There's not much that the political left and right can agree on in the United States. But one thing they can wholeheartedly see eye-to-eye on is that the Internet has revolutionized the way political advocacy groups communicate, raise money and organize people.
In the past year, the Democratic presidential campaign of Howard Dean has perfected the Weblog-as-organizer and boosted the MeetUp phenomenon of bringing supporters together face to face. It's not surprising, then, that the conservative site TownHall.com is now the fastest growing MeetUp group, with 17,000 signing up for a nationwide event tonight. Plus, next-generation technology companies like Convio are offering software and services for nonprofits and politicians to maximize their online presence and outreach to donors.
Ren Bucholz, staff activist at digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation, has seen up close just how powerful the Net has been in saving costs and lighting political fires. "The Internet has made us more nimble and responsive -- two words that were rarely heard alongside 'public interest' before the 1990s," he told me via e-mail.
Bucholz said that when he previously worked at a small nonprofit, communications with supporters were limited to print newsletters. Now, with EFF, its e-mail newsletter can hit 50,000 in-boxes the same day at a tiny cost. "It's cheaper and faster, but it also streamlines the most important part of the activism process -- turning information into citizen action," he said.
EFF recently touted a victory over the U.S. Forest Service, which abandoned a plan to disregard public comments made through online action centers -- where people can send a form e-mail with the push of a button. The action center concept is something used by political groups online of every persuasion, so groups on the left and right hailed the decision of the Forest Service. The San Jose Mercury News' Paul Rogers wrote that this decision means that other government agencies will be less likely to try a similar tactic of limiting public input.
"The government is still figuring out how to deal with the enormous upswing in citizen participation," Bucholz said. "Most congressmen now use Web forms instead of e-mail addresses in order to manage constituent mail. But action center vendors spider the forms and fill them out anyway. In other words, the government is coming to the realization that policy or technical 'fixes' to public participation will not work."
Flash campaigns a flash in the pan?
In the area of online political action, the folks at MoveOn.org are pioneers, starting a tiny site and gaining traction during the Clinton impeachment in 1998. The site has raised millions of dollars for candidates on the left, and sends out action e-mails, a.k.a. "flash campaigns," seemingly every week. MoveOn's success has brought attacks, as well as plaudits and that sincerest form of flattery -- copying -- from groups on the right.
"Without the Net, you wouldn't see a group like MoveOn.org do exactly what they're doing," said Jonathan Garthwaite, director and editor of TownHall.com. "It would take a heck of a lot more money to mobilize those kinds of folks. The whole MeetUp.com phenomenon is something where campaigns don't have to spend a lot of money to have tens of thousands of people participating."
The successful element of flash campaigns -- the threat of immediate danger -- could also prove their undoing, as people tire of getting so many alerts about so many pieces of legislation. Brendan Nyhan, co-editor of the nonpartisan Spinsanity Web site, says that Net alerts only work by creating fervor. "The only way to have an impact is to punch through and really grab people by the lapels and say, 'You've got to do something about this outrage right now!' " he told me. "People get outrage fatigue, and there's only so long you can sustain it. You become the interest group that cried wolf."
But many of these campaigns work, getting the interest of politicians, policy-makers and journalists. While the lower bar to entry has allowed a thousand viewpoints to bloom online, not every idea under the sun will get attention just because it has an online action center. "Internet users are getting savvier and so will not join a list for a bunch of groups with which they are unfamiliar," said Lyndsey Farrington, spokeswoman for the League of Women Voters. "Viral marketing is an important component of successful list growing because Web users will respond more often to a request from a peer to join an e-mail list."
One expert on the use of viral marketing at nonprofits and advocacy groups is Vinay Bhagat, who founded Convio, a high-tech company that has helped the Howard Dean campaign, Mothers Against Drunk Driving and many others. For many action alerts, Bhagat said, 40 percent of the people taking action didn't even receive the initial message -- it was passed on by a friend. Bhagat said he doesn't believe we've reached saturation on consumers getting alerts, though Congress and the White House have started to require Web forms for submitting communications.
Congress "is making it difficult for people to blast them with messages," Bhagat said. "Many of the senatorial Web sites require people to actually complete a Web form rather than send an e-mail.[That's] created an industry for companies like ourselves to build software that enables that process effectively, and takes the advocacy message from a constituent and automatically completes the Web form."
The changing landscape
While many old-line advocacy groups like The Heritage Foundation -- which sponsors TownHall.com -- and the League of Women Voters have shown their cyber-savvy, the Net has paved the way for many new groups and people to be heard in the often-raucous political discourse. Spinsanity's Nyhan said that the Net has spawned a new generation of advocacy groups that operate in more decentralized ways.
"You're seeing new advocacy groups like the Center for American Progress that are Internet-centric," Nyhan said. "A very new group is Centrists.org. People will go around the traditional advocacy groups because it's hard to change the way an organization does business, and certainly will push control out to the edges."
TownHall.com's Garthwaite doesn't believe that the new breed will push out the old, but that the Net can help broaden the base for many groups. "The Net hasn't gotten to the point where you're going to reach every citizen, every 18 year old and every 80 year old," he said. "But [it's great] for folks who are predisposed to getting involved in some way or another, and want an opportunity to get involved. It's not just to energize your base, but actually enlarges your base."
Garthwaite also sees Weblogs as playing an important role in broadening the voices of punditry. And he notes that blogs do help people advocate in an interesting way by giving a filter to political news. EFF's Bucholz said that the Net has broadened the media landscape for political thinkers and younger voters.
"We are coming up on the first generation of voters that regularly use action centers, read candidate blogs and have access to a much broader range of information than they might find on cable," said Bucholz. "My sense is that, right or wrong, they feel that they have more power in the political process. This belief that the government is accountable will, I think, generate some of that accountability."