Politics on the Net
Electronic Democracy: Using the Internet to Influence American Politics, by Graeme Browning. Wilton, Conn.: Pemberton Press, 1996, 180 pp.
Halfway through her new book Electronic Democracy, Graeme Browning, a science and technology reporter for the National Journal, observes that the study of Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg should be required of anyone who really wants to use the Internet to influence politics and policy. Pickett was ordered to assemble his Confederate soldiers in orderly rows and to advance in formation on the enemy, a proper battlefield strategy for an arena of war where cannon were short-range, hard to reload, and easily overwhelmed by a persistent invasion force on foot. Unfortunately for the Confederacy, the Union army used a new, easily reloadable long-range cannon, which mowed down wave upon wave of Confederate soldiers-19,000 in all-before they could even get close enough to fire their rifles.
“Military historians would say that Pickett’s Charge happened in part because armies have an unfortunate habit of trying to fight each new war using the tactics of the war before. The same habit exists in some corners of the Net community,” Browning concludes. Equal parts history, politics, and handbook, Electronic Democracy seeks to help its readers master the new tactical skills employed by increasing numbers of lobbyists, politicians, and special-interest groups who use the Internet to plug in to Washington.
The time certainly is right for this guide to electronic activism. Internet users may be sufficiently numerous that if you could reach them with the right messages, it might be possible to tip the balance of elections. And as use of the Internet continues to grow exponentially, more and more novices will join the ranks of computer activists. Today’s 30 million households with personal computers could grow to as many as 100 million by the year 2000, making Internet electioneering a virtual certainty for the next presidential campaign.
Campaigns in 1996 races tried to tap this new communications resource. The Dole campaign had a 70,000-name e-mail list to which it regularly sent targeted electronic messages. Both the Dole and Clinton campaigns fielded World Wide Web sites that received nearly a half-million “hits” a day during the height of the campaign. But does this electronic advocacy make any difference? Is the Internet really the campaign tool of the future?
The polling firm of Wirthlin Worldwide found that in the 1996 election, 9 percent of voters-about 8.5 million people-said that their votes were influenced by politically oriented material that they found on the Internet. Other recent polls have reported similar findings of 10 to 12 percent of voters viewing political Internet sites during the campaign. These figures compare favorably with the 11 percent of voters who said that they received political information from magazines and the 19 percent who cited radio as a source. Television and newspapers are cited by about 60 percent of voters. Browning estimates that the Internet currently could deliver up to 7 million votes to a candidate, enough to clinch a victory in a tight three-way race for president. By focusing on presidential politics, Browning may be missing some of the action; it’s in local and regional races that the Internet may already be playing a major role in reshaping political activity.
A major strength of Electronic Democracy is its careful analysis of case studies where electronic communication had a significant influence on an election or legislative vote and its extraction of the key lessons to be learned from each case study. One of the most thorough studies is of the lobbying effort against the Exon amendment to the 1934 Communications Act, the purpose of which was to regulate harassing, obscene, and indecent communications on the Internet. The Exon legislation and its House counterpart were championed by the Christian Coalition, but online advocacy and civil liberties groups quickly responded to what they saw as a potential threat to freedom of electronic expression. Skillful use of electronic communication, including World Wide Web sites, Usenet discussion groups, and electronic mailing lists helped collect 107,983 signatures on a petition to Senate Commerce, Science, and Technology Committee chairman Larry Pressler, demanding that the committee strike the amendment. Impressive as this display was, the committee voted for the amendment anyway. Still, online advocacy groups credit the petition drive with helping to motivate the House to pass a somewhat more moderate bill two months later.
This and other forays into electronic advocacy prompt Browning to offer a number of general tips on using the Internet to affect policy and political debate. Among her recommendations: Make sure your facts are straight, since it’s terrifyingly easy for an erroneous message to be magnified a thousandfold in minutes by e-mail forwarding. And once sent, such errors are almost impossible to recall. Be specific about what you want electronic audiences to do, and decide in advance what your strategy for their involvement should be. And use a variety of electronic formats-e-mail, Web sites, and others-to get your message across.
Browning gives specific examples of successful online petitions, action alerts, and other electronic salvos from which to draw in customizing your own Internet campaign. And the book is replete with e-mail addresses for policymakers, legislators, and other Washington notables, as well as with electronic bookmarks for some of the best political Web sites. The author also plans to offer readers a blow-by-blow analysis of the role the Internet played in the 1996 elections on the publisher’s World Wide Web beginning in February 1997.
Browning also points out the current limitations of electronic politics, including the tentativeness with which congressional offices have been establishing e-mail accounts and the command of sophisticated electronic etiquette demanded of e-mail users. Brown University’s Darrell West, who is studying the impact of the Internet on the 1996 campaign, points out that Internet sites have limited impact because they are usually preaching to the choir. He is finding that voters typically look to the Internet for reinforcement of their choices rather than for choice-making information. The passive nature of the World Wide Web makes it necessary to actively seek out information on candidates, a stark contrast to the constant barrage of radio and television advertising. Even when they find relevant political information, the relative youth of typical Internet community citizens means that they are less likely to vote than are older segments of the U.S. population.
All of this supports Browning’s assertion that effective use of the Internet as a campaign tools requires a different mindset than does traditional electioneering, but most candidates and organizations involved in the 1996 elections treated the Internet as though it were a conventional advertising venue.
Why not scientists?
Given the scientific community’s historical connection to the Internet, it seems puzzling that scientists and engineers have only recently begun to explore the political use of electronic communication to argue for more science-friendly policies in Washington. For example, although his name and e-mail address are posted on some of the most widely read Web sites in the world, the average e-mail traffic flow for the President’s science advisor, John Gibbons, is about three messages a week. E-mail managers for members of Congress report a similar paucity of electronic correspondence on science-related topics.
On the other hand, a number of science organizations are effectively using the Internet to relay political information to their members. The American Association for the Advancement of Science hosts a sophisticated Web site dedicated to tracking science and medical research appropriations, but it stops shy of recommending political activity based on these analyses. The American Association of Engineering Societies established a periodic e-mail service to keep its members and other interested parties apprised of science-related developments in the 1996 presidential campaign, but it also refrained from advocating voter choices. The Clinton-Gore campaign mobilized a 500-member cadre of “Scientists and Engineers for Clinton-Gore,” but the group was virtually absent from the Internet.
Electronic Democracy should prove quite valuable in honing the electronic skills of the science and technology community. The book is an easy read, weaving anecdote, advice, and admonition into a user-friendly format that stresses an easy-to-follow “cookbook” approach to designing Internet campaigns.The near-100-percent penetration of e-mail among scientists and engineers makes electronic communication one of the most efficient means of reaching this audience, although the community’s historic reluctance to engage in political activity calls into question what recipients of e-mail would do with such messages if they received them.
Browning quotes Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed’s observation that “An increasingly sophisticated network of technologically proficient grassroots activists is now more effective than big-feet lobbyists wearing Armani suits on Capitol Hill.” Despite decades of familiarity with the Internet, scientists and engineers aren’t among those grassroots activists yet, but Electronic Democracy is a useful primer for those who would change this state of affairs.
Rick Borchelt is a media relations manager for Lockheed Martin Energy Systems and a former press aide for science and technology in the Clinton White House.