Saturday, December 31, 2005
AP: Internet technology increasingly empowers citizens to direct action
Wednesday, December 28, 2005 - Updated: 07:16 AM EST
Internet fosters local political movements
By Ron Fournier
The Associated Press
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Frustrated by government and empowered by technology,
Americans are filling needs and fighting causes through grass-roots
organizations they built themselves - some sophisticated, others quaintly ad
hoc. This is the era of people-driven politics.
From a homemaker-turned-kingmaker in Pittsburgh to dog owners in New York
to a "gym rat" here in southwest Florida, people are using the Internet to do
what politicians can't - or won't - do.
This is their story, but its also an American story because ordinary folks
are doing the extraordinary to find people with similar interests, organize
them and create causes and connections. "People are just beginning to realize
how much power they have," said Chris Kofinis, a Democratic consultant who
specializes in grass-roots organizing via the Internet.
"At a time when we are craving community and meaning in our lives, people
are using these technologies to find others with the same complaints and
organize them," he said. "They don't have to just sit in a coffee shop and
gripe about politics. They can change politics."
Mary Shull changed her life, if not politics. A lonely and frustrated
liberal, the stay-at-home mother of two joined the liberal online group
MoveOn.org in 2004. Working from home, the Pittsburgh woman helped round up
votes for presidential candidate John Kerry and other Democrats. On Election
Day, Kerry prevailed in Pennsylvania, but failed to unseat President Bush.
"I was upset with Kerry's loss, but what really devastated me was the loss
of that sense of empowerment in my life, this sense of engagement, that I got
with MoveOn," she said. Shull, 31, was brimming with ideas for liberal causes,
but MoveOn had virtually shut down after the election and the Democratic Party
was catatonic. So she took matters in her own hands, e-mailing the 1,500
contacts she had made through MoveOn and asking if they wanted to keep busy.
Their first meeting drew 85 people. They got involved in local races, and
Shull tended to her e-mail list - each name coded with the person's pet issue.
"This wasn't about a huge agenda. This was people gathering together and
working with each other on things that interested them," she said. "It was just
a way for people to connect with each other."
Politicians took notice. When former Rep. Joe Hoeffel decided he might want
to run for lieutenant governor, he called Shull and asked for her support.
"Ten years ago, somebody like Mary would be as interested as she is in
politics, but her circle of influence would not have extended beyond her home
or block or even voting precinct," said Hoeffel, a Democrat who gave up his
House seat in 2004 for an unsuccessful Senate bid.
"Now, she's got 1,500 other self-motivated and influential people at her
fingertips, and carries as much clout as half the people I've been calling."
MoveOn, founded in 1997 to fend off President Clinton's impeachment, raised
$60 million for liberal causes in 2004. The group put its organizing muscle
behind Cindy Sheehan last summer and helped make the "Peace Mom" a symbol of
the anti-war movement.
Political activist Tom Hayden believes that the anti-war movement in the
1960s, which he helped organize, could have gained steam sooner had the
"Movements happen so much faster today," he said. And they come in all
shapes and sizes.
Shannon Sullivan's 9-year-old son wanted to know why Mayor James E. West
used a city computer to solicit gay men over the Internet, and why nobody was
doing anything about it. "He's the mayor," Sullivan replied. "Mom, you better
do something." So she did. A single mother with a high school education and no
political experience, Sullivan launched a recall campaign that used an Internet
site to organize rallies and media events. Turns out there were thousands of
other people in Spokane, Wash., who wondered why nobody was doing anything
about West. "I was mad at people for not doing anything. I was mad at the
system and I was mad at James West," she said after her campaign succeeded in
convincing voters and the mayor was recalled. "I.m not so mad anymore."
Roberta Bailey likes Pugs - the jowly, wrinkly faced breed of dog she keeps
as a pet. She also likes punk rock and people. With the help of the Internet,
the Manhattan photographer found a way to combine her interests: She organized
a group of Pug owners who fought to save a legendary punk venue. "I got off my
butt and did something cool," she said. Using the Meetup.com Web site, Bailey
organized a "Million Pug March" in Washington Square Park to show support for
the venerable club CBGB. It's as close to politics as she has ever come. "Who
knows what me and the Pugs can do to change the world some day," she said,
Howard Dean used Meetup.com in 2003 to organize anti-war activists behind
his Democratic presidential campaign. Though his candidacy petered out, the Web
site continued to grow. Nearly 2 million people log into the site to find
others with similar interests. There are more than 4,000 topics - everything
from witches and pagans to wine enthusiasts, working moms and divorced dads.
"People really get a certain high about connecting with other human beings,"
said Scott Heiferman, the site's co-founder. "Because we live in such an
isolated culture, when people come together with other like-minded people,
there is a sense of, "Let's organize to do something."
Matt Margolis got tired of hearing about the rising influence of liberal
blogs so he scrolled the Internet for advice on how to start an online diary of
his own. He enlisted writers. He got help with designing a home page. He found
somebody who knew how to write computer coding. Blogsforbush.com was born. "It
took a community of people to get me going," said the 25-year-old architecture
student from Boston. By the end of the 2004 election, he had a nearly 1,500
other bloggers posted on his site - an army of Bush backers who donated time
and money to his campaign and wrote letters to the editor on the president's
Dave Renzella is a fitness instructor at Omni gym in Fort Myers, Fla. In
his spare time, he plugs into the MoveOn Web site to get the e-mail addresses
of fellow liberals and tries to organize them."I'm not an activist at heart.
I'm a gym rat," he said, "but the Internet makes it easy to combine an interest
in people with an interest in politics."
Eli Pariser, the 25-year-old executive director of MoveOn Political Action,
said the people-driven trend is a good thing for democracy, a chance to "shift
the balance of power from established interests that can raise of lot of money
and lobby special interests to a bunch of bubble-up, bottom-up citizen
campaigns." These newly empowered constituents are using technology to send a
message to politicians. Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack frequently hears from citizens
via e-mails on his Blackberry. "It's great because it reconnects people to
government. It.s created a sense of community and a sense of belonging," he
said. Politicians who pay little heed could find frustrated voters banding
together and creating a third-party movement. "At some point this has got to
reach critical mass," Kofinis said. "Nobody knows when that will happen or how
that will happen, but it will literally explode into a movement."
SIDEBAR: Taking matters into their own hands
The Internet and other technological advances have enabled people to change
politics in many new ways.
-- Philip Lutz is a divorced father who believes that he and others got "raw
deals" in custody cases. He uses Meetup.com and other e-tools to organize
meetings of divorced men who lost custody of their children.
-- Jeanine Long of Enid, Okla., keeps an e-mail list of more than 1,000 fellow
Republicans that she uses to forward party alerts and stories of interest.
-- Saravanan Manoharan of Bangalore, India, started a Meetup.com group of
fellow technical writers in July 2004.
-- Scott Sala, 36, of New York City, runs a blog about local politics after
shifting focus from a national political online journal.
-- Rita Amunrud, a political newcomer who helped Shannon Sullivan recall
Spokane Mayor James West, is pushing city leaders to include the recall leaders
in conversations about the future.
On the Net:
Blogs on Bush: http://www.blogsforbush.com
This article above is copyrighted material, the use of which may not have
specifically authorized by the copyright owner. The material is made available
in an effort to advance understanding of political, economic, democracy, First
Amendment, technology, journalism, community and justice issues, etc. We
believe this constitutes a 'fair use' as provided by Section 107 of U.S.
Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Chapter 1, Section 107, the
material above is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a
prior interest in receiving the included information for research and
educational purposes. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this blog
for purposes beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright