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The Web: Grassroots action thrives online

By GENE KOPROWSKI, United Press International   |   July 20, 2009 at 8:23 PM   |   Comments

A weekly series by UPI examining the global telecommunications phenomenon known as the World Wide Web.

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CHICAGO, Aug. 18 (UPI) -- As the justices of the U.S. Supreme Court last summer prepared their opinions for the case of Lawrence, et al. vs. Texas, gay activists around the country rapidly readied their online response.

"We didn't know whether we would celebrate, protest, or celebrate and protest," said Robin Tyler, executive director of the Equality Campaign, a homosexual rights organization, at dontamend.com.

"So we had three sets of postings ready," he told United Press International. "The second it came out, we distributed our talking points by e-mail and online postings."

Based on Internet talking points, which touted a ruling on June 26, 2003, that struck down an anti-sodomy law, homosexual activists took to the streets, around the country, seemingly spontaneously.

"From Fairbanks, Alaska, to the East Coast of the United States, the coverage said that gay activists poured out into the streets," Tyler said. "No one in the media thought to ask how it was organized."

The Internet continues to transform grassroots politics, giving small, often home-office-based activists the ability to get their messages out, just like high-priced lobbyists and publicists on K Street in Washington, D.C., and on Madison Avenue in New York City.

Fax machines and calling trees of the past are now passé for these grassroots activists, as blogs, Web sites, and mass e-mailing of PDF files -- as well as mobile phones and text messages -- are the new communications technologies.

"The Web allows people who might be geographically or physically incapable of contributing to a movement to contribute their ideas, resources and support," said Andy Dehnart, a lecturer in communications studies and English at Stetson University in DeLand, Fla.

"The decentralization of the Web enables people to bypass more traditional methods of communication," he told UPI. "Pre-Internet, one person might have had a burning passion about a particular issue, but no way of finding others who agreed. Now, that person can connect online with others that he or she might not have known existed before."

The "Howard Dean for President" campaign, with its free-form bloggers -- or Web loggers -- and virtual chats at meetup.com, generated a lot of attention starting late last year, but it is the small, non-profit organizations that truly are benefiting from political exposure online.

"It used to be that if you couldn't get the Los Angeles Times to cover you, your protest would not even come together," Tyler said. "What good is the freedom to assemble if you can't get the message out? But the Internet is fantastic. It is giving small groups the freedom to organize, online and offline, and get the message out. But we're not the only ones doing it now. The right is as well."

Indeed, last fall, Matt Margolis, a recent college graduate who lives in suburban Boston, was miffed by the coverage the bloggers and online activists for Dean were generating in the national news media. So, he decided to launch his own grassroots effort -- a blog for President George W. Bush.

"Everyone thought blogs and the Internet were a liberal thing -- a liberal alternative to talk radio," Margolis told UPI. "I wanted to challenge that. We're a grassroots blog, dedicated to helping re-elect President Bush."

Margolis founded BlogsForBush.com last fall, and now provides links to 825 other, pro-Bush blogs on an interactive part of his site, called the blog roll.

"We started off with only a handful of links to other blogs," he said. "The initial goal was to have more than Howard Dean had on his site. He had about 90 blogs at the peak of his candidacy. We surpassed that. Before (Sen. John F. Kerry) picked (Sen. John) Edwards, he had a blog roll on his site and they had 55 blogs for Kerry. There's a big difference there. Since it changed to Kerry-Edwards, I haven't seen a blog roll."

Another site that is making waves online is SwiftVets.com, funded by former U.S. Naval officers who served in Vietnam. The funders have also -- famously -- aired ads on TV, but they are using the online site, with a very active discussion board for Naval vets, to continue to protest Kerry's candidacy.

According to the ad copy on the blunt, tough-talking Internet site, "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth has been formed to counter the false 'war crimes' charges John Kerry repeatedly made against Vietnam veterans who served in our units and elsewhere, and to accurately portray Kerry's brief tour in Vietnam as a junior grade Lieutenant."

Some experts, however, are skeptical about the impact these sites are having on changing public perceptions.

"If a tree falls in the forest, and there's no one around, does it make a sound?" Mario Almonte, a public relations professional in New York City, told UPI. "If someone launches an Internet-based-protest, and the traditional print and broadcast media don't know about it, is it really happening?"

Maybe that does not matter to some, who never would have learned of certain news events were it not for the content of activists' e-mail messages.

Activists backing the nascent Senate campaign of Republican candidate Alan Keyes in Illinois on Tuesday sent journalists and others via e-mail a copy of remarks Keyes made. The campaign's official Internet site, Keyes2004.com, is merely a placeholder site at this point. A leading, local blogger also is said to be involved in the Keyes online campaign.

The newsworthy statement by Keyes -- who is opposing Barack Obama, the Democratic candidate -- addressed a proposal to remove the tax burden on the "black community for a generation or two in order to encourage business ownership, create jobs and support the development strong economic foundations for working families."

Experts said that, to be sure, such a statement might not be considered news in the strict sense until reported by the conventional media, but there is no doubt the cultural framework for what is news is changing because of the Internet.

Tyler noted activists in her network waged a campaign, StopDrLaura.com, to protest comments made by Dr. Laura Schlessinger, a controversial conservative broadcaster, entirely online.

"The Internet has a significant impact beyond what most people realize," Almonte said. "Consider the Internet like the wind -- you can't see it, but it can have a significant impact on its surroundings if it reaches hurricane force."

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Gene Koprowski covers telecommunications for UPI Science News. E-mail sciencemail@upi.com

© 2009 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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