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A Net Abuzz with Activism

But why does Canada lag so far behind the U.S. when it comes to mobilizing "smart mobs" online?

By Peter Tupper 5 Dec 2003 | TheTyee.ca
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As the United States rolls towards another hotly contested election year, some new players are changing the game. Not political parties. Not traditional lobbying or activist groups. The big, new factors are cyber-networks mobilizing millions of people online to contribute their time, money and votes.

The best known of these new forces, independent online group MoveOn.org lists over 1.7 million registered members, and coordinates lobbying campaigns and the distribution of information through email and online forums. These technologies could influence the way politics works of the coming era as profoundly as radio and television influenced it the twentieth century.

MoveOn and its ilk may be shaking things up in the U.S., but nothing like it has yet emerged in the Canadian political scene, where governments, parties and NGOs lag several years behind technologically.

Time for Canada to get a MoveOn?

MoveOn.org began in 1998, during the Clinton impeachment affair. Wes Boyd and Joan Blades, former owners of the software firm Berkeley Systems and creators of the After Dark screensaver, sent out an email to a few hundred friends urging them to lobby for Congress to censure Clinton and "move on" with the country's business. That list grew quickly through viral marketing, and the new organization began collecting names and raising funds.

Greg Nelson, senior managing partner at CTSG, a software firm that sells solutions to the progressive left, explains the group's influence: "When MoveOn mails to its 1.7 million member list, people in Congress know about it right away. They actually monitor it, because they know that if it's about an issue that's going on in Congress, they'll start receiving literally tens of thousands of messages that day. The same thing goes for groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council or Amnesty International; they can, with the click of a button, begin to impact a policy issue."

MoveOn's members have financial clout as well. The MoveOn Political Action Committee gathered more than US$3.5 million in contributions for the 2002 elections.

Not only does Moveon.org mobilize large groups of people for coordinated email and telephone campaigns, its agenda is decided by its membership through a transparent, collaborative forum. Decisions and ideas come in from the edges and coalesce in the centre.

MoveOn itself is a tiny organization that keeps its hand only lightly on the tiller. "In the fall of 2000," says the group's FAQ, "for example, our members chose campaign finance reform and protection of the environment as our two top issues. Accordingly, these two issues are our major strategic priorities for the current Congress."

Power of 'smart mobs'

Neither a party nor an activist organization in the traditional sense, MoveOn is a new kind of political entity, a network with power and authority distributed throughout its members instead of concentrated in the centre.

Internet commentator Howard Rheingold called loosely yet intelligently organized groups like MoveOn "smart mobs." Examples include file sharing networks like Gnutella and the cellphone text messages that broke the Chinese government's news blackout on the danger of SARS.

This new form of political communication has already reached into the mainstream. In the United States, Democratic presidential nomination candidate Howard Dean has a strong grassroots following through thousands of local meetings organized by Meetup.com, which lists more than 146,000 members. Dean's campaign staffers also operate blogs and provide daily updates. This savvy use of new communications helped make Dean the winner of MoveOn's straw vote primary last year.

By comparison, Canada parties and NGOs have yet to use the Internet so effectively. As of November 2003, there are no Meetup groups dedicated to Canadian political parties or candidates. Paul Martin's web site includes the future Prime Minister's blog, with one or two entries per month. However, Martin's entries read more like speech excerpts than the off-the-cuff thoughts typical of blogs. There has yet to be anything like MoveOn.org in Canada.

"Many national conservation organizations [in Canada] have only started collecting email addresses of their members in the last year," says Stephen Legault, executive director of WildCanada.net, a group that builds custom software for conservation groups. "To me, that's astonishing. I mean, how in 2003 can you possibly hope to communicate effectively with your members if you don't even have their email addresses? People are accustomed to rapid response opportunities today. If you have to put everything in the mail to them, oh my goodness! Whereas in the States, groups like Defenders of Wildlife have got 400,000 people in their electronic network."

What's holding us back

One reason for this in the nature of Canadian government. "There are differences in the political systems," says Legault, "and I think that probably the main one that changes the way we use the technology is that in Canada, the free vote is essentially nonexistent in both provincial and federal politics. Whereas in the States, it's much easier for people to influence the outcome of a vote in Congress, by pressuring their own elected representative. I could scream until I'm blue in the face at my own member of Parliament about an issue, but he is going to vote the way his party tells him to vote, unless he's one of those very rare people [who vote against their party], but its pretty bloody rare."

Greg Nelson attributes this to a reluctance to change: "The way adoption of technology like this tends to work is that, it's a real uphill battle to get organizations to see the opportunity that some of these new technologies provide. They tend to be a little bit risk-averse, but once there are a couple of really high-profile success stories, like MoveOn or the Natural Resources Defense Council... then other organizations are willing to jump on board."

Cultural differences betwen the Canadian and American people may be another reason. Scott Perchall, communications officer for the British Columbia NDP, suggests that such ideas failing to catch on "may be related to a similar phenomenon with Internet fundraising. Internet fundraising in the States is extremely successful. Internet fundraising in Canada is not, yet, and it may be cultural differences between Americans and Canadians."

'Needs to be authentic'

Nelson says that new political strategies need to be adapted to Canada's government and culture. "It needs to be authentic and it needs to be genuine to Canada and whatever province people are in. It can't just be copied and pasted across the border."

Canadian political groups are definitely aware of these new tools and ideas. With the last federal election, the New Democratic Party switched from mailing out packages of paper materials to their constituency associations to emailing printable files. The B.C. branch plans to launch an improved web site in January 2004, where members can sign up for customized email updates and download promotional materials.

However, parties and NGOs don't plan to emulate MoveOn's novel smart mob-driven agenda. "We're not an NGO," says Perchall, "and we're not an activist organization like MoveOn. That's not the nuts and bolts of what we do. We're a political party, and we represent voters. Out web site won't be doing what MoveOn does, primarily, but we do want to provide political relevance and show that we do provide people with vehicles for political action."

There are, of course, limitations of this new style of high-tech politics. It mainly reaches the white, middle-class males who have the money for and interest in high-tech communication. The Howard Dean campaign, for example, may have the netizen vote locked down, but it still has to reach out to voters and contributors in other demographics.

'Fast, nimble, risk-taking communications'

Other groups have to encourage people to take more action than just mouse-clicks.Legualt calls this "climbing the ladder of commitment. Our goal, ironically for an online organization, is to get people out from behind their computers and into the real world of activism. We want them out there writing letters to the editor. We want them meeting with elected representatives. We want them volunteering for the local communities, and by doing that, I think we will demonstrate the real power of the Internet."

Every year, the Hollyhock Retreat Centre on Cortes Island hosts a conference dedicated to these new ways of political communication, called Web of Change.

Jason Mogus, president of Vancouver-based web firm Communicopia.net and the host of these conferences, says, "The success of the [Howard] Dean campaign and of MoveOn [suggests] that when these tools really work well, when these things take off, is when there's light control from the centre. The centre provides the tools and the framework but the actual energy of the campaign, the connections- and in Dean's case, actual local organizing committees- they actually provide the oomph.

"MoveOn has seven people; I mean, come on. It's the most efficient NGO in the world," continues Mogus. "The reason why they do it is what the Internet is really best at, and what a lot of corporations and NGOs forget, is that the Internet is not about you pushing out to the world. It's you using your gift to support what people need to do in the world."

It remains to be seen if Canadian politics can adapt to these new way of communicating. As Mogus says, "Basically, we're a few years behind using these tools, and it's not just about the tools. Anyone can buy the tools. It's actually restructuring the organization so that it's there to support fast, nimble and risk-taking communication with members and stakeholders."

Peter Tupper is a Vancouver-based journalist and regular contributor to The Tyee.  [Tyee]

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