Political activists in the United States are spending more time on the Internet than rallying in the streets. Online activists say they can reach more people on the Web, but critics say Internet protests do not have the impact of mass demonstrations or traditional lobbying. VOA's Kate Woodsome examines the evolution of political activism in the United States.
Bloggers try to Reach Wide Audience
Sarah Burris never thought she would get involved in politics.
The 27-year-old studied English at a university in Kansas, a rural U.S. state far from the partisan wrangling in Washington.
But after the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, her interest turned from prose to politics.
"When that started, I was actually in New Orleans at a restaurant and there was this incredible mass of people carrying candles that just started walking down the street," said Sarah Burris. "And I remember thinking that, you know, I could not believe I was sitting in this restaurant and not marching with them."
Instead of marching, she began typing.
Burris is a blogger - an Internet savvy social activist who uses Web logs, or "blogs," to generate debate.
She works from home, with her cat and several laptop computers scattered across the apartment. Like a reporter, Burris gathers information from television and the Internet on issues such as next month's presidential election. And she conducts telephone interviews.
"Hi, this is Sarah Burris with 'Rock the Vote' and I just wanted to talk to Steven Fenberg if he had a minute. Hey, Steve, how are you? I am good. I just wanted to ask you a couple questions about what you guys are working on for the election, and if you could tell me a little bit more about how you're reaching out to young voters, that would be great."
Burris then posts her research and opinions on youth-oriented blogs like "Rock the Vote" and "Future Majority". But unlike with newspapers, her articles constantly evolve, as readers add their opinions to the blog 24 hours a day.
"Blogging - you are really communicating with other people," she said. "You know, you are having a discussion. And it is a lot like having an online town hall."
And as more people join those virtual town halls, they are having an impact on the real world.
Bloggers were credited with helping to force Republican Trent Lott to resign from his leadership position in the U.S. Senate in 2002, by exposing his controversial comments about race relations in America.
In that case, bloggers assumed the role historically played by union leaders, politicians or community organizers.
Political and social activists are part of the fabric of American society. They helped win women the right to vote in 1920. Decades later, activists pushed for an end to racial segregation. In the 1960s and '70s, waves of people poured into the streets to protest the Vietnam War.
The peace movement was instrumental in questioning U.S. policies in Vietnam and pressured the government to end the war.
More than three decades later, Americans are faced with another unpopular war, and an unpopular president - Republican George W. Bush. Yet protests against the Iraq War and the Bush administration have not gained the momentum of past generations.
But experts say that Americans are no less politically active.
Internet Becomes an Important Political Tool
Harvard University political scientist Pippa Norris says the Internet has made it easier for Americans to get involved in the political process.
"What has happened with electronic communication is that this has speeded up the process," said Pippa Norris. "It has allowed many more opportunities for people to connect fast."
The Democratic Party's presidential candidate, Barack Obama, has taken online networking to a new level. His campaign has broken fundraising records by appealing to large numbers of voters to make small donations over the Internet.
Obama's campaign followed the lead of MoveOn.org, a liberal advocacy group that has mobilized millions of Americans with e-mail fundraising campaigns and online petitions for progressive issues and candidates. The group has been successful because it enables regular citizens to support a cause without leaving home.
MoveOn.org's vast network was credited with helping the Democratic Party sweep the 2006 Congressional elections. And last year, it led a successful campaign to stop the online networking site Facebook from publicly announcing its users' purchases.
There is no Web-based conservative group that rivals MoveOn.org, but Republican bloggers still are busy on the Internet.
William Beutler here in Washington is one of them. He says liberal activists have gained more momentum on the Internet than conservatives because the Democratic Party does not hold the presidency, so they have a greater incentive to rally support for their cause.
"It is more difficult to create a movement when your party is already in power and you don't like what your party is doing," said William Beutler. "In a way, the best thing for online conservative activists might be Barack Obama as president."
No matter what political party you support, the Washington-based non-profit group the Congressional Management Foundation, which promotes efficiency in government, says pushing buttons on a computer is not the most effective way to get the attention of lawmakers.
Tim Hysom, the Foundation's Director of Communications and Technology Services, says many congressional staffers doubt whether some mass e-mails and petitions are from real constituents.
"So the most effective advocacy campaigns are those that show that there really is sort of a groundswell of grassroots support in the member's district," said Tim Hysom. "So volume is important, but also encouraging individual constituents to share their personal stories."
Many Swear by Old and Proven Methods
That is why some activists, like Liz Hourican, are sticking with old-fashioned demonstrations.
Hourican moved to Washington, D.C. last year to join the anti-Iraq War group, CODEPINK.
"Well, we feel dissent is the highest form of patriotism," said Liz Hourican. "And so, we have to set an example to be active, to speak up and be on the street. I mean, direct action for peace and justice has never been more important than right now."
Most of CODEPINK's members are women. They dress in flashy pink clothes - big hats, feather boas and even lingerie - making it hard to ignore their campaign for peace.
They roam the halls of Congress, wave anti-war posters at congressional hearings and chain themselves outside Army recruiting offices.
Hourican says the protests are crucial. She says democracy is like a muscle - it weakens without exercise.