Where Have All the Protests Gone? Online.

By Jennifer Earl
Sunday, February 4, 2007

"I haven't spoken at an antiwar rally in 34 years," Jane Fonda acknowledged to her fellow Iraq war protesters on the Mall last weekend. According to accounts of the day, many of the participants in this latest rally were of Fonda's generation, caravanning to Washington once more, with grayer hair, pressing their cause.

The march, organized by the antiwar group United for Peace and Justice, attracted throngs of people, including members of Congress, actors, veterans and families of U.S. troops. Some came to the Mall to call for the impeachment of President Bush, others wanted greater support for returning veterans, but all came to call for an end to the war in Iraq. But even if their convictions seemed to echo those of the Vietnam War era, the way they got here this time was different -- and a perfect example of how antiwar is waged in the Internet age.

On the UFPJ Web site, activists could download and print out an "Act Now to End the War!" flier in English, Spanish, Persian or Arabic. They could post a button about the march on their Facebook or MySpace pages. And they could review maps, travel information and other helpful hints (for example: "pots, pans, and plastic tubs all make great percussion instruments").

These changes aren't radical, they're practical. As an organizing tool, the Internet allows protest planners to dramatically amplify their outreach efforts, to mobilize a wider audience more quickly and more cheaply. All of this leads to broader and faster activism, though not necessarily to fundamental changes in how protests work.

However, the Internet hasn't become a venue just for facilitating the logistical details of old-fashioned protests, the place to find ride-sharing schedules and parking tips for the big day. Increasingly, the Internet has become the venue for protest -- the new Mall, so to speak -- where online-only activists deploy new technologies to challenge governments and corporations and promote causes mundane and sublime. I've done research, funded by the National Science Foundation, about the Internet and protests, and I've found that these efforts are transforming the way everyday citizens connect with and participate in activism and social movements.

Finding ways to participate on the Internet isn't hard. You don't even need to turn to an established activist group to create an online campaign. Web sites such as PetitionOnline.com allow anyone to create and manage a petition on the Web for free, and as their success stories suggest, online grass-roots politics can persuade powerful players to change their tune. Launched in 1999, the site has housed tens of thousands of petitions and collected more than 47 million signatures.

When new technologies lower the barriers to participating in activism -- "five-minute activists" can add their names to the bottom of a petition and then continue to surf the Web -- they also allow new causes and issues to flood the protest marketplace. Some of them, such as campaigns to save canceled television shows or to fix problems in popular online games such as World of Warcraft, may seem frivolous to longtime activists, but they reflect the range of issues that can energize and mobilize younger generations.

Indeed, as my research with colleagues Alan Schussman and Katrina Kimport found, petitions surrounding youth culture and pop culture are common online. One petition called for the Backstreet Boys to give a concert in Asia "besides China & Japan" because "The Backstreet Boys have numerous fans in Asia" who want to see their show, according to the petitioners' statement. Others have tried to rouse support for free downloads of Disney Channel programming so kids who are still in school during their favorite shows don't have to miss them. And sports fans have called for EA Sports to add NCAA conferences to MVP NCAA Baseball 06 or NCAA Baseball 07.

While some rallying cries don't reach the ears or computer screens of the powerful, those on the receiving end can take online petitions seriously. When fewer than 1,000 subscribers of the now-defunct WebTV signed such a petition complaining about customer service, a company official responded on the site, offering his "support and agreement" as well as his "sincere assurances that we are heading in the right direction."

But online activism is not just for cranky customers, rabid gamers or television fans. Sometimes, it can reach the highest levels of political action. In 2000, and again in 2004, so-called vote trading or "vote pairing" Web sites popped up nationwide. These sites helped voters from different states coordinate their votes to undercut what many regarded as the undemocratic effects of the electoral college on presidential elections.

These sites helped transform voting -- the icon of individualized and conventional political participation -- into a collective and highly contentious political act. These vote-swappers took on one part of the Constitution (the electoral college), while relying on another (the First Amendment). Without the Internet, it is unlikely that this movement could have emerged, or that voters could have been matched so efficiently.

Online activism dramatically reduces the time and money it takes to organize and participate in events. Consider how hard it is to organize a physical petition -- printing expenses, hiring petition gatherers to find good locations where there might be enough foot traffic to attract signers -- vs. posting a text on PetitionOnline.com and advertising the link.

As some types of online activism allow people to take part quickly and easily , it opens the door for broader changes, shifting how regularly people take part in political actions. Such streamlined activism may lead to more frequent, and more committed, political engagement on the part of everyday citizens. And politicians seeking donations, votes and other kinds of support may look to tap into this new generation of self-selected, point-and-click activists. Much like the Web, these online petitions are an end in themselves as well as a gateway to new kinds of action.

Just last week, I informally polled students in a seminar I teach about these types of petitions. About 40 percent of them had participated in such online protest on pop culture topics, and many others were aware of these Web-based campaigns. To dismiss their actions as silly -- just because their objectives sometimes seem so -- is to overlook the critical point: The next generation of citizens is learning how to organize around issues they care about, and they're doing so in their own way.

Sure, they may not be issues that as many adults care about; after all, I would be more likely to sign a petition about a problem with a Microsoft Office product than one about a glitch in an online game. But as these students and their younger siblings grow older, these early experiences with online engagement may propel them into more politically oriented activism. Indeed, many of the debates over youth culture are closely tied to fights over intellectual property, fights that can quickly turn political. Activist groups such as Downhill Battle engage in online protests in their push to open up the recording industry. What would these scuffles look like, and how much could they grow, if tens of thousands of Napster alums joined them -- or began online movements of their own?

"Silence is no longer an option," Fonda said last week. But standing on the Mall in Washington on a blustery January day is no longer the only option for making your voice heard.



ennifer Earl directs the Center for Information Technology and Society at the University of California at Santa Barbara.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company