NetSquared: Online tools changing offline politics

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There's a panel on right now with three fascinating thinkers and doers in online political activism: Joan Blades, Amy Goodman and – facilitating – Micah Sifry. Here are my very rough notes.


Micah Sifry says we're all newbies; these are early days and new tools, and we're all still learning what they can do

Joan Blades gives a quick history of MoveOn.org. In 1998, they created the site as an online petition to have Congress censure the president and get on with more pressing issues. They sent the link to 100 friends, and soon found themselves with half a million responses.

Listening is a big part of what they do – user comments, surveys – but they don't want to overwhelm. Last week they did house parties to have people identify the three big ideas we should focus on (we already know what we're against); they asked people afterward how they went. People get together at those parties and, although they focus on federal issues, start working on local issues as well.

Her new favourite project is MomsRising. While MoveOn is about what's on the top of the news, MomsRising deals with issues that may not have surfaced but that affect people profoundly.

Micah asks to what degree this is an attempt to influence media agendas and consciousness, and to what degree they're actually trying to affect electoral outcomes. Joan responds that MoveOn has always been political, and cites their fundraising effort to run an ad before the Iraq War to call for time to let the weapons inspectors do their work. Media and public opinion are part of the political work.

Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! begins by saying the media are the most powerful institutions on earth, and that it's very dangerous that most are mediated by corporations. "They've been deployed by the Pentagon, and we have to take it back." Democracy Now! emerged from Pacifica Radio in 1996.

She points out that outcomes in the U.S. deeply affect the rest of the world, and calls the grassroots in the U.S. a "pro-democracy movement" – the same term we use for similar movements around the world. The Seattle protests were a turning point for grassroots media, and their ability to tell stories the mainstream media were missing (or actually misreporting).

Around the time of 9/11, a community TV station began to carry Democracy Now, and it took off. They broadcast as well as video streaming at MNN.org, then got requests from lots of other stations. Soon they had to use satellite hookups.

One or two final observations: You know the issues in your communities; they have global effect. The exposure of the WMD lie also exposed the complicity of the media in acting as an uncritical conduit for the Bush administration. They hope they're providing a conduit to the Internet for those who aren't wired yet. Open-source has been critical for their growth.

Joan talks about the importance of the network neutrality debate. Micah suggests switching your investments to punish the companies pushing to end net neutrality. Amy takes a swipe at Mike McCurry, the former Clinton staffer now working for the telecos against net neutrality.

Amy: East Timor independence in 2002 - they had the equivalent of one T1 line for the entire country. So Democracy Now! pieced their video together on CDs, handed them to strangers at the airport, and asked them to leave them at the desk in Australia. They found a net cafe owner who would drive to the airport, pick up the CDs and send the data on to be reassembled and aired, broadcast quality.

They podcast and video podcast. On top of that, and TV and radio, they put out transcripts within a few hours. How? They take the MP3, and the closed captioners (required by law) would send back their rough transcript. They then send the MP3 broken into segments, with the closed captioning transcript, to volunteers who edit the transcripts and send them back clean. The transcript has been absolutely key; they got an irate call a little while ago from the Newshour with Jim Lehrer saying they'd just booked DN's two guests, and they usually give the host the DN transcript. She calls this "trickle-up journalism."

Micah pushes back a little, and says Democracy Now! doesn't seem to be involving its audience in gathering news. He contrasts them with OhMyNews, which has a network that will soon rival AP.

Amy replies that views and listeners provide many stories, but Micah says that process is visible only to Amy's group. When will we move from many-to-one or one-to-many to a many-to-many process that still filters up the best material? Amy says they're launching a new Ruby-on-Rails-based site in a few months. But she says she can't stress enough how central listeners and viewers are.

Micah turns to Joan, and asks whether there was a conscious decision not to have a MoveOn blog, while MomsRising has one.

Joan says the lack of a MoveOn blog reflects a sheer limit on capacity. There are lots of great things to do, and they can only act on a few. There are about 20 core team members, with a rotating group signing emails. They have to choose between a mailing, house parties and a blog. Email is the only way to contact MoveOn, because there are three million people involved.

Micah points out that once the Dean campaign reached 600,000 members, whenever they sent out an email and only 10 per cent of the recipients responded, they had 60,000 replies, far more than they could cope with – so they had to hide their email address. Joan says they're learning about how to involve volunteers, and it's an ongoing process of having MoveOn members help MoveOn members.

They emailed their membership to tell them about MomsRising, but they're trying to build an even bigger base. There are a lot of women who aren't participating and who are put off by the way politics is done. We think we're so pro-mother, she says, yet the number one cause of poverty is having a child. The U.S. is one of only four countries without paid maternity leave. There's a reason we're number 38 or so in child mortality, even though we pay more than any other nation per capita for health care.

Micah asks about the phenomenon of mommy bloggers, and about BlogHer. Is that an organizing opportunity? Joan says their aligned organizations are broad and deep. When vast numbers of Americans are having the same problems – she hasn't even gone off on child care yet – how can you use the Internet to bring these issues to the fore? It's no small thing – this is a huge challenge. That's why the book, the t-shirt, the song, the documentary coming out, the blogging.


We're getting into audience discussion, and I'd like to take part, so I'll post these notes now.

 

 

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