Beyond MoveOn: Using the Internet for Real Change

Recently the Wisconsin Network for Peace and Justice asked me to write an article
for them with my ideas of how grassroots activists could better use the
internet for real change. As a member of the group, I was happy to
tackle that assignment, and here are my thoughts.

Barack Obama
owes his election in no small part to his brilliant use of social
networking websites, email, cell phone texting and blogs, all utilized
in unprecedented ways by his campaign staff to promote, organize and
fund his unlikely victory. He employed techniques pioneered by online
groups such as MoveOn
and took them to an entirely new level. Thanks to Obama's use of the
Internet, politics in America will never be the same. It's crucial that
peace and social justice activists at the state and local levels
understand and harness these new technologies in organizing for
fundamental social change.

The grassroots movements for peace, economic justice, environmental
sustainability and other fundamental reforms -- representing millions
of individual political progressives who helped elect Barack Obama --
are for the most part delighted that the Bush/Cheney regime has been
vanquished. However, disillusion and disappointment is rightly building
among activists who are now seeing Obama and the Democratic Party
cutting deals with corporate special interests and backing down on
commitments to change US foreign policy.

The main online activist efforts that elected Obama -- his own Organizing for America
and the liberal lobby MoveOn -- have become cheerleaders and lobbyists
for his legislative agenda, policies that in many instances betray his
rhetoric of change. I am referring to Obama's refusal to quickly end
the war in Iraq; his military escalation in Afghanistan; his support for Wall Street bailouts; his endorsement of tax subsidies for the coal industry ("clean coal") and the nuclear power industry (saving us from global warming). Obama is about to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on health care subsidies that cater to the insurance industry and undermine the only real solution to the current crisis, the adoption of a single payer health care system such as that enjoyed by the Canadians and most other western democracies.

Yet my email box is filled with missives from MoveOn and other
liberal online campaigns that spin these dismal policies as "real
change," or ignore them entirely to dampen criticism from the Left of
the Obama Administration.

What are grassroots activist organizations to do to avoid
marginalization? Peace and justice organizations at the local and state
level need to learn and adopt the new media tools of MoveOn and Obama,
but use them to give birth to fundamental change that empowers people
rather than seeks accommodation with powerful corporate interests.
Rather than organizing for an agenda determined by a handful of partisan Democrats at the top, this new organization should work to empower and represent people from the bottom up.

Obama's Online Coup

Barack Obama is president of the United States for a number of key reasons including his political positions and image.
During the Democratic primary he was able to position himself as the
anti-war alternative to Hillary Clinton and this helped him beat Clinton at her own money game,
raising much more in contributions from both wealthy donors and smaller
contributors than she did. Polls show that during the race against John
McCain he benefited from the sudden collapse of the U.S. financial
system, as voters turned to the cool and calm Obama and away from the
brash McCain.

But arguably the most important key to the success of President
Barack Obama was his use of the Internet and his ability to harness it
for publicizing his campaign, among young voters especially; mobilizing
enthusiastic supporters by the millions via email, websites and text
messaging; raising tens of millions of dollars from these online
supporters and organizing them successfully at the grassroots level to
actually turn out and vote in primaries and the general election.

In using the Internet so effectively, Obama and his campaign staff built upon the previous successes in 2004 of Howard Dean, the Vermont governor who came from nowhere and rode his wave of anti-war Internet supporters to become the leading Democratic candidate for the Presidency, until his campaign crashed and burned
in the not-so-virtual reality of the Iowa Caucus. Dean was unable to
translate his army of online supporters into a grassroots force that
could turn out voters and win elections on the ground. Succeeding where
Dean failed, Obama was able to marry his online "netroots" mobilization to an effective old-style campaign of getting out the vote.

The Obama campaign carried online and digital activism to a new level of fundraising and political organizing through its "Obama for America"
campaign, which built a massive email list complete with phone numbers
for simultaneous text messaging. When Obama moved into the White House
this political machine was moved into the office of the Democratic National Committee
to become a coordinated lobby force for the new administration, renamed
Organizing for America. No previous president has ever come into office
with his own electronically-networked grassroots lobby of over ten
million Americans, able to be activated to support the goals of the

Obama's victory has forever changed how electoral campaigns are run
and it underscores the necessity for both candidates and social change
organizations to harness the power of the Web, whether to stop a war,
gain national healthcare, or win electoral office.

The Rise of MoveOn

A seminal moment for online activism was in 1998 when a liberal millionaire couple from Berkeley, Wes Boyd and Joan Blades, launched MoveOn as an online petition to condemn President Clinton's White House philandering while urging the Congress to move on to other more pressing matters than the Clinton impeachment.

MoveOn's petition campaign failed to dissuade Republicans from
impeaching the President, but it was wildly successful in building for
MoveOn a list of contributors that has since provided tens of millions
of dollars for political ads and liberal candidates. In 2002, MoveOn
used and grew this list into the millions of people, becoming the most
visible organizational opponent of the war on Iraq. In 2008, MoveOn's
members endorsed Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton in the Democratic
primary, and today MoveOn claims a list of more than 5 million

It has become a powerful cheerleading force and lobby
for the policies of the Obama Administration, yet it has no office,
phone, or mailing address, functioning virtually online off its website
while raising millions of dollars and organizing rallies, media events
and launching advertising campaigns in support of President Obama.

The Blogosphere and the Rise of the Netroots Nation

refers to writing web logs or journals, a style of online speech and
advocacy that has become a powerful political movement in its own
right. The online world of liberal bloggers -- the "liberal
blogosphere" -- was crucial to the resurgence of liberalism during the
Bush years.

Two youngish Democratic consultants, Jerome Armstrong and Markos Moulitsas (founder of Daily Kos blog), wrote the book, Crashing the Gate: Netroots, Grassroots, and the Rise of People-Powered Politics in 2006. Armstrong earlier coined the term "netroots" to describe the liberal blogosphere. Moulitsas' popular blog has inspired an annual conference now called Netroots Nation
that next occurs in Pittsburgh beginning Aug. 13, 2009. Thousands of
people including Democratic Party activists, liberal think tanks,
public interest organizations, lobby and PR firms, celebrities and
citizen bloggers are certain to attend, and the event will receive
attention in the mainstream media.

In their book, Crashing the Gates, Armstrong and Moulitsas use the term "netroots"
to describe the "online grassroots community that has grown
dramatically in the past five years ... By late November 2005, the top
70 or so liberal blogs, led by Daily Kos,
garnered about 60 million page-views every month ...The netroots
activist, much like the new generation of grassroots activist, is
fiercely partisan, fiercely multi-issue, and focused on building a
broader movement. It's not an ideological movement -- there is actually
very little, issue-wise, that unites most modern party activists
except, perhaps opposition to the Iraq war.

The rise of MoveOn, the emergence of the liberal blogosphere and the
revival of the liberal wing of the Democratic Party during the darkest
years of George Bush were chronicled by New York Times reporter Matt Bai in his 2007 book titled, The Argument: Billionaires, Bloggers and the Battle to Remake Democratic Politics.
Bai's book was the first to examine the new power alliance within the
Democratic Party composed of the organizations referenced in his long
subtitle, an alliance that is now mostly united behind the Obama
Administration. These players include billionaires such as George Soros and other wealthy members of an exclusive group of funders called the Democracy Alliance;
the major liberal bloggers like Armstrong and Moulitsas; and the
organization MoveOn, whose political action committee had become one of
the top money contributors to Democratic candidates.

The Essentials for Netroots Organizing

The heady success of Obama and MoveOn is impressive and has created
a new liberal power structure. But the power of the Internet is
available not just to them, but to individual activists and thousands
of small progressive organizations whose supporters have the basic
computer hardware, software and Internet Technology (IT) skills to
raise money, promote ideas, and launch and conduct successful online
and grassroots campaigns for candidates or causes.

Indeed, it's imperative that grassroots organizations learn to
better utilize the Web to become a more progressive counterweight to
the slick marketing and mainstream politics of MoveOn and the Obama
Administration. Grassroots organizers need to understand and adopt the
new tools that propelled Obama into the presidency, that have
rejuvenated the Democratic Party, and allowed the emergence of MoveOn.
Below are some of the online tools that are available and should be
studied, used and adopted by activists. Let me say that I am not a
geek, I don't write computer code and I have no Internet technology
skills. Luckily many people do and every organization of more than a
few dozen people likely has within it or among its extended network
people with skills to build the nucleus necessary for online activism.
Here is the basic toolkit.

Interactive Websites

Many grassroots organizations already have one, and every
organization needs one. If no one in your organization has ever built
one, look at the websites of organizations you belong to and work with
and talk with them for advice. Ideally a website should be built with
using an "open source" platform made for activism and marketing, such
as Drupal.
"Web 2.0" is a term coined to describe making anything online as
interactive and useful as possible, and is good jargon to keep in mind
because interactivity and user-friendliness are crucial to successful
web activism.

Email Sign Up

A website should invite, cajole and encourage visitors to sign up
for email messages from the organization. Building and maintaining the
email list is the key to publicizing the goals and work of the
organization and to developing a paying membership of online
contributors. Constantly growing and expanding this list should be an
organizational objective.

Put a Big Honking Donation Button on Your Website

Organizations like Groundspring
make it easy for anyone visiting an activist website to click and
contribute funding. This is essential and important especially during
an economic depression when foundation and major donor funding is hard
to come by, or at election time when funding is often too tied to a
partisan agenda. Put a prominent graphic on your site so anyone can
easily click and donate.


Blogs essentially turn a website into an engaging online source for
information and debate, and the more and better information that
appears, the more visitors will attracted to the website. Blogs can be
brief informative articles, opinion pieces, stories that point to other
people's online writing or websites, or in-depth journalistic analysis.
The organization should decide who within it will write articles on the
website. Blogs can also be offered for free reprint on other websites
such as Daily Kos, Common Dreams, AlterNet, and Counterpunch, spreading the views of the writer to a much larger audience.

Online Campaigns

Most activist organizations work on specific issues, like stopping
the spread of industrial hog factories in rural communities, ending the
war in Iraq, or pressuring a politician by organizing a protest at his
or her office. Your website should make it easy for people to: endorse
your campaigns through online petitions (which also build your email
lists); download information about your campaigns; and mobilize
attendance at specific events such as rallies, vigils, lobby days, and
conferences that advance your work through old-fashioned grassroots
activism and organizing. Obama had a great online campaign, but his
real genius was in linking it to his on-the-ground, get-out-the-vote
efforts. The same should be true of activist campaigns.

Citizen Journalism

The blogosphere has given rise to the citizen journalism movement.
For instance, on your website you can write a factual, informative,
documented article on an issue important to your group, and if you have
a digital still camera you can attach a photograph. You can make an
online video and upload it free to YouTube, where anyone online can see

At the website SourceWatch,
a high-traffic online "encyclopedia of the people, organizations and
issues shaping the public agenda," you can easily create accurate, fair
and documented articles, or edit and expand existing articles, then
link to them and link them to your website. Two-thirds of the 2 million
monthly visitors to SourceWatch arrive through Google searches, so
SourceWatch articles on your issues are likely to drive traffic back to
your website.

MySpace, Facebook and Twitter

These social network sites are now getting lots of TV media
attention and are likely already used by individuals in your
organization. They should be woven into your online activism. Obama
used social networking sites very successfully. Some organizations have
created activist networking sites such as WiserEarth, but you should also use popular existing sites.

Uniting the Grassroots with the Netroots: Beyond MoveOn

In early 2007, I began publicly criticizing MoveOn
for co-opting the peace movement on behalf of the agenda of
Congressional Democrats. The Democrats gained control of the U.S.
Congress in the fall of 2006 based primarily on public revulsion over
Bush's war in Iraq, a war that was endorsed from the start by leading
Democrats including John Kerry, Tom Daschle, Hillary Clinton,
and many others. In early 2007, the Democrats had an opportunity to cut
off funding for the war, but blinked. MoveOn, an organization
considered by the mainstream media the leader of the peace movement,
sided with Speaker Nancy Pelosi
in an effort that marginalized the Congressional Out of Iraq caucus and
gave Bush all the funding he wanted to continue the war.

The peace movement has never recovered.
Although Obama was elected as the peace candidate, his Iraq withdrawal
plan is anemic and would leave 50,000 troops in Iraq indefinitely,
while he has ramped up the U.S. war in Afghanistan. MoveOn has declared
Obama's Iraq strategy a success, even as the war continues, and is
refusing to oppose Obama on Afghanistan. Meanwhile the grassroots peace
movement that consists primarily of the scores of groups that make up
the United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ) coalition are disorganized and dispirited and UFPJ is in danger of going broke.

It's likely that all these groups that comprise UFPJ have among
their own existing email lists a total number of peace activists in the
millions. Yet they have never figured out how to mobilize these lists
to create the sort of mega-list that is wielded by MoveOn. Hopefully
down the road a network of non-partisan, web-based local and state
activists will come together and create state and national email lists
of millions of mobilized activists. Until these grassroots local and
state groups learn the tricks of online activism and marry it to
powerful grassroots organizing campaigns, real change will be deferred.

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