Internet activism attracts politically indifferent Americans

Megan Angelo

About half of all Americans vote, while the other half make our voting rights unfortunately laughable. But despite Americans’ unwavering indifference, there are plenty of people in the United States who are passionate about politics. Some are families with strong ties to political candidates, and others are corporate executives who depend on allies in the government to keep their businesses running smoothly. Many, however, are regular people who actually value their opportunity to take an active role in the system.

The efforts of these people have inspired the term “grassroots” – a word that sums up the humble, earnest campaigns of people who refuse to allow their lack of impressive funding and influential friends to dampen their ambitions. The opportunity for change presented by election season has always intensified the efforts of grassroots campaigns. But between the media’s obsession with the actions of the candidates and the candidates’ obsession with the actions of the media, grassroots endeavors often fail to capture the public eye. Bumper stickers, angry flyers and small demonstrations are only news on the slowest of days. Because of their traditional lack of visibility, grassroots campaigns are often pushed aside.

However, 2004 may be the year for a turnaround. For the first time, grassroot groups have gained control of a significant social force: the Internet., a web site-based Democratic organization, is perhaps the biggest success story of the new grassroots era. Created in Silicon Valley in 1998, has attracted over 2 million online subscribers. Frequent e-mails alert their readership to the missteps of the Bush administration and encourage subscribers to speak up.

Throughout the past few years, and web sites like it have raised more red flags on the Bush administration than all of the Democrats in Congress combined. But its greatest accomplishment has been the perfection of the type of grassroots involvement that could bring America back to politics.

Most promising for and its online peers is their accessibility. The Internet is a godsend for every activist who has been frustrated by the futility of a handwritten letter in the face of untouchable Washington hot shots. With live chats, message boards and mass emails at their disposal, activists are guaranteed universal publication of their platforms. They can also be assured that the readers of their statements share their interests; web users naturally navigate toward sites that address things they like and want to learn more about.

Secondly, activist sites cater to the forward-thinking and the fast-moving by providing instant participation, the counterpart to instant knowledge. Very few Americans can get through their day without absorbing some sort of news, whether it be from the headlines of the local paper at the general store or from the giant television screens that keep watch over Times Square. We can get our news while we buy our coffee or drive our cars, but voting and other political actions are usually not as multitask-friendly. has solved that with online petitions that take just seconds to sign, letting subscribers endorse protests while they check their e-mail.

Besides being easy to use, has eliminated the need for a physical gathering without losing the group dynamic. Most subscribers to will never have to leave their desks to be a part of something powerful, and the leaders of the site are free from the restrictions of having to reach one geographical location at a time. Critics of the information age have called the Internet impersonal, but’s correspondences are never cold or pretentious. The signatures of the e-mails sum up the casualness of the whole endeavor – they lack both lofty titles and last names.

Despite its laid-back nature, has been causing serious blips on the radars of political heavyweights. The web site recently sponsored a contest called “Bush in 30 Seconds,” which challenged Bush opponents to create a 30-second television spot expressing their grievances about the current administration. After a screening process and Internet voting, 15 finalists were selected, but it was two non-finalist ads that landed on Fox News Sunday a few weeks ago. Republican National Chairman Ed Gillespie condemned two ads that likened Bush to Hitler as “the worst and most vile form of hate speech.” Gillespie also asked the nine Democratic presidential candidates to renounce the ads, which he claimed were sponsored by

The team, who will pay $7 million to air the winning ad on television in the coming months, responded that the offending ads had not been chosen as finalists and called Gillespie’s “maliciously and deliberately misleading.” The group agreed that the Hitler ads should have been screened out. But they also reminded their critics of a concept that has been all but outlawed by post-Sept. 11 legislature: free speech.

The televised attack may have introduced the web site to amore vicious type of politics, but the simple fact that Gillespie mentioned the contest was advancement in itself. As activists all over the country band together through their Internet connections, Washington bigwigs are finding it increasingly difficult to ignore the new wave of grassroots campaigns.

Undoubtedly, the days of activists clutching signs on windy days outside the Capitol are numbered. With the Internet on their side, regular Americans are breaking into the offices and the too-comfortable mindsets of elite politicians. Civil liberties may be waning, but means of communication are multiplying, and American activists are proceeding undaunted toward finally doing justice to the gift of democracy.