I wrote the following in 1999, updated it in 2000 and 2001.
Nearly every month, there's a powerful new example of how the Internet is changing advocacy. Individuals and organizations have discovered a new found power to influence public policy, to advocate for themselves and others. Citizen-activists around the globe are using electronic mail and web sites to build networks of people, communicate at the speed of light, share information, and coordinate activities.
If the subject is a hot news topic and there is widespread public interest in it, activists often create "flash campaigns" -- they use e-mail chain letters and online petitions to spread the word and garner support. Typically, an e-mail message will dramatically state the urgent need for action and direct users to forward the message to friends and colleagues around the Net. This is also known as "viral marketing."
WEBBY AWARDS FOR ACTIVISM - Capping a remarkable year that saw the Internet experience dramatic highs and lows, the International Academy of Digital Arts & Sciences in April unveiled the nominees for the 5th Annual Webby Awards. Hailed as the "Oscars of the Internet," The Webby Awards is the leading international honor for Web sites and individual achievement in technology and creativity. Winners will be announced at The 2001 Webby Awards 2000 on July 18, 2001 at at San Francisco's elegant War Memorial Opera House. The nominees is the field of activism are Actforchange.com, Independent Media Center, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Protest Net, and Volunteer Match.
"AVERAGE CITIZEN" USES NET TO SINGLE-HANDEDLY GET FEDERAL LEGISLATION PASSED: Irene Weiser, who describes herself as "an average citizen from upstate New York," wanted to do something to save the Violence Against Women Act. VAWA provides a major source of funding for domestic violence programs -- and was set to expire in 2000. Newspapers editorialized that the renewing legislation was doomed in Congress. The program Irene worked in was set to lose two staffers. She thought that was an outrage. An Internet novice, she decided the only way to save the program was through the Internet. Working with a firm of Internet professionals, E-Advocates.com, she mortgaged her house to embark on a one-person campaign over the Internet to save VAWA. Weiser created the Web site Stopfamilyviolence.org and wrote heartfelt personal letters to everyone she knew and urged them to do the same. In just 12 weeks, her e-mail and web campaign generated more than 160,000 e-mails to Congress. Some 36,000 people signed up for her e-mail alerts, and vowed to keep up the fight until the legislation passed. In October, 2000, the Senate re-authorized VAWA unanimously, five days after the House of Representatives did so by a vote of 371-1. President Clinton quickly signed the bill into law. "Irene Weiser is living proof that ordinary women like you and me can do extraordinary things," wrote Oxygen.com, a web site for women, in profiling Irene for its "Be Fearless" campaign. Irene and her web developer, E-advocates, won a Pollie Award from the American Political Science Association for their work.
ELECTION PROTESTS: 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, the web site Countercoup.org, run by Zack Exley, sparked demonstrations in 40 cities, involving more than 10,000 people, against the presumption that Bush won the election. Demonstrations against Bush's "selection, not election" on January 20, 2001 in Washington were called the largest counter-inaugural protest since 1973, during the Vietnam War. Not to be outdone, the conservative web site Free Republic, boasting 60,000 members, organized and participated in demonstrations in 35 cities.
ECONOMIC GLOBALIZATION PROTESTS: Activists used the Internet to organize numerous protests against the World Trade Organization. They turned the WTO meeting in Seattle in 1999 into "a fin de siecle political and economic Woodstock," Mother Jones reported. Some 50,000 protestors descended on the city to cripple the WTO conference, were tear-gassed by police and violence broke out. "Seattle was the Big Bang of activism on the global economy," Juliette Beck of the Global Exchange observed. Prior to Seattle, anti-capitalists launched a surprise attack in London in June 1999. Bankers and traders in London's financial district found themselves under siege when a shadowy organization called www.J18.org used its web site to coordinate protests of globalization around the world, coinciding with the Group of Eight conference of world leaders in Cologne. In London, as many as 2,000 anticapitalists gathered, shouted slogans and spray-painted buildings. "The police were caught flatfooted," reported Edward Harris in the Wall Street Journal. "J18 had quietly and methodically planned the action without taking out ads in publications or using traditional ways of disseminating information that would have tipped off the public."
To the '60s radical, "Turn on, tune in, drop out" was a mantra. In these Web-happy days it could be, "Boot up, log on, download." Swept in with the human tide flooding the Internet are anarchists, zealots and every brand and shape of issue advocate. They range from the concerned citizen who posts a Web site about a tax bill to a Luddites' site denouncing modern technology to the site devoted to the woman who has perched for two years in a tree to protect it from loggers. - Edward Harris in The Wall Street Journal, August 5, 1999.
The Internet and e-mail give today's activists an information-gathering and organizational network that their parents lacked. During (the 2000) World Bank demonstrations, protesters coordinated activities via cell phones, pagers and instant messaging devices....Internet access to primary source material - - such as Securities and Exchange Commission documents - - helped American University activists in their successful effort to get Sodexho Marriott Services, Inc., kicked off campus. The activists collected 900 signatures on petitions and won the support of the student government and several faculty members." - - - The Washington Post, April 20, 2001.
STUDENT ACTIVISM IS BACK: Like VW Beetles, quiz shows, and Shaft, student activism is back. A record 46 percent of college freshmen joined public protests in 1999, the largest percentage since UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute began tracking the trend in 1966, Mother Jones reported.
LATIN AMERICA HUMAN RIGHTS GROUP GROWS EXPONENTIALLY: Started in response to the massacre of 45 people in the Chiapas region of Mexico in late 1997, the Chicago-based Mexico Solidarity Network has grown exponentially in the last three years. Thanks to the Internet, "what used to take three people a week to do now one person can do in a matter of a couple of hours," founder Tom Hansen told ABC News. He sent out 50 e-mail invitations for a rally and 250 people showed up. The network represents a coalition of 90 organizations and boasts an e-mail list of 2,500 members. And that doesn’t include "reflectors," automatic mail forwarding that expands the group’s message to thousands more, Hansen said. "We’ve grown amazingly in the last two years," says Jason Wallach, a coordinator for the group. "You don’t see a grassroots group form from nothing and a lot of that’s due to the Internet."
LABOR UNIONS TURN TO INTERNET TO INFORM, RECRUIT MEMBERS - Like their counterparts in business, labor leaders are turning to the Internet to find new customers, keep the old ones and sharpen their message, ABC NEWS reports. What they’ve found is a much better ability to organize on a large scale with less effort. "In a way, the Internet can almost be like an electronic home visit," said Jamie Horwitz, a spokesman for the American Federation of Teachers. Workers can apply for union membership online, e-mail questions and access union literature in the privacy of their homes - and with easy access to dozens of pro-union links.
UN, CISCO USE THE NET TO FIGHT WORLD POVERTY: The United Nations Development program has joined forces with Cisco Systems on NetAid.org, an ambitious program to use the power of the Internet to attack mass poverty in developing countries. To bridge the immense gap between "the knows and the know-nots," Cisco will provide the technology and the UN will supply the manpower and human network to expand Internet access into Third World villages, where local artisans can use the Net to find markets, jobs, and to study such things as modern farming techniques. In the first few months, the Netaid web site received 40 million hits from 160 countries. (Washington Post, August 12, 1999)
HUNDREDS OF NEO-NAZI WEB SITES IN AMERICA APPEAL TO GERMAN AUDIENCES: In just one year, from 1999 to 2000, the number of neo-nazi web sites sitting on American web servers leaped from 330 to more than 800, according to estimates by Germany's Interior Ministry. In Germany, denying the Holocaust or disseminating Nazi propaganda are crimes. Frustrated that far-right groups have found a way to use new technology to disobey the law, German authorities are attempting to extend their national laws into the borderless world of the Internet, The Washington Post reported December 21, 2000. U.S. authorities are skeptical of any approach that attempts to apply German law in the U.S. Alan Davidson, counsel to the Center for Democracy and Technology argues that instead of seeking legal jurisdiction outside its borders, Germany should seek to identify which of its citizens are posting neo-Nazi materials on web sites outside Germany and prosecute them in Germany.
NET GROUPS PLEDGE TO MONITOR HATERS AND EXTREMISTS ONLINE: The Southern Povery Law Center says it is tracking information on Buford Furrow Jr., suspected of shooting five people at a Jewish Community Center, including three small boys. Brian Youngblood says his group has found a photo tying Furrow to the supremacist group Aryan Nation. In the photo, Furrow is wearing a Nazi uniform. "White supremacists, neo-Nazi, Klu Klux Klan and Christian separatist organizations...are having tremendous success signing up recruits over the Net," Wired News reports. "But for every step an extremist takes, someone is watching, collecting information to use it against them." The Simon Wiesenthal Center has produced a CD-ROM report, "Racism, Mayhem & Terrorism: The Emergence of an Onlne Subculture of Hate." Rabbi Abraham Cooper calls the Internet "the new battlefield of hate." Raymond Franklin has produced a Directory of Hate Groups on the Internet. The U.S. Senate also held hearings in 1999 on the emergence of "Hate" web sites.
NEO-NAZIS CLAIM HUNDREDS OF RECRUITS FROM INTERNET, PLAN MARCH IN DC...BUT IT FIZZLES: Members of the American Nationalist Party, aka the Knights of Freedom, a self-styled neo-Nazi group, applied for a permit to march down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington and to rally in front of the White House on August 7, 1999. They claimed they had recruited hundreds of marchers from a web site mainted by Davis Wolfgang Hawke, a 20-year-old South Carolina college student. But as a counter-protest mobilized by D.C. United to Stop the Nazis gathered strength, and as more than 1,500 DC Police Officers assembled in riot gear, the Nazis called off their march. Only four neo-nazis showed up at a staging area prepared by police. DC Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey immediately announced he would urge the District to explore suing Hawke and his followers for the million-dollar-plus cost of deploying 1,450 D.C. police officers for the march in addition to 1,100 on regular duty. Hawke's mother told a reporter before the march that she didn't think he'd go through with it because "Number one, he is a chicken. I don't like to say that about my own son, but he is a chicken." (The Washington Post, August 8, 1999.)
SAVING OLD-GROWTH FORESTS: A campaign by Protect Our Heritage Forests generated 150,000 e-mails and 150,000 print postcards to Vice President Al Gore in 30 days (May-June, 1999). "This is a top-tier environmental issue," campaign director Ken Rait told the Philanthropy News Network. "People really care about protecting our wild forests. The campaign far exceeded the goal of the coalition of environmental groups, who expected to generate 60,000 e-mails.
SPOTLIGHTING AND STOPPING ANTI-SEMITISM IN RUSSIAN TOWN: In the town of Boravichi, Russia in 1999, the local Rabbi was routinely receiving hate mail from anti-semitic neo-fascists. "Get your stinking family out of Russia," one letter read. "Streets will be washed with Jewish blood," read another. "Every Friday there will be a pogrom," read another. Borovichi is a factory town of 80,000 between St. Petersburg and Moscow. The Rabbi logged on to the Internet and e-mailed the San Francisco Bay Area Council of Jewish Rescue and Renewal for help. The group sent an alert to the local Jewish community and leaders in Congress. Within days, HUNDREDS of letters and e-mails of concern from all over the world poured into the offices of Boravichi's mayor and other Russian authorities. Six months later, the 500-member Boravichi Jewish community was graned space in the center of town for a Jewish human rights center and synagogue. And the local Duma, or legislature, passed four laws prohibiting the ultra-nationalists from inciteful activities. For details, click.
REAL ESTATE LOBBY FLEXES ONLINE MUSCLE: The National Association of Realtors in February of 1999 launched an Internet campaign against an obscure proposal in the U.S. Senate that threatened to divert some real estate transaction fees away from realtors. Within five working days, 2,000 e-mail letters from association members poured into the Senate, and the proposal was quickly dropped.
CONCERNED ABOUT PRIVACY, CITIZENS FORCE FDIC TO DROP REGULATION: When the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation considered a regulation requiring nonmember banks to track their customers' account activities very carefully in 1999, members of the Libertarians Party took to the Internet. Some 250,000 e-mails from citizens concerned about government invasion of privacy forced the agency to drop the proposed regulation.
A NEW WAY TO COVER WAR, ONLINE: During the war in the former Yugoslavia, the Internet provided unique perspectives from the ground. In one fascinating example, a Kosovo cybermonk created an e-mail list and offered rare independent news from a region under siege. His story was chronicled by Don North in Salon Magazine. In another, journalist Tom Regan reflected on the war as viewed from this new medium, with the ability to communicate easily with eyewitnesses on the ground. Judith Shulevitz of the online magazine Slate, writes: "It does change the terms of the engagement. It is very democratizing. It makes it much more difficult to demonize the enemy. And I'm not sure if that is a good thing or a bad thing."
HELPING REFUGEES: The Internet is being used to help refugees of the Balkan war locate their relatives. The International Red Cross has launched the Family News Network, sponsored by Campaq and Ericsson, which allows refugees in the Balkans to locate relatives and friends and to send them electronic messages. Computers linked to the Internet are being installed in Red Cross offices and in big refugee camps. Another independent site, Kosovo Keep in Touch, helps refugees track down displaced family members.
PUTTING HUMAN RIGHTS PRESSURE ON CHINA: Ignatius Deng, a strategic planner for Hewlett-Packard in California, is a major player in the movement to expand the Internet-based network of Chinese dissidents, keeping the Chinese communist government on edge. As director and spokesman for Silicon Valley for Democracy in China, Deng is a major source for reporters who track human rights conditions in China. He is also a leading figure in the Global Alliance for Preserving the History of World War II in Asia, a Northern California organization that wants Japan to apologize for the atrocities committed in China and other Asian nations by its military forces during the war. (San Francisco Chronicle, July 8, 1999.
WINNING THE NOBEL PEACE PRIZE FOR CAMPAIGN TO BAN LAND MINES: Working mostly out of her home in Vermont, Jody Williams mobilized the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, largely through the Internet. She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997. "As an actor on the international diplomatic stage, Williams' campaign has no precedent," The Washington Post wrote on October 11, 1997. "It is an organization in name only, with no staff or office of its own.... Williams said her computer allowed her to keep supporters up to date on the latest news and to feel the momentum of their movement. "From day one we recognized that instant communication was critical," she said. "It made people feel they were a part of it." The campaign was successful in pressuring more than 89 countries to sign an international treaty banning land mines. "This victory is in large part due to the Internet... For the first time, a coalition of NGOs has had an influence on the security of the entire world without being a superpower," Williams said.
NETWORK OF HUMAN RIGHTS GROUPS GREATLY EXPANDS AND HELPS PREVENT TORTURE: A e-mail alert system for human rights activists designed to stop torture saved beneficiaries from almost certain torture. Janice Christensen, campaign director for Amnesty International USA reported in October of 2000 that Kurdish activist Sehmuz Temel walked free just days after Amnesty members began sending e-mail to Turkish authorities calling for his release, told USA Today reported. Temel, who Amnesty says was already disabled from repeated torture at the hands of Turkish police from 1994 to 1998, was released unharmed. Amnesty International and other human rights groups have used the Internet to greatly expand the number of people participating in human rights work and to inform them quickly about violations, says William Schulz, Amnesty International's executive director. AI uses electronic Urgent Action Alerts to notify Amnesty members of human rights abuses in need of intervention. Advocates use e-mail, as well as traditional methods of communication -- letters, phone, and fax -- to pressure targeted governments. As a result, AI reports that the percentage of countries that conduct state executions declined from 21 in 1988 to 19 in 1998. And nations that jail "prisoners of conscience" fell from 44 percent to 41 percent during the same period. (Philanthropy Network News, July 12, 1999).
ONLINE ADVOCACY CONSULTANTS AND LOBBYISTS EMERGE AS NEW FORCE: With former White House press secretary Mike McCurry at the helm and $34 million in venture capital, Grassroots.com in late 2000 re-launched itself as an online advocacy firm, in an effort to sell Internet-based communications and advocacy products to associations, advocacy groups, for-profit and non-profit organizations. Grassroots burned through an initial $34 million in a little over a year trying to market itself as a political site for citizens to follow or participate in the 2000 election. But with minimal traffic and a questionable business model, Grassroots did not succeed as a political portal, and it has intense competition in the online lobbying area. Among its most prominent competitors: an Idaho-based public company called Netivation. In 1999 Netivation bought NetCapitol, an online lobbying service, in a deal that was valued as high as $12 million. Capitol Advantage, an Internet firm that teaches associations and other advocacy groups how to lobby effectively over the Net, boasts that it generated two million e-mails to Congress between Nov., 1998 and July, 1999. It partnered with America Online to launch VoteNet, a software program that generates weekly e-mails to constituents of all 435 members of Congress telling them how their representative voted on specific issues. AOL is using the product in its "My Government" area. Daniel Bennett and Pam Fielding, who run the Internet lobbying firm, E-Advocates.com, another online lobbying firm based in Merrifield, Va., in 1999 published a book, "The Net Effect: How Cyber-Advocacy is Changing the Political Landscape."
THE GOLDEN AGE OF 'HACTIVISM': Wired News reports that the computer-security group, "Cult of the Dead" has launched a resource web site, Hactivism.org, offering tools for digital political activists. Computer hackers crack the code of web sites and computer networks as a form of protest. Internet sabateurs have rewritten the home page of the Mexican government to protest corruption and censorship; they have targeted the home page of Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo to protest alleged mistreatment of the Zapatista rebels in Chiapas. Nearly 8,000 people participated in the digital sit-in, which attempted to overwhelm the Mexican government's web servers.
ONLINE ACTIVIST PUSHES BILL THROUGH CALIFORNIA LEGISLATURE: Way back in 1993, Jim Warren, who has described himself as a "government information access nut," obtained passage of a California bill putting government information online. E-mail bulletins were sent out to a network of activists informing of them of upcoming hearings and votes. Each activist then called or met with other citizens to mobilize phone and letter-writing campaigns targeted at state representatives. "Mr. Warren, long a promoter of utopian communities, became one of the first to forward the notion that cheap electronic communication could foster a truly educated citizenry," wrote Rebecca Rainey in a February, 2000 profile of Warren in The New York Times. In columns he wrote in the 1980s, Warren pushed for online information and "largely because of his efforts," California was the first state to publish legislative info online, Rainey noted. Here's a comprehensive page on Warren from www.zdnet.com. And here's David Rothman's interesting profile.
ANTI-TOBACCO GROUP FORCES CANCELLATION OF 'SMOKERS RIGHTS' TOUR: The Advocacy Institute blocked a Smokers' Bill of Rights tour by Phillip Morris by using e-mail and the web to coordinate their media strategies among activists in different cities. They were successful in forcing the cancellation of the tour. The Institute's SCARCNet is a private network for public health, policy, and communications specialists engaged in tobacco control advocacy. SCARCNet uses the Internet to provide a range of advocacy resources, including facilitated discussions and content dissemination of news summaries, research publications, and media advocacy tools.
ONLINE PETITION AGAINST NET CENSORSHIP GATHERED EARLY MOMENTUM: In a matter of days in 1996, more than 30,000 signatures opposing parts of the Telecommunications Decency Act were gathered over the Internet. The rapid response to the signing of the bill was one of the first illustrations of the power of the Net to coordinate activities and mobilize political action. The Center for Democracy and Technology was one of the groups spearheading the online protest and the appeal. The law was declared unconstitutional in 1997.
The following two examples are recounted in Howard Rheingold's excellent book, Virtual Community:
COLORADO SPRINGS CITY COUNCIL HEARS PROTESTS FROM LOCAL NET ACTIVISTS: When Colorado Springs considered an ordinance prohibiting telecommuters from working at home, Dave Hughes mobilized citizens electronically. About 175 citizens representing every part of the political spectrum showed up at the city council meeting to protest the ordinance. It was defeated. Hughes may be the very first computer-civic activist: He started what may be the very first bulletin board system (BBS) with the goal of empowering the public politically. He also used e-mail and his electronic bulletin board to expose an inefficient and incestuous system of bidding on city contracts. As a result of his work, a better system was set up.
MONTANA EDUCATORS GO ONLINE TO FIND SUPPORT FOR WIRING SCHOOLS: Frank and Reggie Osasz, educators from rural Montana, in the late 1980s thought of the idea of hooking up inexpensive BBS systems in rural Montana schoolhouses, to help overcome the educational isolation of some of the widest open spaces in America. They used computer-mediated communication to spread the word about the need for grant money, and organized computer training of teachers in rural areas. They called their project Big Sky Telegraph.
SANTA MONICA ACTIVISTS USED THE NET TO PROVIDE HOMES AND SUPPORT TO THE HOMELESS: In Santa Monica, Ca., citizens organized a Public Electronic Network to provide homeless people with access to showers, washing machines, lockers and a job bank. For the New York Times 1999 update on Santa Monica's public networks, click.
MONTANA WOMEN FIND LOCAL SUPPORT NETWORK ONLINE: Through computer networking, women across Montana teach and support each other emotionally, via the computer services of the Women's Resource Center in Dillon.