Electronic activists' other battle: Political respect

Summary:Several groups are making innovative use of the Internet to promote political causes. But where some see a powerful new tool for political activism, others say the online medium is not yet taken seriously in Washington.

Several groups are making innovative use of the Internet to promote political causes. But where some see a powerful new tool for political activism, others say the online medium is not yet taken seriously in Washington.

"The Internet is a modern form of communication," said Christine Haenn, spokeswoman for Amnesty International. "When we have new methods available to communicate, we utilize them to the best advantage of the work."

'If you want an elected official to seriously consider anything electronic, you'd better be able to back it up.'
-- Alex Fowler, EFF

Amnesty's tool of choice is what some would call spam -- unsolicited e-mail. The human rights organization distributed mass quantities of messages asking users to participate in a project supporting the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which celebrates its 50th anniversary on Dec. 10.

"Amnesty has 3 million signatures (real and virtual) world wide, and wants 8 million (which would be 1/1,000 of the world's population)," the organization wrote in the message. "The most simple way to add your name to the pledge is to send an e-mail."



Why isn't electronic political activistism taken more seriously? Add your comments to the bottom of this page.




Electronic responses will be combined with letters and signatures for a total Amnesty hopes will reach 9 million supporters. The petitions will be presented to the U.N. secretary general in a ceremony in Paris.

Electronic censure of Clinton
Censure and Move On, launched Tuesday, is concerned more with domestic politics, raising electronic signatures in support of a censure of President Clinton. The group argues that censure will mean a quicker end to the current political crisis.

"Through this Web page, ordinary citizens are organizing to demand that our Congressional representatives lead us out of this quagmire," the group states on its Web site.

The electronic petition will be transmitted to Congress and the president, according to Censure and Move On.

Not ready for prime time
The Net makes it easy for anyone in the country to find out about issues and voice their opinions -- instantly, no less. But not everyone thinks the Net is ready for the political prime time.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, an online rights advocate, gathers electronic letters of support, but ultimately delivers them to political representatives in fax form, which it says is better respected.

"We have been big users of the Internet to mobilize the grass roots, and to try to educate and empower Internet users ... on policy initiatives," said Alex Fowler, the EFF's director of public affairs. "But if you want an elected official to seriously consider anything electronic, you'd better be able to back it up, and show that you didn't have one person entering in 10 different names of everybody in their family with 10 different ZIP codes.

Credibility problem
"If you do something online, you've got to think ... of how the audience will interpret it," he said. "People could be receiving the information and saying, 'This is meaningless, there's no way to verify this.' It could be a teenager who had two hours to kill, and typed in 100 different names."

He cited a recent study linking Internet use to depression, noting that the study undermined its own credibility by conducting research over the Internet.

Amnesty's response is that the Internet should be just one source of many that an organization uses to reach constituents.

"We wouldn't use it as a full approach," said Haenn. "We still use faxing, mailing, and visits with people, to facilitate the message's delivery. You have to be cognizant of the issues around the Internet and possible exaggerations... but the Internet is still going to help people participate."

Topics: Tech Industry

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