The Online Activist

Tools for Organizing in Cyberspace

It wasn't so long ago that the hand-cranked mimeograph machine was an essential tool for grassroots organizers. Then it was the photocopier, and, more recently, the fax machine. Soon it will be e-mail.

I'm not talking about Web pages, RealAudio, Java applets, or other fancy applications. Ordinary ASCII type and a cheap, reliable Internet service account are all you really need to be an online activist. Whether you're organizing locally or globally, e-mail is a powerful tool for outreach and advocacy.

Consider the experience of Citizens Against Police Brutality, a grassroots human rights group in Montreal, Canada. Last fall, they learned of plans by a Swiss group to stage an International Day Against Police Violence, and decided to help by doing online outreach to other human rights activists. In November they sent out an e-mail alert announcing a global demonstration against police violence, and offering to coordinate an information exchange between grassroots groups who wanted to organize events in their own communities. Over the next few months, the Montreal activists compiled an e-mail list of more than 40 participating organizations and activists from around the world.

The results: The International Day Against Police Violence, held the weekend of March 14 and 15, saw rallies, demonstrations, seminars, fundraisers, and concerts in Spain, Sweden, Croatia, Switzerland, Yugoslavia, New Zealand, Canada, the U.S., Brazil, South Africa, Bangladesh, and Palestine. That's an international protest on six of the seven continents, sparked in large part by e-mail from a single desktop in Montreal.

By using e-mail on a global scale, the Montreal group was able to involve people in a dozen nations and gather follow-up reports on events, without the high cost of using telephones or faxes. Even more remarkable: The activist who did most of the group's outreach, Dee Lecomte, had first gone online just two weeks before the effort began, and she didn't use anything beyond basic e-mail. Nor did she need to.

Basic e-mail is an effective outreach tool, whether you're organizing a demonstration or advocating against repressive legislation. Do you want to stop something, or start something? Are you more likely to achieve your goal by picketing, or petitioning? Once you've defined your goal, you'll want to identify your likely allies. Traditionally, this meant consulting your Rolodex. In cyberspace, it means finding the Usenet groups (also called newsgroups) and e-mail discussion lists where your issues are most likely to be addressed.

You can find discussion lists by using widely available Web search engines like AltaVista, or by visiting Web sites which track e-mail discussion lists, such as Publicly Accessible Mailing Lists (PAML). If you want to start your own e-mail discussion list, the Institute for Global Communications (IGC) offers this service for a modest fee.

Since Usenet groups are all topic-oriented, you'll find the relevant ones if you search by keywords that relate to your issue, in the newsreader that comes with your Internet service. You also can find relevant newsgroups by visiting the Usenet Info Center Web site. One of the most relevant: alt.misc.progressive.activism.

Keep in mind that not all Usenet groups will be accessible, since your Internet service provider decides which are included with your service. For example, PeaceNet's newsgroups are available only to people who receive Internet service from IGC, and America Online's are only available to AOL subscribers.

You can also send electronic alerts to Web sites that feature action alerts, although there is no guarantee they will decide to feature yours. In addition to the MoJo Wire, other sites that host action alerts include IGC, Working Assets Long Distance, WebActive, and InterActivism.

The Internet is vast, and any information you send to one Usenet group or discussion list is likely to wind up on dozens of others. So it's not essential that you identify every single list and newsgroup. If you post information to one or two discussion lists, the chances are good that it will wind up being posted to half a dozen others. But the chances are also good that your e-mail alert will circulate in cyberspace for years, so it's important to include an "expiration" date, along with the necessary contact information. (I'm still getting occasional replies to a sign-on letter to President Clinton urging him to oppose the Communications Decency Act (CDA), which became law more than a year ago when Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act of 1996.)

Organizing in cyberspace is really not much different than organizing anywhere else. E-mail action alerts are the electronic version of the flyers that grassroots organizers hand out on street corners or at rallies. The difference is that e-mail alerts reach people far more people, reach them instantaneously, and cost nothing to distribute.

Audrie Krause is the founder and executive director of NetAction, a national nonprofit group which promotes the use of technology for organizing and advocacy.