While the mainstream media focused incessantly on polls and the horse race in the 2000 election, on the Internet, citizens passionately debated issues like "character", "taxes", and the records of Clinton, Gore, Bush and the Republican Congress.
"It is no exaggeration to conclude that the Internet has achieved, and continues to achieve, the most participatory marketplace of mass speech that this country--and indeed the world--has yet seen," Federal Judge Stewart Dalzell wrote in June, when he declared the Communications Decency Act unconstitutional.
Three out of five Americans now have access to the Internet, and millions of them now use their computers to participate in the political process. Seventy percent of voters had access to the Internet in November, 2000, according to a study by Dataquest. We may even be entering a new era of participatory democracy, where a "five-minute activist" can log on, catch up on the causes he or she believes in, offer an opinion or advice, volunteer, and make a financial pledge.
If political participation is defined as publishing an opinion, more Americans probably participated in politics in 2000 than ever before. Thousands of citizens built web pages to express their political views, and thousands if not millions more surfed political sites on the Net, discussed politics in online forums and through e-mail messages.
Statistical and anecdotal data from recent elections suggest the Internet increases users' involvement in politics, their energy level and motivation, their opportunity for discourse, and their access to information.
Internet users are thinking globally, and the structures are now beginning to be built for them to act locally. After all, as Tip O'Neill said, "all politics is local." If you want to make a real difference, you have to find people in the same political jurisdiction who share your goals and beliefs.
Just 48 hours before election day, George W. Bush's Internet strategy team made a crucial decision to invest in banner advertisements on web sites in key states, including Florida. In retrospect, that online ad buy "may have been what made the difference for us in a state like Florida," observed Mike Connell, President of New Media Communications.
As a consultant to the Bush campaign, Connell led the redesign of the Bush web site in July that transformed it from a bland online brochure to a slick, interactive site full of personality. On his own web site, Connell proudly displays a glowing Los Angeles Times review of his web handiwork, asserting that the Bush web site "project an image of George W. Bush as the latest cool product from Silicon Valley."
Not to be outdone, Connell's competitor on the Democratic side, Ben Green, webmaster for Al Gore, believes his team also made some crucial decisions in the campaign. He points out that Bush's site was hacked an hour after its summer redesign. A teen covered Bush's picture on the home page with a hammer and sickle. And when traffic to the presidential campaign web sites spiked after the first debate, the Bush web site was so overwhelmed with traffic that it was down for three days, Green told the Politics Online conference. In contrast, Green made certain the Gore site was super-secure and super-accessible throughout the campaign. On his web site, Green proudly quotes a Forrester Research analysis that judged Gore's site the most accessible of the candidate sites when traffic demands were toughest.
In the 2000 presidential election, anything and everything made the difference. But one thing is clear: 2000 was the first truly interactive campaign. As John McCain's web guru Max Fose observed, it was the first campaign in which supporters of most candidates for Congress, governorships and the presidency were "just one click away from getting involved in the campaign."
Not surprisingly, the Bush and Gore camps disagree on which campaign site was more popular with the voters. Mirroring their disagreements over who won the election, the two campaigns used different measurements to determine how many visitors they received on their web sites. The Bush campaign won with computer users who accessed the web from home, according to Connell. The Gore campaign won if computer users who access the web from work are included, according to Green. This dichotomy led Connell to wisecrack that "Republicans are more likely to work while at work," and Green to retort that Gore supporters aren't as affluent as Bush supporters and not everyone can afford a computer at home as the Bush people might presume. Suffice it to say both campaigns claim to have reached between two million and three million voters.
"During the last two weeks of the campaign, we had one million people a day looking at the web site," Green said. "There is no 30-second spot that reaches one million people at once."
Gore spent about $100,000 just before the election to advertise on Yahoo and America Online.
The prolonged struggle over who won the 2000 presidential election proved to be an enormous boost to online activism. With voter interest piqued, traffic to political web sites spiked to their highest levels ever. And with partisan passions running high, millions of Americans wrote essays, poems and parodies and posted them to the web, entered chat rooms, discussed the election and forwarded e-mail.
Zach Exley, a former union organizer, says he "accidentally" sparked a nationwide election protest movement via the Internet through e-mail and a web site called Countercoup.org. His web site and online discussion group helped organize demonstrations in 40 cities, involving more than 10,000 people, against the premature presumption that Bush won the election.
Some protests organized through the site drew sizable crowds; attendees say there were 400 demonstrators in Boston and about 250 in Washington on Nov. 11. But some smaller cities didn't fare as well. An activist in Eau Claire, Wis., wrote that only five protesters showed up. In Washington on Inauguration Day, January 20, the largest "counter-inaugural" demonstration since the Vietnam War occurred, organized largely over the Internet. No one person or organization was soley responsible for organizing these demonstrations. Using traditional means, Exley said a staff of dozens working for months with a budget of millions of dollars would have been required to organize these demonstrations. But the Internet facilitates the almost spontaneous self-organization of political movements, he noted. ."Something huge is taking place" in grassroots political organizing, Exley asserts, "and it's going to change history."
Brian Buckley of FreeRepublic.com doesn't agree with Exley on much politically, but he does agree with him about the political power of the Internet. Conservative activists who frequent Free Republic organized and participated in demonstrations in 35 cities during the post-election period. One of their members digitally altered the Gore-Lieberman campaign logo to read "Sore Loserman". Visitors to Free Republic's web site downloaded the logo, hundreds placed it on plackards and bumper-stickers. "Sore Loserman" plackards were particularly visible in demonstrations in South Florida, where Free Republic members boast that their protests helped to end recounts that might have unfairly favored Al Gore.
Freelance cartoonist Mike Collins, 26, became an instant celebrity after creating a cartoon about the infamous "butterfly ballot" showing a straight line from Bush's name to his punch hole but a mess of squiggly lines leading to the punch holes of other candidates' names. He innocently sent it to 30 friends, who quickly forwarded it to their friends, who ultimately forwarded it to millions of people. He received congratulations from readers the world over. Collins initially made no money off the cartoon, but translated his instant fame into some instant t-shirt sales featuring the cartoon.
Through a web site, Vote With America.com, Citizens for True Democracy generated thousands of e-mails to electors urging them to vote for the winner of the popular vote.
Trustthepeople.com offered blank affidavits for Florida voters to sign if they believed their ballot was confusing. The site, set up by Democrats.com, which bills itself as "the first online community for America's 100 million Democrats" but is not affiliated with Democratic National Committee -- collected more than 5,000 affidavits. Democrats.com raised $20,000 online in just 36 hours for its campaign in Florida. Members are vowing not to forget the "stolen" election, and to demonstrate against Bush throughout his term.
"There has been a burst of activity comparable to the explosion of a supernova," observed Juan Williams, host of National Public Radio's Talk of the Nation. His show devoted an hour on November 28, 2000 to discussing the burgeoning role of the Internet in political activism.
"We've seen a big burst in activity since election day, especially in the number of 'citizen web sites,'" observed Steve Schneider of Net Election.org, a web site funded by foundations that monitored political web site activity throughout the 2000 election season. "The post-election actually galvanized people more than the election did," Schneider said. "2000 was a breakthrough year," he said. "We're seeing the rebirth of interactive politics," harkening back to the 19th century before mass media gatekeepers controlled the ideas that permeated the political process.