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Pro, Anti-War Groups Use Internet to Organize Supporters - 2003-04-03


The Internet has been hailed as a great tool for democracy and public debate, both from pro-war and anti-war groups. The two sides have found the World Wide Web useful in helping to organize their respective supporters, in the United States and abroad.

The pro-war and anti-war camps in the United States are intensely passionate about their viewpoints. One thing they both agree on, though, is the value of the Internet.

"The Internet has enabled people to express their points of view in much greater numbers, much more quickly and efficiently than has been possible in the past," said Peter Schurman, executive director of an independent political group that opposes the war in Iraq, MoveOn.org. "America is a great democracy and the Internet has been an important tool for facilitating that."

That view is supported by Kristinn Taylor, co-leader of the D.C. chapter of the politcally conservative group Free Republic, which supports the war. "It has been a great tool for democracy and all. And I am very happy that we have it," she said.

Mr. Taylor says Free Republic, started in late 1996, now has members in Asia and Europe. He says the group was one of the pioneers of using the Internet for activism. "Like any technology that people find useful, everyone starts using it," he says.

He noted that the Internet was especially useful recently, when the group hastily organized an e-mail campaign to complain about a television correspondent who criticized U.S. war plans in an interview with Iraqi TV. He says the television network acknowledged receiving hundreds of angry e-mails. Whether or not it was a direct result of the pressure, the reporter was fired.

"What people can do on the Internet, on both sides, is they can provide information like e-mail contacts and phone numbers that average citizens would not have readily available to them," he said. "It makes the communications between average citizens and people of influence more readily available."

On the other side of the debate, MoveOn.org's Peter Schurman says the Internet also provides like-minded people around the world a way to connect with each other. "Our purpose is not to influence people, but to enable people to express points of view that they already have," he said.

Adam Thierer, of the CATO Institute, says the war in Iraq has made its presence felt on the Internet, which he says has become a battleground of public opinion.

"You see a lot of different groups utilizing the Internet to put out their message and try to communicate with others to try to build support for their various positions," he said. "It remains unclear to me, however, if one side or the other is necessarily winning that battle, although there are probably a lot more anti-war sites going up these days than pro-war sites."

Mr. Thierer says this may be due to a generational gap. "There are a lot more younger people out there today who are very Internet-savvy and active online on a regular basis, who can quite easily throw up sites at a moment's notice to say something about the way they feel about the war with Iraq," he said. "Whereas, a lot of the proponents of the war with Iraq may be folks who just are not nearly as tech-savvy, for whatever reason."

Mr. Thierer's assertion is backed-up by the numbers. MoveOn.org claims more than 1.3 million registered members, three-fourths of whom signed up in the past few months to protest the war. In contrast, Free Republic claims more than 100,000 members, but says only about 40,000 are active at any given time.

Todd Gitlin, a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University, says although anti-war groups have the upper hand on the Internet, it is not clear if they will be able to have any effect on public policy.

"Plainly, when the organizers of policy have their mind made up, no sort of manifestation of popular sentiment, whether it's on the streets or via e-mail, is going to have an immediate effect," he said.

Professor Gitlin says the use of the Internet in public discourse is still a relatively new thing. Therefore, he says, the political impact at this point is still largely unknown.

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