Online activism _ a lot more than just petitions
By MICHAEL P. REGAN
Sara Iglesias had never attended a peace rally. But the nonstop talk of war against Iraq sparked something inside the 29-year-old ``hippie child'' from Miami Beach. So she went online looking for kindred spirits and a way to make her voice heard.
Iglesias visited filmmaker Michael Moore's Web site. A couple of links later she was on a site for International Act Now to Stop War and End Racism, an anti-war coalition also known as ANSWER.
Soon her name and e-mail address were offered on this site as a contact for people in Florida who wanted to travel to Washington, D.C., for a protest.
Three weeks into her career as an activist, Iglesias was now the leader of a group large enough to fill a chartered bus that made the long trek to the nation's capital in October.
Similar stories have played out around the country as an anti-war movement - which once used bullhorns and underground newsletters to communicate employs a network of e-mail lists, Web sites and wireless text messages to rally followers.
``There may be a situation where the U.S. government begins bombing a country, and we're able to organize significant-sized protests in just a matter of hours,'' said Sarah Sloan, an organizer for ANSWER.
Such sites are credited by organizers in rallying tens of thousands to the Oct. 26 protest and others around the world.
Bill Patterson, who signed up for Iglesias' bus trip, is in awe of how fast activists now organize, as he recalls the slow pace with which Vietnam protests gained momentum.
``I remember sitting with my family at dinner and listening to the body counts on television,'' he said. ``It was pretty slow. It took years.''
But many peaceniks fear the Internet is too easy and potentially useless as a way to cleanse one's conscience.
Consider the electronic version of the oldest tool in the protester's bag of tricks the petition.
``I think e-mail petitions are an illusion,'' said Howard Rheingold, cybersavvy author of ``Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution.'' ``It gives people the illusion that they're participating in some meaningful political action.''
Rheingold recommends that people instead call, write or e-mail political leaders directly.
One e-mail petition that landed in thousands of inboxes in recent weeks proclaimed that the United Nations was collecting signatures to stop a ``Third World War.''
It turned out to be just another e-mail hoax; the United Nations didn't start the petition and doesn't know who did. So thousands of electronic signatures it received are doomed to a cyber dustbin.
Some sites like e.thePeople, ThePetitionSite, and PetitionOnline offer petitions that have a much better chance of landing in the laps of decision-makers.
But there are hundreds, maybe thousands, of versions floating around, so many that the message is diluted and hard to quantify.
A ``No War'' petition started by fans of the band Green Day is currently listed as the most active petition on PetitionOnline. However, in October, the site's most popular peace petition was listed below a plea for ``Deregulation of Ontario Hydro'' and above an attempt to ``Save the 'Dude You're Getting a Dell' Guy.''
Online petitions also have the inherent difficulty of verifying the existence of signers.
``There isn't any surefire way to guarantee that signatures are all unique or that they are exactly who they say they are,'' said Randy Paynter, chief executive of Care2.com, which runs ThePetitionSite.
``We basically make it difficult enough by requiring a full mailing address, so that most people aren't going to spend the time and effort to try to fake it.''
Still, online petitions for various issues have been promoted by high-profile activists like Moore and hoisted by politicians.
And Paynter says environmentalists credited them with helping prevent oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Michael Cornfield, of George Washington University's Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet, doubts the effectiveness of electronic petitions, unless ``signing a petition is a prologue to giving money.''
Cornfield points to the impact the online political action committee MoveOn.org is having. That site collected $2.4 million from politically active Web surfers who gave an average $60 each in 2000.
This year, the site doled out money to candidates who opposed the war rhetoric and other Bush policies.
Though the author Rheingold pans electronic petitions, his book examines how wireless text-messaging, cell phones and the Internet have sometimes on the fly coordinated massive, highly effective protests from the Philippines to the streets of Seattle.
Kentucky activist Pat Geier says that at one protest, her friend even called 911 on her cell phone after being caught in a police sweep.
``She had 911 record what happened in the event that testimony was needed
later in a lawsuit against the police,'' Geier said.
|Title:||Online activism _ a lot more than just petitions|
|Date:||November 28, 2002, Thursday|
|Byline:||By MICHAEL P. REGAN|
|Article Length:||821 words|