I don't think the Internet creates politically active people,"
said Ed Schwartz, founder of the Philadelphia-based Institute for
the Study of Civic Values. "Why would someone who hates politics
on television seek it out on the Internet? If you can start to get
people interested in the connection between their lives and government,
the Internet becomes a great resource to show how those connections
Copyright © 2002 by The Hartford Courant