"There are organizations out there that are really not aware of how powerful the Internet has become as a tool for advocacy," said Pam Fielding of Merrifield, Va.-based e-advocates, an Internet lobby group.
"Anyone who ignores the Internet does so at their own peril," she added, because "this is an arms race." In other words, Fielding explains, if you're trying to win support for an issue using a phone and a fax machine and she's pushing an opposing view using a phone, fax, e-mail and Web site -- "I win."
And that's why Fielding and Daniel Bennett, e-advocates partner, have written "The Net Effect: How Cyber-Advocacy is Changing the Political Landscape" -- a new book that aims to show would-be e-warriors how to turn the Net into the killer app of campaigning tools.
While not the final word on cyber campaigning, "The Net Effect" is a good field manual for beginners. Couched in layman's language, it goes through the ABCs of how some of the pioneers of virtual campaigning did what they did -- offering a series of case studies of such varied campaigns as the "Censure and Move On" e-mail petition and activist John Aravosis' impressive solo campaigns for gay-rights.
It's still early days for the Internet and grassroots campaigns, but the celebrated "Move On" campaign, which inundated Congress with over a million pro-censure e-mails, letters and phonecalls in the lead up to the vote to impeach President Clinton, and has since branched out into other online campaigns, certainly underlines the potential of the new medium -- and is given extensive treatment in "The Net Effect."
The underlying message: One person can make a difference and, as Fielding said, "you don't have to be a Webmaster to be able to use the Internet effectively."
Targeting 'anyone with an issue'
It's obvious from the campaigning-for-dummies tone of the book that Fielding and Bennett aren't taking their audiences' tech savvy for granted. Indeed, Fielding, a lobbyist who has worked on such campaigns as the Save the E-Rate Coalition, and Bennett, a tech policy analyst who has worked with Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., are targeting their tome at "anyone with an issue."
Like most cyber lobbyists and consultants, Fielding and Bennett are evangelists -- promoting the potential of the Internet to democratize the political process through its ability to, with a click of a mouse, network, organize and mobilize support from an army of "five minute activists." The cyber lobbyists contend that the Internet is the ultimate democracizing tool because, with its virtually instant e-mail and treasure trove of searchable information on candidates and issues, it has broken down the barriers that had previously stood between citizens and their elected representatives. "There are things that can't be hidden anymore because of the Internet," Bennett said.
Bennett cites, for example, the fact that constituent correspondence to some congressional offices has doubled and quadrupled in just the last year because people find it easier to send an e-mail than the previous alternatives -- phone, fax or snail mail. Constituents who, previously, may have not found the time to write and post a letter, can, with five spare minutes, send an e-mail -- and become "five minute activists."
"The average citizen can compete in the big leagues of politics in Washington," he said.
The digital divide
Equality of access remains the biggest hurdle standing in the way of the Internet reaching its full, democratic potential.
A 1998 U.S. Department of Commerce study revealed that 58 percent of Americans don't own a computer, and almost 75 percent of American households still don't have access to the Internet. Compared to the saturation coverage of the reigning 800-pound gorilla of political campaigning -- television -- that leaves the Net in the niche-media leagues.
Fielding said the so-called "digital divide" can be overcome by such measures as the E-Rate and ensuring people can get access to the Net through public libraries. "We need to be integrating our technology a lot more" into the broader community, she said. "That's going to go a long way to creating the democracy we want, both online and offline."
Bennett believes that the disparity will also go away because, with PC prices at an all-time low, home computers are becoming that much more affordable for families. "In just a few years we won't be talking about that," he said.
In the meantime, Fielding and Bennett will continue to play up the Net's revolutionary potential. "The average citizen can also take on the lobbyists," Fielding said. "One person. … And, sometimes, the little guy wins."