Twenty years ago, when Alexandra Samuel was 14, nuclear bombs were her biggest concern and she wanted to speak out on the issue. She was lucky enough to get an article published in the Globe and Mail. Today’s teenagers, however, have a much easier time being heard, says Samuel, a Vancouver-based consultant, researcher and writer specializing in online dialogue and electronic democracy. “Now any teenager that has an issue can publish a blog, and they don’t have to hope that the Globe and Mail will publish their article.”
Julian Wolfson, a project manager for civiblog, a University of Toronto-based organization that helps promote political discourse through free blogs, agrees. There is no antecedent to the Internet, he says. “There hasn’t been an avenue for me to express myself.”
IT is changing the political landscape — from e-government initiatives to electronic voting machines to online activism. During the Vietnam war, TV cameras and photojournalists changed the way the U.S. felt about the war. And the country learned a powerful lesson. Now journalists are embedded with troops, and the flow of information about the war in Iraq is tightly controlled. But photos taken by camera cellphones alerted the world to the torture of prisoners in Abu Ghraib, prompting U.S. defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld to ban soldiers from carrying camera phones.
In the last U.S. election, MoveOn.org was able to catalyze Democrats. It had the support of Hollywood stars, but more importantly, it attracted a grassroots movement that was able to raise millions of dollars, encourage its members to submit ads, organize demonstrations and raise the ire of Republicans.
When the Bush campaign released its first ad attacking Democrats for their lack of support of the Iraq war and confusing the war on terrorism with the war on Iraq, MoveOn appealed to its members through an e-mail. Within five hours, they raised US$500,000. And it was through online activism that critics were able to defeat the Multilateral Agreement on Investment, Samuel says. Such movements are relatively cheap to mobilize. As a result, however, their impact dissipates and it takes more and more participation for movements to have an impact.
“People have gotten smart about thinking more about the relationship between online and offline activism.”
In the Philippines, the opening sentence of an alleged recording between president Gloria Arroyo and electoral commissioner Virgilio Garcillano in which they discuss rigging the elections quickly became a popular cellphone ring tone and was even turned into a car horn.
The sounds of “Hello! Hello! Graci” were heard throughout Manila, reminding people of the scandal.
This campaign demonstrated a sense of humour, Samuel says, and this is important. The startup costs for such movements are next to nothing and a Web site can be up and running in a matter of minutes, she says.
“Politics and government, which are related but distinct entities, have always operated on hierarchical models — top dogs, middle managers, people marching on the street. Now we have radical decentralization,” Samuel says.
People now have the potential to speak and participate in a very direct way, she says.