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Interview: The Internet Political Experts Respond 52

Monday we asked Jonah Seiger and Shabbir Safdar of Mindshare Internet Campaigns a bunch of questions about effective online political activism. Here are their answers. (They skipped two questions. Perhaps they'll explain why on the message boards later today.)

Antizeus asks: While not everyone on the net shares a common political philosophy, there are some very common tendencies, such a strong libertarian undercurrent. Do you guys think the net could be used as an important tool in bringing together freedom-loving people to form a third party to represent the interests of liberty that so often get stepped on by the two major political parties in the USA? And could such a party have a chance of winning a significant number of elections, unlike (apparently) other third parties such as the lamented Libertarian Party?

Shabbir and Jonah answer: There's literally no other medium in existence today that has the potential for jump-starting a new political party *except* the Net. The open, decentralized nature of the Net naturally facilitates organizing and sharing ideas. The challege, of course, is finding issues and ideas around which people are willing to rally.

Also, the Net alone is not enough. Politics happens in the real world -- at the ballot box and the halls of Congress. While the Net does have the potential to grease the wheels of the third party movement, it alone is not enough to change our politics.

GuySmiley asks: For over a year, we have been told to either vote for Bush or Gore in 2000. The mainstream media does not let anyone else get air time.

How can you bypass the networks and use the internet to publicize a candidate that actually has a brain and a flying chance in hell of getting elected?

Shabbir and Jonah answer: The same way that /. gained notice and an audience -- word of mouse. If a candidate has a compelling message and people who are willing to carry it, the Net is in many ways more powerful than TV or other traditional media. Since the net has no gatekeepres (like tv does), spreading a message is much easier.

What does this mean? Talk to your friends. Do interesting things with the net that get positive press attention, buy banners ads, anything that will help generate positive attention for a candidate's message. But first and formost, have a good message (and never SPAM).

kmj9907 asks: UCITA is a pretty big issue among /.ers, I'd think. Are there any major efforts to fight this act? If so, how or where can I (we) find them? I personally think it would be a crime to allow this to pass.

Shabbir and Jonah answer: We're not closely following UCITA and therefore don't have much to say about it.

xmedar asks: There is strong advocacy within the geek population as epitomised by the Linux Advocacy How To, ways of increasing debate, and providing good quality information rather than FUD, therefore increasingeveryones understanding of the situation rather than polarising arguements and ending up in irrational finger pointing. Do you think this ethos can be translated to the world of politics, and what effect do you think it might have?

Shabbir and Jonah answer: (no answer - R)

Hobbex asks: Is it, as many like to believe, the NSA and the rest of the Intelligence community still running the show like puppet masters with absolutely no resistance, or is there in Washington a deep, pessimistic belief that freedom must truly be fought with all means possible because we the lesser people of the earth cannot handle it?

Shabbir and Jonah answer: (no answer -R)

Signal 11 asks: How does one organize a group of people entirely online? I have seen several attempts at getting a movement off the ground - setting up a listserv, website, discussing the issues.. but that's usually all the farther it goes, and then the whole thing sinks.

What's the best way to get in touch with people and get something off the ground?

Shabbir and Jonah answer: It's a hard combination of good leadership, a receptive audience, and the right moment in time. Without any real cohesive issue to keep people focused, or the right moment where a group identifies with itself, it's hard to coalesce.

Once you've built a group, I think the trick to avoid burnout is to stay focused on your issue, set small realistic goals initially, and don't try and take on everything yourself; spread out the work.

Mr. Slippery asks: Citizens who find themselves in the minority on many political issues have found the Internet a very valuable tool to organize, share information, and make their views known to the mainstream.

Now it seems that the federal government is trying to censor such discussion. For example, we have the "Methamphetamine Anti-Proliferation Act of 1999", which would criminalize many discussions of drug policy.

I believe that you can't have a meaningful discussion on, for instance, the sentancing guidelines for possession of crack vs. powder cocaine without an understanding of how crack is made. Thus, my drug policy site has such information.

Trying to censor "dirty" bits is bad enough, but to censor political discussion is utterly abhorant. Political censorship is a life-and-death issue - people will fight, kill, and die for free speech. What, short of bullets, is it going to take to stop the cybercensors? (Or should I just go buy more bullets while I still can?)

Shabbir and Jonah answer: As you probably already know, we cut our teeth on the defense of free speech of the net during the CDA battle in Congress and through the Supreme Court. We have since then seen many many attempts at suppressing speech on the net, and though we never take these lightly, we have faith in two things:

1. The hope that people like yourself will never stop telling their members of Congress that you don't like it when they play the censor, and that 2. The system we have in this country will continue to balance the whims of ill-thought-out legislation with the values in the Bill of Rights.

Since we don't live in a direct democracy, citizens input isn't always a "silver bullet" to making stuff happen. But it helps, and it's the first step.

dattaway asks: I would imagine the problems we have with the conflicting and silly laws we have is the low voter turnout and research on a bill's viability is based on polls. Statistics, not for love of the country.

So, my question is, if better than 95% of eligible voters had their voice punched on the ballot, would it be the end all of obscure laws, mudslinging, and corruption? Eligible voters should be based on age only (18) and nothing else. Having a disagreement with the law and getting a felony, etc, should be no excuse for silence. I feel it is everyone's duty to participate. Is this unreasonable?

Shabbir and Jonah answer: It is indeed everyones duty to participate, and if you don't vote you've got no right to complain.

PD asks: Al Gore offends Open Source fans by mocking the concept on his campaign web page. He offends internet users by claiming that he invented the internet.

On the other hand, G.W. Bush offends free thinkers by announcing that he wants religous organizations to take a larger part in government programs, and might directly tax dollars to those programs.

What is the best way to let these candidates know that their current positions are counter-productive? I want someone to say clearly that they will increase NASA's budget over the next 4 years.

Shabbir and Jonah answer: I'd definately focus on telling the campaigns directly, and then use the net to *organize*! Put up a site with a statement of what you want candidates to do (more $ for NASA), what people visiting the site can do to make it happen (write a letter to the campaign, or get on the mailing list) and then keep up with them.

Whenever a candidate is going to be somewhere online (like Gore's interactive town hall meeting this week) tell your mailing list to go and submit pro-NASA-funding questions!

There are also ways you can donate to the campaigns, as a group through online means as well.

Finally, check out the the Center for Responsive Politics database of contributors to the presidential campaigns (http://www.crp.org/) Some (but not all) of the contributions of the candidates are there. You can look through them to find donors who may already be supporters of the space program, and try to enlist them in your cause, either as supporters or spokespeople.

Stonehand asks: Arguably, the Internet can be used as a tool for the dissemination of propaganda -- including outright lies. This is at least partly due to

  • The availability of free Web hosting.
  • The difficulty of confirming the identity and credentials of 'net publishers/speakers.
  • The occasional strange credulity of people...
An organized effort by any reasonably large group, be it a fringe, partisan group of people out to "get" somebody; or an activist group that does not bother with checking its "facts" can rapidly evangelize a cause with nonsense -- such as blatantly questionable statistics, out-of-context quotes, and so forth.

Is there any reason that the people *should* view the 'Net as a medium for information and activism, given all this? That is, why -- and how -- should people write or listen?

Shabbir and Jonah answer: Indeed, even outside politics, the rule of this medium is the reader's equivalent of "buyer beware". There isn't another medium where so many have had so much potential to speak so broadly.

But the medium can self-correct. Look at Slashdot! A perfect example. Many of these questions were selected because several moderators rated them highly, and even without the rating, anyone (even an Anonymous Coward) has the ability to reply and post a message correcting or clarifying a mistake in the message being followed up to.

Certainly, the medium has potential for abuse, but then so does every other. And I'd rather be in a medium where the power is spread out.

This discussion has been archived. No new comments can be posted.

Interview: The Internet Political Experts Respond

Comments Filter:
  • So, voting ability should only be granted to those who're 18 and older -- and to *everyone* who is 18 and older? So you're saying felons and the insane -- as long as they're over the age of 18 -- are better suited for making a rational descision than people under the age of 18? That's just not how things work.

    I'll be 20 this October, so I have a group of friends that ranges a good deal between the ages of about 16 and 24. At least in my opinion, a hefty number of them who are under 18 are far more able to go through the thought process involved in voting than many older people I've met.

    Age restrictions are about the most insane thing I've seen in this country. Uncle Sam says you're old enough to drive a car when you're 16, but good luck trying to vote, drink, or even find a rental car (the rental thing is a nightmare if your car needs repairs, which just happened to me about a month ago). Think about it. This is the same as saying you're not responsible enough to influence your government's direction, consume alcohol, use a credit card, gamble, and a few other things, but you are responsible enough to control something that's involved in a hideous amount of deaths in this country. Speaking of something that's instrumental in a horrifying amount of deaths, think about guns for a second. I don't know the exact age you need to be to own/operate a gun, but I'm fairly sure it's less than 16. I'll uphold our right to bear arms, but it makes no sense to say that somebody's responsible enough to handle a tool designed to kill (legitimate uses included -- like hunting and self-defense) without also saying that person's responsible enough to handle a tool designed for transportation. Then, once you finally turn 18, you can vote. As an added bonus, Uncle Sam says you can even go sign up to risk your life for your country. In fact, if you're male, you're *required* to sign up for the draft (*cough* blatant sexism *cough*). But don't you dare go near that beer bottle for another three years.

    The biggest problem with this is that age restrictions are the only *practical* way to handle these things (that is, of course, if you're under the impression that things like this should be restricted at all). So, as I don my asbestos suit, let me just say that if age restrictions must be put on things like this, they should at least be done in some sort of logical progression.
  • You know, I'm not so sure that you necessarily need to correct "CDE" to "CDA". I mean, sure, the CDA was terrible, and I was gleeful when it was struck down, but after having used Enlightenment [rasterman.com], I personally find CDE [plig.org] to be pretty darned oppressive, too.

    <Chuckle.>
  • Way to say it, Your_Name. I think it's high time the people took responsibility for their own political views. All day long, anywhere you go, you'll hear people whining and carrying on about how 'The Government' sucks, and how 'The Government' doesn't care what 'the People' want/need/etc. Remember "We the People"...? Where did we lose sight of it? Or did we even mean it then? Sure it'll take a ton of work to get people to actually *gasp* learn about the issues that effect them -- but it's high time we stop complaining about how other people are running our lives and making the important decisions for us. Go, go, go! :)
  • > So how does one organize real political parties
    > when the traditional electoral system is
    > demarcated by physical borders whereas the
    > issues /.ers are interested in are culture,
    > nation and planet wide.

    The same way, I imagine, that the current political parties organize their state or provincial bodies into a national party.

    Also, in a sense, organizations like Greenpeace are already political parties that span international boundaries. They certainly pursue political remedies to the problems they see. They just don't put forward candidates for election under the organization's name. It really wouldn't take much for them to do so, though.

    Do the various Green parties coordinate their activities?

    History also gives us examples like the Wobblies.
  • Roblimo is pissing me off with all of his "interviews" lately
  • Coupla points...
    1) It caused the impeachment of a president

    I could have sworn it was our "old" media that wouldn't let this entire issue die. Oh, and the Republicans who could smell bood (or was it semen)
    The only website that I saw dedicated to this was "Censure and Move On" (now just MoveOn.org) dedicated to letting that non-issue die before it left egg on the collective face of the country. Alas, it didn't work and we got a farce of a trial and a total waste of taxpayer money.

    2) The trouble is, /. is 18 to 25, a group that has a voting rate of only 20%. With a voting rate that low, you don't matter.

    The thing is, most politicians also believe this. Perhaps the constant lying and related politics have soured the demo (in which I belong) and contributed to a overwhelming cynicism, maybe we're too happy living of the fat of the land to notice, I don't know what the real reason is, but that doens't mean it can't change. Two people who have felt our wrath, if you will, Norm Coleman and Skip Humphrey, who both played the fool as Jesse walked off with the prize. What was the deciding factor you ask? 18-24 yr olds who flocked to make a change. /. (in particular and the 'Net in general) is doing a great deal to educate those folks, like myself, how to make a change or take a stand. Issues like the CDA and UCITA exemplify the importance of getting your voice heard.

    3)The liberal sites aren't doing well, Salon has taken another pasting. The conservative sites, however, are doing quite well

    More info would be nice... To sterotype hugely..
    Have you seen the mean demo for the 'Net. White, educated, +$50,000/yr, pretty much screams conservative don't it? Perhaps it will shift as a wider variety of political views stake thier claim, we'll have to wait and see. Not that this was a valid point anyway, but there ya go.

    I apoligize for the long winded ness (and the atrosious spelling), but it's Friday...

    AC, I await your retort.

    BTW, 'round here we call it Earth, come visit sometime ;-)

  • Hey, they didn't answer my question either. But I think I know why: They spent to much time in Washington - The NSA got them too...

    Their the Second Foundation... no mistake...
  • Screw the negative moderation. This doesn't feel like news. If I wanted to ask people questions, or read other people's questions being answered by them, I'd find dialogs from AOL chats.

    -Chris
  • My question was missquoted here, they only cut in the last part. The part that was cut was:

    I would like to know if they, while up there rubbing elbows with the powerful and incompetent, have gotten some sort of feeling for where the rabid Crypto-phobia of Washington is stemming from?

    Certainly, most free thinkers of the world recognize the importance of free and strong crypto in the information society, yet in Washington, which as I understand and hope is still a collection of moderately intelligent and educated people, it seems no one supports the issue. Even our friends (SAFE etc) are just less destructive enemies.


    I do not believe that the NSA runs the entire show in Washington, but the fact that NO ONE there seems to step out in support of something so blatantly important for freedom as Strong Crypto is extremely suspisious to me.

    To me this leaves only the two options in the question as quoted. Either the poletitians in Washington are afraid of Freedom or they are the puppets of others who are.

    I see no Helecopters, I have no congressman, and if I speak up it is in a language you do not understand. But who am I turn to when I see the American government trying to force its preposterous laws on us as well? And do I not have the right to at least try to understand what is going on in Washington?
  • Ok, so they have choosen not to answer, I'm not going to flame them as I'm sure they had their own reasons. So I'll give my take on the situation. It is becoming increasingly important for people to think for themselves with the increase in information, disinformation, corporate and political spin. Advocacy is important in showing what is positive while at the same time being able to admit failings and highlight them so the community can grapple with them. This can be seen in the Linux Advocacy Mini How Too in the first line of the introduction "The Linux community has known for some time that for many applications, Linux is a stable, reliable, robust (although not perfect) product.", Advocacy is about being able to make a contribution to the community in which you live, without the huge ego that seems to be a requirement in the mainstream corporate and political world, its about an even handed, fair and honest approach. Signs of this are appearing in different forms, if you take a look at the Cluetrain Manifesto ( http://www.cluetrain.com/ ), its a humble document, calling for dialogue and understanding between consumers and producers to build more effective relationships between the two, i.e. its advocacy in the marketing arena, and it seems to me it is only a matter of time before politics goes the same way. I'm not talking about the odd focus group, but continuous dialogues between those that hold the power to govern and those that put them in that position, with a new willingness to listen, even when it does not agree with our own world view. I beleive this can aid in greater understanding and allow us all to have new insights into how we deal with the problems we face on this planet. I hope I am right, and that this has given some food for thought.
  • No "first post" crap! Today must be friday the 13 or something (or /. is totally messed up).
  • This is indeed something I have thought about. I think the internet would be great at cultivating a personal freedoms party. Where they stand to the left on social issues. On economic issues they are either dead center, or just whatever individual candidates would like. We should all be free to speak what we want, sleep with who we want, code what we want, and smoke what we want!
  • Oops. That funny article is here. [elwood.net] Should've used preview.
  • Some pretty good, common sense-type answers there. I don't know how the US system works regarding parties other than the traditional big-two but in Canada it makes election time quite interesting (and sometimes the results maddening.)

    So how does one organize real political parties when the traditional electoral system is demarcated by physical borders whereas the issues /.ers are interested in are culture, nation and planet wide.


    If what I said is nonsense,
    I'm making a point with it.
    If what I said makes perfect sense,
    you obviously missed the point.
  • Well, thanks for the answers guys. I didn't see anything earth shattering, or even mango crushing, but that just shows where we are on the path to political influence (as a geek community). Maybe I just had my hopes up that somebody had already taken it upon themselves to provide the tools to be effective "internet lobbyists", but that doesn't seem to be the case.
    The tools I am thinking of would have to be up-to-the minute Congress trackers and very simple and organized ways to contact lawmakers (e-mail is great, but how about a form letter that surfers can print, sign, stamp, and put in the mail. E-mail is great, but if you turn off your machine (or if the power goes out *cough*) it simply ceases to exist. It's much more difficult to ignore physical paper. The impact, because of the additional effort, is also much greater. A database of congressmen and how they voted on particular issues would also be useful. Think about it... You (being a busy professional) don't have time to constantly follow how your reps are voting, but come election time you want to make an informed decision. How nice would it be to able to say click *(state), then *(city), then *(Your reps name) and see a complete voting history. If you really want to be nasty, er, honest you could also include major contributors to their campaign and all the other factors in how they vote (i.e. demographic % for their district, who is blackmailing them, etc.)
    (BTW I've visited a U.S. Congress [loc.gov] legislattion site and quickly ran away screaming after dealing with it's interface, if you know of others please post 'em)

    Anyway, I don't think political advocacy has even reached the Internet yet, at least not to the extent of e-commerce (which is still making baby steps IMHO). I think there is a grand opportunity for anyone who would like to start such a site (or give me 2 mil. to do it :-), and it would be welcome by all those people who feel our government doesn't listen to them. 100,000 voices singing in unison WILL be heard.
  • If you've never SEEN a black helicopter, then you wouldn't understand.

    "The number of suckers born each minute doubles every 18 months."
    -jafac's law
  • The above (tracking all the votes of all the reps on a site) is something I've recently been thinking hard about. I've become more and more disheartened with each story I read. I think a site like that would be glorious. It would also be a great help if the various candidates for various positions were also outlined in the same way.

    On another note, with the incredible increase in communications over the last couple hundred years, I think we're ready to be done with the representative democracy and start in with a direct (athenian) democracy. All issues should be voted on by the public at large. The issue of a qourum (sp?) would have to be addressed, but I think it would work well.

    People will say that it's far too much work to learn the issues and vote on them, etc etc.. I agree that it will take considerable effort, but we'd also have a much more effective (IMO) government if people were aware of what was going on, and were able to -directly- influence it.

  • I think there is a grand opportunity for anyone who would like to start such a site (or give me 2 mil. to do it :-),
    Maybe you should post the idea over at Cosource [cosource.com] and see if anyone's interested in funding it?
  • Here's a couple sites that you might find interesting:

    Project Vote Smart [vote-smart.org]

    Democracy Network [dnet.org]

    I believe Project Vote Smart lets you review your legislators by issue if they've answered a survey.
  • At least some of you want is available at CQ's Campaigns and Elections [campaignline.com] site. Their "rate your rep" feature does a good job, though a bigger cross-section of votes would be nice.
  • At an interview on CNN. Here [wired.com] is a Wired article about it. Here [elwood.net] is a really funny site about it.
  • There is the Libertarian Party [lp.org] (infact, I worked on their first web site). Despite electing a handful of people to local positions and getting nationwide ballot access for President, the party is in general of no influence in electoral politics. They have had a great influence on fighting ballot measures for bonds to build stadiums and such.

    The LP also has a very extreme position on freedom, the theory being that everybody else talks about freedom, then votes for the CDA. However I do believe that there is a place for a more moderate and acceptable freedom-oriented party. But it would have to deal with the meme of extreme Libertarianism which has already been put out there.

    The funny thing is that being part of the global marketplace depends on maximum freedom for citizens, combined with effective justice to avoid corruption and fraud. Up until now, the US has been the leaders in globalism because of our reasonable justice system and reasonable freedom. However other countries are catching up to us, and we will have to become more free in the future to stay ahead.
  • Nice site. Anyone know if there's something like this for Canada? I did a quick Google search but couldn't find anything.

    Brant


  • I think if the commentators come back to "/," I'd be tempted to ask them why they never directly addressed the fact that the WWW is only one of many organizing mediums --- in the USA or abroad --- and that it is definitely the LEAST EFFECTIVE.

    Only 1% of the world's population has Internet access. Too many people here and abroad are much more affected (brain-washed?) by Hollywood and Madison Avenue, yet this was not addressed seriously, either.

    While most of our fellow /.ers believe they are the center of the world, most people on the street would ask: "Slash what? Is that a punk band?"

    RA

  • Check out Project Vote-Smart [vote-smart.org]

    It includes voting records, approval/disapproval percentage by various organizations (from the NRA to NOW), and other useful info.

    They are not biased, nor do they accept money from anyone who might want to influence them. This is their statement of purpose:

    THROUGH A CITIZENS' TOOLKIT OF FREE SERVICES, programs and materials, this national non-partisan, non-profit effort researches, tracks and provides to the public independent factual information on over 13,000 candidates and elected officials. Voting records, campaign issue positions, performance evaluations by special interests, campaign contributions, backgrounds, previous experience, and contact information are available, over a toll-free Voter's Research Hotline, manuals and other publications, and the Vote Smart Web site. The whole system provides a powerful tool for accountability. It allows citizens to look over the shoulders of their elected representatives daily, to monitor and supervise them, and to compare their campaign promises with their actual job performance once in office.

    This is their statement of integrity:

    THE INTEGRITY OF THE INFORMATION system is scrupulously protected in several crucial ways. The Founding Board, balanced across the political spectrum, includes prominent national leaders like Barry Goldwater and George McGovern, Geraldine Ferraro and Newt Gingrich, Mark Hatfield and Bill Bradley. The Project is funded entirely by foundation grants and the individual contributions of over 50,000 members. Our members contribute what they can, to ensure the system survives to help all citizens. The average contribution is $35. We refuse donations from corporate and special interests--from any group that lobbies government at any level.
  • You know, I'm not so sure that you necessarily need to correct "CDE" to "CDA". I mean, sure, the CDA was terrible, and I was gleeful when it was struck down, but after having used Enlightenment [rasterman.com], I personally find CDE [plig.org] to be pretty darned oppressive, too.

  • I don't see NSA on NBC, CNN, etc.

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