Grassroots, Netroots and Social Change

Planned Parenthood Workshop: Grassroots, Netroots


It is always tempting to assert that we live in times that are radically unlike past eras—that somehow, the challenges we face are not only fundamentally different than the problems that confronted our forebears, but worse; to worry that children growing up today are subject to more pernicious influences than children of prior generations. (In Stephanie Coontz’ felicitous phrase, there is a great deal of nostalgia for “the way we never were.”)


I grew up in the 1950s, and can personally attest to the fact that all of our contemporary, misty-eyed evocations of that time are revisionist nonsense. The widespread belief that 50s-era Americans all lived like the characters who populated television shows like “Father Knows Best” or “Leave it to Beaver” is highly inaccurate, to put it mildly. (Ask the African-Americans who were still relegated to separate restrooms and drinking fountains in much of the American south, or the women who couldn’t get equal pay for equal work or a credit rating separate from their husbands.)


Nevertheless—even conceding our human tendency to overstate the effects of social change for good or ill—it is impossible to understand any of the issues with which Americans are concerned today without recognizing the profound social changes that have been wrought by communication technologies, most prominently, albeit certainly not exclusively, the internet.


We live today in an incessant babble of information. Some of that information is transmitted through hundreds of cable and broadcast television stations, increasing numbers of which are devoted to news and commentary twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.   In our cars, we tune in to news and commentary on AM or FM stations, or more recently to satellite broadcasts that have extended the reach of that broadcast medium. But it is the World Wide Web that has had the greatest impact on the way Americans live our daily lives. We read news and commentary from all over the world on line, we shop for goods and services, we communicate with our friends and families, and we consult web-based sources for everything from medical advice to housekeeping hints to comedy routines. When we don’t know something, we Google it. 


The web is rapidly becoming a repository of all human knowledge—not to mention human rumors, hatreds, gossip, trivia and paranoid fantasies. Picking our way through this landscape requires new skills, new ways of accessing, sorting and evaluating the credibility and value of what we see and hear. It is not an exaggeration to say that the enhanced communications environment has changed the way we process information and our very perceptions of reality.


A very minor example may illustrate the point. Toward the end of her life, my mother was in a nursing home. Given the limited mobility of most of the residents, the television was a central focus of their day, and it was on continually. Although she had never been a particularly fearful person, nor one who focused on crime, my mother became convinced that crime rates were soaring. They weren’t. In fact, data confirmed that there had been a substantial decline in the incidence and severity of criminal activity in the U.S. over the preceding few years. But when mother was growing up, with the exception of particularly heinous incidents from around the country, or crimes involving celebrities or other public figures, the media to which she had access reported only on local criminal behavior. Seventy years later, the television at the nursing home relayed daily reports of subway murders in London, train bombings in Spain, and assorted misbehaviors of people from all over the globe. To my mother and her elderly peers, it seemed that predators were suddenly everywhere. When people talk about the world growing smaller, that phenomenon is a big part of what they mean.


I would argue that the internet has had an infinitely greater impact than television. Television was merely another way to passively receive information; internet technologies are both interactive and geared to my particular needs at any given moment. When I am driving to a location I’ve not previously visited, I get directions via the web (assuming I don’t have a GPS in my car or—more recently—in my cell phone). I can “chat” via Instant Messaging with my granddaughter in Wales, or talk to her on Skype for free—no long distance telephone charges incurred. I’m kept up-to-date on what my friends and family members are doing via Facebook. Increasingly, I shop on line for books, office supplies, even clothing and home furnishings. We no longer visit the license branch and wait in line to renew our license plates; we go online and save the time and trouble. My husband spends hours on Google Earth, marveling at development patterns in Beijing or Dubai. If we want to know how a particular congressman or council-member voted on a bill, the information is at our fingertips. In short, the internet has not only made the world a smaller place, it has forever altered the rhythm of Americans’ daily lives.


The ubiquity of information available to us is only a small part of the transformation we are experiencing. Another huge difference is that we are no longer passive consumers of information; the interactive nature of the web allows us to talk back, to post our opinions, to offer rebuttals. It brings us into contact with people of different countries, religions, cultures and backgrounds. (The very name “World-Wide-Web” is evocative of both its range and connective nature.) The internet also allows each of us, if we are so inclined, to become a publisher of our own work or that of others. When I was young, the costs of establishing a new media outlet were astronomical; if you wanted to publish a newspaper, the costs of the printing press and distribution system were prohibitive, and most broadcast radio and television stations were owned by the wealthy. Only elites could afford to participate in the business of information. Today, anyone with access to the internet can hire a few reporters or “content providers” and create her own media outlet. One result is that the previously hierarchical nature of public knowledge is rapidly diminishing. The time-honored “gatekeeper” function of the press—when journalists decided what constituted news and what was thus worthy of reporting—will soon be a thing of the past, if it isn’t already.


This communication revolution is not limited to the delivery of news or the provision of other information. Chat rooms, and more recently social networking sites, have allowed like-minded people to connect with each other and form communities that span traditional geographical and political boundaries. (The growing global hegemony of the English language has further enabled cross-national communications.) As a result, it has become much harder to define just what a “community” is—but much simpler to organize one. 


It is this participatory nature of the internet that has encouraged—and enabled—a wide array of political and civic activism. Early in the development of the web, naysayers worried that the internet was encouraging people to become more solitary. They warned that people were being seduced by this new medium to withdraw from human and social interaction. In some cases, that was undoubtedly true. (Of course, books have seduced people ever since Gutenberg invented the printing press, allowing the distribution of serious literature and obscenity; it’s well to remember that printed porn preceded online porn by centuries.) For many people, the internet has not prompted a retreat from human community. It has instead been an “enabler” of community-building, facilitating a great wave of political and community organizing. It has become a mechanism for finding like-minded people we didn’t previously know, even though they might have been living just down the street.  “Meetings” on line have led to internet-facilitated “Meet Ups” and other face-to-face interactions in service of particular social and political goals.


In the political realm, especially, the transformation has been dramatic. As the Pew Project on the Internet and American Life has documented, in 2008 a record-breaking 46% of Americans have used the internet, email or cell phone text messaging to get news about political campaigns, to share their views, and to mobilize others. Pew researchers found that 35% of Americans had watched online political videos (triple the number who had done so in 2004). Eleven percent had forwarded or posted someone else’s commentary on the Presidential race. The impact of You-Tube and other video sharing sites has been particularly consequential.


A telling example of the change You Tube has wrought in the political landscape was the widely reported “macaca” moment of Senator George Allen during the 2006 campaign season. Allen, who was running for re-election to the Senate from Virginia, was considered a shoo-in for re-election, and a strong contender for the 2008 Republican Presidential nomination. While delivering a speech to a small gathering in rural Virginia, he pointed out a volunteer from his opponent’s campaign, who was videotaping his talk. Here’s a news story about the encounter:

"This fellow here, over here with the yellow shirt, macaca, or whatever his name is. He’s with my opponent. He’s following us around everywhere. And it’s just great," Allen said, as his supporters began to laugh. After saying that Webb was raising money in California with a "bunch of Hollywood movie moguls," Allen said, "Let’s give a welcome to macaca, here. Welcome to America and the real world of Virginia."[i] 


Depending on how it is spelled, the word macaca can mean either a monkey that inhabits the Eastern Hemisphere or a town in South Africa. In some European cultures, macaca is also considered a racial slur against African immigrants. The Webb volunteer (an American whose parents had emigrated from India) promptly uploaded the videotape of Allen’s remarks to You Tube; a mere three days later, it had been downloaded and viewed 334,254 times. It was picked up and endlessly replayed on the evening news. Print media across the country reported on the controversy, and radio talk show hosts argued about the meaning of the word macaca, and whether Allen had intended a slur. (Allen’s own clumsy attempts to “explain away” the reference didn’t help.) Investigative reporters whose curiosity had been piqued by the controversy dug up evidence of prior racially charged incidents involving Allen—incidents that they would not have looked for in the absence of the controversy.


By November, James Webb—initially dismissed as a long-shot candidate with little chance of defeating a popular sitting Senator—was the new Senator from Virginia, and “macaca moment” had entered the political lexicon as shorthand for a gaffe captured on video. 



In the 2008 Presidential campaign, “viral videos” were front and center. Singer-songwriter of the group Black-Eyed Peas created a music video, “Yes We Can,” based upon a phrase from Barack Obama’s speeches. For a time, it was everywhere—forwarded and re-forwarded until literally millions of Americans had seen it. Humorous and not-so-humorous videos promoting and panning the candidates were ubiquitous. Campaign rumors (and worse) were endlessly forwarded, circulated and recirculated. John McCain, who admitted never using a computer, and who displayed some discomfort with the new media environment, was on several occasions caught off-guard by an internet campaign documenting “flip-flops” in his positions with videos showing him delivering inconsistent statements.


I will admit I found it very troubling to think that a person who was admittedly unfamiliar with the single most consequential innovation of our time might have been elected to lead this country; I would argue that failure to understand the impact of the internet is failure to understand the world we live in. This was undoubtedly the point of a pro-Obama blogger’s characterization of  McCain as “an analog candidate for a digital age.” All of the political candidates made extensive use of email to raise funds, organize volunteers, counter charges, announce endorsements and rally their respective bases, at a tiny fraction of the cost of direct mail. (Reference’s “customized” GOTV ad.)


The impact of all this would be difficult to exaggerate, and those of us who want to use these new technologies to advance our policy preferences are still struggling to understand and make the most effective use of them.    


To give you a sense of how quickly the technology has changed the political environment, let me just relate one story.


In 2004, a post on Politico, a popular political weblog, read as follows:

“Democracy in America is changing. A new force, rooted in new tools and practices built on and around the Internet, is rising along the old system of capital-intensive broadcast politics. Today, for almost no money, anyone can be a reporter, a community organizer, an ad-maker, a publisher, a money-raiser or a leader. If what they have to say is compelling, it will spread.”

In a post dated just four years later, in June of 2008, the authors of the original post looked back at those words, and marveled that—if anything—they had vastly underestimated the degree of political and social change the new medium would usher in.


“We’ve lost count of all the national figures that have been affected by online activism. Millions of small donors, people giving less than $200 per donation, have flooded into the presidential campaign process. Far more people are making, watching and sharing online content—from blogs to video—than are visiting the candidates online websites. And well more than half the electorate, especially the young, is relying on the internet rather than traditional news sources such as newspapers or TV, for political information.”


The results of this sea change were beginning to be evident in the Howard Dean campaign, in 2004, but they have been especially apparent in the 2008 Presidential campaign. It is hard to imagine that Barack Obama could have defeated Hillary Clinton, the establishment candidate for the Democratic nomination, or that he could have gone on to win an overwhelming victory against John McCain, without his highly sophisticated use of the internet to organize volunteers and raise previously unheard-of sums of money.  The internet has thus seemingly accomplished what successive legislative efforts to reform campaign finance failed to do: it has eliminated candidate’s reliance on large donors and the disproportionate influence that accompanied that reliance.


It would be a mistake, however, to think that fundraising is the only political change effected by the internet. The ability to communicate cheaply and almost instantaneously with millions of people, the ability to link up campaign volunteers, and the ability to both spread and counter misinformation have all had a profound impact on our political process, and will continue to change our political, civic and personal relationships in ways we cannot yet fully anticipate or appreciate. Our common civic landscape is also undergoing profound transformation, becoming more accessible, more “lateral” and more democratic. We won’t know the precise contours of that transformation for many years, but its impact cannot be overstated.


How many of you forward political/humorous emails?

How many of you in this room read blogs?

How many of you blog yourselves? Post or comment?

How many use Facebook or MySpace? Have friends “recruited” you to

            join their causes? 

Anyone here who has hosted a meetup, or organized a small-p political

            event via the internet?


What have you found to be the most effective communication?


CONCLUDE: Looking at the experiences/reports/research of the past couple of years, what appears at this point to be most effective is the marriage of technology and traditional grass-roots organizing. (Example of GOTV/bar codes). The people and organizations that are making the most effective use of new communication technology are using that technology to do a more efficient and effective job of time-honored political organizing—they aren’t replacing grass-roots efforts, they are amplifying them and making them more effective and efficient. At the end of the day, these new communications technologies are like power tools—if you want to build a wood table, you still have to create a plan or template, you still have to measure carefully, cut the wood to the correct dimensions and so forth. The new power saw just makes cutting easier.


Those of us who want to accomplish a social goal still have to have a clear mission, and a strategic plan. We still have to enlist volunteers, raise necessary funds, and persuade the relevant policymakers. The difference is that we have new tools available to help us implement our plans and achieve our goals. If we use those tools properly and creatively, they can magnify our efforts. What they cannot do is replace those efforts, or make up for bad planning. It really is a case of “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”