There’s a revolution afoot this election season. Not in the Bush or Gore camps – it’s an information revolution in cyberspace.
At Cyberpolitics 2000: The Internet and American Democracy, Tuesday evening at the City Club, a panel addressed the question of political participation online. Can average voters and the public-at-large benefit from it?
Panelist Tracy Westen, chairman of Grassroots.com said all social movements throughout history are a result of a “swelling of mass support.” To help the swell, he founded Grassroots.com in 1999. His goal was to foster political change through the free flow of communication between voters and politicians.
The Web site’s action center, for example, can inform users on hotly debated issues such as who is condemned to die: “According to the American Civil Liberties Union, more than 3,500 inmates sit on death row in America. Most are poor, and a disproportionate number are people of color…Is it time to for a moratorium?” a Web site post asks.
By encouraging discussion, offering expert reports, and suggesting various causes deserving of public support, the site is a space that welcomes the political opinions of the average individual.
There is no shortage of sites that share Grassroots.com’s philosophy on the web. MoveOn.org, which was founded in 1998 by Silicon Valley entrepreneurs Wes Boyd and Joan Blades, emerged first as a petition to Congress for quick and fair action during the Clinton impeachment process.
“We began by sending e-mails to a few dozen relatives and friends,” Boyd said, acknowledging his lack of political experience at the beginning of the online campaign. His inexperience proved to be no obstacle, however. The campaign managed to mobilize 8,000 volunteers and get a petition that was delivered to the House of Representatives signed by half a million people .
Following a similar model of grassroots activity, the California Voter Foundation at Calvoter.org, focuses on voter education and working with the media to improve political coverage.
It was founded in 1994 by Kim Alexander as a way out of her own frustration in trying to access important candidate information.
“What are the chances that everybody knows the issues before they get to vote?” Alexander asked the audience.
Confident that most people seek information on the Internet prior to voting – regardless of their socioeconomic background and their education – she assured the audience that Calvoter.org can provide a context to understand it all.
Finally, and to make yet further sense out of what was discussed in the room, Paul Grabowicz, director of the New Media Program at UC Berkeley’s School of Journalism, talked about the question of ethics revolving around politics and the web.
He said it is true the Internet can help with “reconnecting the dots between people and politics.”
Nonprofit, government and media sites can enrich a person’s knowledge on issues ranging from childcare and campaign finance to the environment. But he said he is also aware of its unintended consequences: the Internet breeds rumors and reinforces the “digital divide,” the gap between rich and poor, and people of color and whites.
Grabowicz said he has faith in the future of cyberpolitics. For example, the Internet will spread universally despite the divide and “cut all distribution costs virtually to zero,” he said.