An Introduction to Activism on the Internet

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There are many factors that make the Internet attractive for campaigning: its transmission speed, its reach globally and locally to a enormous number of users, low publishing cost, and 24 hour access. The Internet is an important alternative source of information to official and mainstream media, and a powerful means of connection outside of mainstream institutions. It is a truly mass medium, enabling individuals world-wide to share information and converse.

Where open access is available, the Web does not differentiate information by age, status, geography, or point of view — though not all Web pages are accessible to persons using assistive devices to browse the Web (such as screen readers or Braille interface.)

However, while the Internet has created new forms of individual power, social inclusion, and mass participation, it also amplifies existing forms of social exclusion. Internet access is determined by, and can reiterate, existing social and economic relations. The Web is of little use without the ability to read and write.

While the Internet’s communication structure allows for some anonymity, absolute anonymity and security online are extremely difficult to guarantee. This structure has allowed for new methods of surveillance and profiling. However, the same structure makes absolute censorship extremely difficult.

This document offers a brief introduction to a few different techniques of electronic advocacy using email, the Web, and other “new media” to bring about social change.

Though I include a section on Advocacy Tools, this is not intended to be a list of resources on the Internet but rather an overview and analysis of campaigning methods.

This document is also not intended to endorse electronic campaigning tactics at the expense of other offline tactics. Constituencies that are less connected to the Internet, for instance, are less likely to be reached by Internet organizing alone.

Any campaign determining its strategy should analyze its goals and consider the best way to influence, facilitate, create, or seize power. Electronic campaigning techniques may work best when supplementing offline tactics... or may be entirely unsuitable given a campaign’s intended audience, targets, timing, or resources.

As with other campaigning tactics, strategies that work in one context will not necessarily work in another.

The notion of a centrally coordinated, traditional “campaign” should also be reexamined with respect to the emergence of large scale, even spontaneous, online collaborations that are not centrally or hierarchically organized.

In an increasingly wired world, the Internet will become an increasingly important tool in the struggle for human rights and social justice. Coming improvements in eGovernance are also likely to open up new opportunities for electronic advocacy.

This document was drafted in January 2005. Technology and telecom policy change rapidly, so this will soon become dated. But, I suspect some of the advice and techniques apply beyond our specific technological moment.

This document was composed for a non-technical audience employed by nongovernmental and intergovernmental organizations working on civil and political human rights. As such, I do not address the finer points of developing an overall campaign strategy and leave out discussion of many excellent Internet services, tools, and campaigns — for instance, challenges to restrictive copyright and patent law... one of the broadest campaigns on the Internet right now. Though I touch on it here, I leave a detailed analysis of online fundraising techniques for another day.

International Web Landscape

The Computer Industry Almanac speculates that Internet users will top 1 billion in 2005.

Internet usage is growing strongly in China, which surpassed Japan for second place in 2003. The growth of Internet users will continue in the developing countries for another decade. "Much of future Internet users growth is coming from populous countries such as China, India, Brazil, Russia and Indonesia", says Dr. Egil Juliussen, the author of the report. These countries will also see strong growth of wireless web usage and for many new Internet users the cell phone will be their only Internet access device.

Top 15 Countries in Internet Usage [source]
Year-end 2004:Internet
Users (#K)
Share %
1. U.S.185,55019.86
2. China99,80010.68
3. Japan78,0508.35
4. Germany41,8804.48
5. India36,9703.96
6. UK33,1103.54
7. South Korea31,6703.39
8. Italy25,5302.73
9. France25,4702.73
10. Brazil22,3202.39
11. Russia21,2302.27
12. Canada20,4502.19
13. Mexico13,8801.49
14. Spain13,4401.44
15. Australia13,0101.39
Top 15 Countries662,36070.88
Worldwide Total934,480100

The Nielsen//NetRatings global Internet index reports that:

This data suggests considerations for a kind of concise, bite-sized writing style discussed further in the blog section here.

Broadband access is also rising world-wide. Point Topic speculates that global broadband subscribers exceeded 150 million in 2004:

The USA remains the world's leading broadband country achieving 31.7m lines in Q3 2004. China is in second place, adding 3m to reach 22.2m lines, and is pulling further ahead of Japan which had 17.2m lines. France overtook Canada to take sixth place with 5.7m lines. The UK added 762,000 lines in Q3 - the most by any European country, and reached 5.1m lines.

In terms of percentage growth, Thailand led the way with 95% growth to reach 110,000 lines - which were mainly DSL. Elsewhere, the Eastern European countries have displayed particularly strong growth, due to a combination of strong demand and greater transparency in their respective telecommunications markets.

Latin American countries also feature in the 'top ten' for growth, with Mexico achieving 33% and approaching 500,000 broadband lines. Argentina had growth of 26% as it passed 400,000 lines.

In terms of broadband penetration, South Korea remains the leader on almost 25 broadband lines per 100 people, with Hong Kong still in second place with 21 lines per 100 people.

Despite aggressive surveillance, censorship, and arrests, Chinese citizens are taking to the Internet in huge numbers.

The Internet has become the tool to connect across regions and issues around the country. This is supplemented by offline networks distributing information and software on disks and flash memory sticks.

New message boards and listservs quickly replace those shut down. Discussion is wide-ranging, for instance, challenging news sources on why are they not covering certain issues. Even large, mainstream news Web sites push beyond what official news sites publish.

Through online and offline connections, activists are also forging networks across issues: housing rights groups talking to people working on AIDS, labor activists connecting with groups working on women’s rights. Groups working on AIDS in particular, are reaching out to vulnerable populations.

Setting up a Web site though official channels is a cumbersome, bureaucratic process requiring government approval from a variety of agencies. Hosting abroad is one solution. The largest Chinese LGBT site is managed from Shanghai, but hosted in U.S., run from Los Angeles.

Even still, hosting abroad does not offer complete protection. This summer saw a government campaign of harassment of AIDS activists, shutting down sites and jailing list managers on charges of distributing pornography.

Though Africa has the smallest number of telephone lines per capita in the world, all 54 countries and territories in Africa have Internet access in the capital cities. Shared, public access and corporate networks continue to grow at greater rates than the number of dial-up users. However, the Internet is still used primarily used by an elite living in large urban centers. [source]

Forty-eight satellites cover every part of Africa with potential Internet access via satellite, but telecom policies and high costs prevent widespread deployment.[source]

Gender and Technology

Social and cultural norms that constrain women’s mobility and access to resources are also obstacles to participation online:

Women comprise between 30 and 50 percent of students in computer science and other natural sciences in a number of developing countries. Africa remains the area of greatest concern, however, as African women have the lowest participation rates in the world in science and technology education at all levels. The masculine image attributed to science and technology in curriculum and media is a universal phenomenon. Few women are producers of information technology, whether as Internet content providers, programmers, designers, inventors, or fixers of computers. In addition, women are also conspicuously absent from decision-making structures in information technology in developing countries.

Women Internet users in developing countries are not representative of women in the country as a whole, but are restricted to part of a small, urban educated elite.... By regions, women are 22 percent of all Internet users in Asia, 38 percent of those in Latin America, and 6 percent of Middle Eastern users. No regional figures by sex are available for Africa. [source]

Elsewhere, however, women are using information technology as a means of empowerment. Women in Iran use blogs to talk about subjects that may not be discussed publicly. On the Internet, women have public, free expression “for the first time in the contemporary history of Iran.” [source]

Campaigns Around the World

A few of years ago, considering a campaign on the war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo with Suliman Baldo, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, I proposed that postal mail and faxes might be more effective than email activism. He responded that a functioning infrastructure for postal mail and fax machines simply did not exist. On the other hand, he noted, every rebel leader had access to a HotMail account.

Conditions for Internet campaigning vary widely. This is not just a matter of connectivity, but of preexisting social relations. Why, for instance, has organization like MoveOn not emerged in South Korea? Or an institution like OhMyNews not emerged in the U.S.?

A deeper analysis of this is outside the scope of this document, but below are a few examples of how organizations are using the Internet around the world.

It is worth noting that when these campaign has successfully crossed national borders they have been taken up, translated and reinterpreted by independent individuals and groups taking their own initiative — i.e. not organized from a central source. See sections on openess and blogs for more on this.

National Organizing


Universities tend to be fairly wired environments. This is consistent around the world, even in countries where the access is restricted. As such, students have been quick to adopt the Internet for organizing.

Use of the Internet was a major factor leading to the overthrow of the Suharto dictatorship in 1998. Despite the brutal conditions, students used Internet connections to coordinate demonstrations, political action and other activities.[source]


The case of Sun Zhigang is one of the first times a popular outcry online has changed government policy:

In early 2003, Sun Zhigang went to Guangzhou in search of employment as a fashion designer. Like many other migrants at many levels of Chinese society, Sun was required to have a special “temporary residence permit” in order to look for work outside of his home town. Like many others, Sun was detained by police in a migrant detention center; he was severely beaten and died a few days later in police custody.

While this story was not a new one in China, it touched a raw nerve and sparked public action. Within days of the initial news article in Guangzhou’s Southern Metropolis Daily, thousands of Internet users had forwarded the article by e-mail and posted it to bulletin boards. Hundreds of thousands of protest messages appeared on popular sites such as and, decrying Sun’s death and sharing their own experiences of police abuse.

One group set up a memorial page to Sun Zhigang on Many reported there that editors were rapidly deleting their messages on other pages. In the first day, the memorial site had hundreds of protest messages. On the second day, there were thousands of messages. On the third day, pages of the site began to be inaccessible. A week later, the protest page was blocked. Gradually, the great uproar was silenced.

But by then, senior Chinese legal scholars had begun to take up the cause, writing letters to government officials calling for abolishment of the temporary residence permits and reform of the migrant detention centers. Some of these reforms were enacted, making the Sun Zhigang case a breakthrough in China: for one, authorities did change the migrant detention centers into voluntary service centers. [source]

While case of Sun Zhigang inspired reactions across the vast geography of the country, in the South of China, a smaller, local technological revolution is taking place. Chinese officials have suppressed Dai culture and language since the 1920’s. Recent innovations in software and digital publishing tools, however, are helping Dai speakers in China, Burma, and Thailand keep the language alive. Video, disks, and software are primarily transferred offline, by hand, in face-to-face meetings, primarily via monks who have the most freedom to travel.

International Organizing


The armed uprising of the Zapatista National Liberation Army in the Mexican state of Chiapas was one of the first social movements to use the Internet effectively. On January 1, 1994, the Zapatista National Liberation Army took over 5 towns and over 500 ranches in Chiapas, one of the poorest states in Mexico. The Zapatistas say they chose this date because it marked the first day of the North American Free Trade Agreement. During the long war between the Mexican Army and the Zapatistas, the Zapatistas sent out periodic email communiques through journalists and sympathizers that described the situation on the ground, the ideals behind the movement, and its critique of neoliberalism. Despite limited mainstream media coverage of the struggle, the communiques were distributed throughout Mexico and the world, published on the Web, and on gopher sites. I believe it is the literary dimension and political analysis of the communiques as well as the EZLN’s methodolgy that propelled their popularity. These were not simply action alerts, but poetic manifestos and little literary bombs appealing for egalitarian autonomy against a repressive,, thuggish state.

As support and solidarity for the movement grew, the actions of Mexican government were increasingly scrutinized. Protests were held around the world, meetings were organized in Chiapas and across South America, and the Mexican government was eventually pushed to accept mediation and negotiations instead of military force. This page has a list of information resources in English.

Homosexuals in the Arab World

From The Internet In the Arab World: A New Space of Repression?:

Homosexuals might be the only social group in the Arab World that was completely unable to declare publicly its existence until the appearance of the Internet. To declare yourself leftist, Islamist, Shiite or Nasserist means to expose yourself to some security, cultural or religious problems; to declare yourself homosexual means exposing yourself to every single one of these problems....

Arab homosexuals use several different web pages to express themselves, their ideas and their burdens, and to increase society's knowledge about them.

The Web site of the Association of Arab Gays and Lesbians could be considered the oldest and the most famous website of Arab homosexuals. Its appearance [in November 1996] inspired the creation of several other websites addressing Arab homosexuals and led some foreign websites to allocate sections in their pages for issues concerning Arab homosexuals.

The number of homosexual web sites increased after a string of government crack-down campaigns. More regionally specific homosexual websites started to appear, such as the Egypt Gays web site, Arab Gays website, Lebanon Gays website, and Al-Fatiha Gays website. Even in Saudi Arabia, known as an extremely conservative state, homosexuals created a web site, named The Saudi Gay....

Despite the bans that the majority of Arab states have placed on these websites, they remain popular and are visited regularly. An attractive feature about these websites is that they publish news about the oppression of minority groups, like the police crackdown on the homosexuals in Egypt.

Ghana and its Diaspora

Internet fundraising also helped elect three opposition leaders in three major African nations since 2002:

Ghana, Senegal, and Kenya all have large, wired, and relatively wealthy expatriate populations overseas. The expatriates want longtime tyrants out, and the Net offers increased electoral influence in the form of online fundraising. But living abroad, the only opposition candidates expats know are the old guard. Ghana provides the best example. In its 2000 election, an online expat group called the Ghana Cyber Group raised $50,000 for Kufuor according to the group’s founder, Yaw Owusu. Cyber Group members also aggressively used the Net for grassroots campaigning: they organized calls to family and friends back home, in some instances even threatening to stop remitting money to local chiefs who didn't go hut to hut rounding up votes for Kufuor. [source]

United Kingdom

On September 25, 1995 the Mersey Docks & Harbour Company sacked 500 dockworkers in Liverpool for refusing to cross a picket line. Faced with Thatcher’s anti-union laws at home, the dockers appealed for international support. Along with conventional means of communication, they spread the word through email and a Web site on LabourNet. As the dockers travelled to carry the picket abroad, to publicize the struggle and raise funds, they found that when they arrived, people already knew about their struggle “from the Internet.” LabourNet became a daily news service for dockers worldwide about the Liverpool dispute.

Using this network the dockers were able to organize two international days of action in their support. In the first day of action, the body that supposedly possessed the authority to call international dockers’ actions, the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF), was circumvented in this way and reduced to trailing limply behind the dockers’ network. It organized virtually no action itself and when asked by the press to supply information on the pending action it was forced to send begging E-mails to LabourNet to try to find out what was actually happening. This first day of action, on 20th January 1997, resulted in what one international union official described as ‘the biggest international working class action for 100 years.’ In 27 countries, 105 ports and cities, dockers, seafarers, and other workers took part in workplace meetings, public meetings, demonstrations at British Embassies and Consulates, work-to-rules, and full-scale stoppages ranging from 30 minutes up to 24 hours. Whilst this was happening, the Liverpool dockers’ union, the Transport & General Workers’ Union (TGWU), was trying to persuade the Liverpool dockers and their families to accept redundancy payments and quit their fight. The international support was inspiring them to carry on and was making the TGWU leadership’s task much more difficult. When the Liverpool shop stewards called a second day of action on 8th September 1997 the TGWU insisted that the ITF must not support the action. This made very little difference. If anything the action was bigger than the first one. US and Canadian longshoremen closed down the entire North American West Coast from Alaska to Los Angeles for 24 hours. The flexibility of the dockers’ communication network was illustrated by the fact that they were able to organize this action whilst keeping the employers in the dark about its actual date, only publicly announcing it at the last moment.

In September 1997, a ship from Britain with containers on board from a company using Liverpool was refused by dockers in Oakland, Vancouver, and at two different ports in Japan. Rather than sail back to Britain, the ship and its cargo were sold to a company in Hong Kong.

This action caused great fear amongst ship owners and their insurers, even more than the international days of action had. Despite this growing international strength, the dockers were ultimately forced to surrender by the connivance of the TGWU leadership. On 26th January, 1998, the Merseyside Port Shop Stewards Committee issued a statement notifying supporters around the world that ‘the Liverpool dockworkers decided to call an end to their long running dispute.’ Behind the scenes, enormous pressure, full details of which have never been fully revealed, had been put on the shop stewards by the TGWU leadership to force them to end the dispute. Despite this defeat, the Liverpool dockers’ struggle proved how powerful a networked union communication structure based on the Internet could be in the fight back against a globalized capital that dominates the mainstream media. During the course of the Liverpool fight, dockers in a number of other countries: Montreal in Canada, Santos in Brazil, Los Angeles in the US, Amsterdam in the Netherlands and Stockholm in Sweden all began producing their own Web sites. The defeat of the Liverpool men meant most of these Web sites later closed down, but workers elsewhere are still building Internet based communications networks inspired by the one built in support of Liverpool.

During the Korean general strike in 1997, the, then illegal, Korean Confederation of Trade Unions used LabourNet and its own Web sites to publicize its actions. This later resulted in the formation of Korean LaborNet (NodongNet). In February [2002], the All Japan Dockworkers’ Union, which played a central role in taking action for Liverpool, worked together with labour media activists to launch LaborNet Japan. [source]

Additional examples are organized thematically here.

Cell Phones

As mentioned previously, wireless communication and cellphones are becoming increasingly pervasive around the world.

In addition to voice calling, cell phones are becoming a platform for other kinds of information services like text messaging, email, and basic Web browsing. These are all of potential use to activists.

For instance, until relatively recently, home computers in Japan were considered the province of otaku, reclusive obsessive nerds. Cell phones, on the other hand, were extremely popular and were the primary interface of most Japanese users to email and the Web. Most of this interaction continues to take place via cell phone.

Cell phones also have special relevance to countries that lack a reliable telephone infrastructure.

Radio is by far the most dominant mass medium in Africa, and the recent proliferation of independent radio stations and cellular infrastructure in Ghana is already affecting politics. Running up to the December 2000 election, Radio phone-in shows pilloried the hand-picked successor of the outgoing president. During the election itself, voters used cellphones and talk radio to report voting fraud: “Whenever someone at a polling place reported fraud, the called the radio station, which broadcast it; the police had to check it out, not having the excuse that they did not receive a report.” [source] The combinition of new technologies contributed to the end of nearly two decades of one party rule.[source]

Text messaging was used by protesters in 2001 revolution in the Philippines to rapidly coordinate demonstrations that helped topple president Estrada.

During the 2002 presidential election in South Korea, a demographic shift in the population reverberated at the polls, mobilized by electronic media:

In a matter of minutes, more than a million e-mails were sent to mobile phones and online accounts urging supporters to go out and vote. This online rallying cry sent young voters to polling stations nationwide and delivered a narrow 2.3% election victory to the self-proclaimed political outsider Roh [Moo-hyun], who had been summarily rejected by South Korea's conservative media.[source]

Cell phones were used extensively to coordinate autonomous rural social movements in Bolivia in 2003.

In May 2004, Fahamu and a coalition of women’s rights organizations launched the first continent-wide campaign using SMS (Short Message Service) text messages in Africa. The electronic petition campaign urges African governments to ratify the African Union’s Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa. Users can sign via their Web site or can via SMS from their mobile phones. Since the launch of the campaign both Nigeria and South Africa have ratified the Protocol.

Mobile phones were used by protesters at the 1999 World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle to coordinate the demonstrations, and outwit the centralized radio system of the police.

Coordinating protest activists via SMS has become a standard tool since the 1999 WTO protest. Text messages were broadcast to activists around the WEF protest and the Republican National Convention in New York City when activists responded in real time to the movements of Republican delegates and police around town.

While Verizon stretched nearly 40,000 miles of cable for the voice over IP network between the arena and media center, activists used voice over IP and a free software PBX to set up an information hotline with live streaming radio for protesters calls.

UK protesters welcomed President Bush with “Chasing Bush,” a media hack adjunct to the organized, legally-sanctioned anti-war march:

Chasing Bush“The Chasing Bush campaign is asking people to ‘disrupt the PR’ of the visit by spoiling stage-managed photos.

They are being encouraged to send location reports and images by mobile to be posted on the Chasing Bush site

‘We are trying to spoil the PR, so we are not doing anything directly, but encouraging people to protest by turning their backs in press photos so they can’t be used.’

The campaign organizers have also asked people to go into protest ‘exclusion zones’ to send SMS updates and on-location reports about his appearances, and events at protests.” [source]

As part of its 2001 campaign on torture, Amnesty International USA launched its FAST network to use cellphones, pagers, and email to increase the response time on its prisoner case work:

As soon as Amnesty International hears about an imminent threat of torture, FAST instantly sends out an alarm to its network of activists around the globe. Cell phones ring, pagers buzz and computers chime, instructing activists by the thousands to sign electronic letters of protest. Within hours, the threat of torture is exposed. Once exposed, it is nearly impossible to carry out. [source]

In one case, within 24 hours from Amnesty’s initial contact about a case, members had sent 5,000 emails and several hundred faxes to local prison commander in Central America. The detainee in question was promptly released. Still, 2001 may have been early for this particular form of cell phone use, though the technical aspect received considerable media attention; only a few hundred people signed up to be contacted via cell phone.

Surveillance and Crackdown

Since the 1990’s, the Internet has been used to circumvent state controls on media as well as limited access to mainstream media:

The African National Congress used the Internet to break a near-complete blackout in local media [during Apartheid]. Nigerian journalists, especially those who continue facing press censorship feel that it would be impossible for them to function without the help of this technology. Singaporeans using the Internet have been able to express their mature understanding of local political processes and to demand respect for human rights. Individuals in Indonesia break the silence imposed on political discussions using the Internet. A group in Bangladesh is able to use the Internet to cover issues and events usually ignored by mainstream print media. A women’s group in Senegal was able to organize solidarity through the Internet, which helped to gain clemency for a women from the Ivory Coast who was a victim of prevailing [inhuman] norms for marriage. In February 1996, faced with the government ban on their on-line publication, the Zambian news paper - The Post approached international community for support using the Internet. Within a week the newspaper became available on-line on a server based in the United States.

NGOs’ use of mailing lists and Web pages with feedback facilities has also expanded their ability to gather information from countries where local media are biased or government-controlled. During ethnic violence in Bosnia, the February 1997 riots in city of Yining in North West region of China, and civil disturbances in East Timor where it has been difficult and dangerous for outside visitors to collect facts on-site, use of electronic communications became a vital source for these organizations.” Source: Jagdish Parikh, Testing the Limits of Free Expression, 1998. Unpublished.

However, the Internet is not the “safe space” it was once perceived to be. Governments, with the help of private industry, are aggressively pursuing technical means to monitor and control Internet usage and content.

Old style censorship [in China] is being replaced with a massive, ubiquitous architecture of surveillance: the Golden Shield. Ultimately the aim is to integrate a gigantic online database with an all-encompassing surveillance network – incorporating speech and face recognition, closed-circuit television, smart cards, credit records, and Internet surveillance technologies. This has been facilitated by the standardization of telecommunications equipment to facilitate electronic surveillance, an ambitious project led by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in the US, and now adopted as an international standard. [source]

In 2004, the government of China announced the deployment a a new high-speed network over hardware designed by a collaboration between a government Ministry, a state-run university, and the military’s Information Engineering College. Given China’s aggressive push for information control, increasing the level of government design over the network infrastructure would seem to increase the likelihood that information controls may be built into the network infrastructure.

The report implicates several Western companies involved in the development of a repressive state security apparatus. The international trade in surveillance technology from developed countries to developing countries — and particularly to non-democratic regimes — is a global trend.

A December 2003 report to Congress of the FBI’s use of Carnivore, an Internet surveillance program, suggests that the FBI dropped Carnivore two years ago in favor of commercially available tools. And in March 2004, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission required Internet Service Providers to build surveillance capability into the design of their systems.

As of December 2004, Reporters without Borders had documented 71 cyberdissidents imprisoned for their activities on the Internet that year: one each in Syria and Iran, three in Maldives, four in Vietnam, and sixty-two in China.

Also in December, the Internet Society of China announced they had closed down 1,129 pornographic and other illegal Web sites since the nationwide crackdown began this July. The report notes that “their information has also helped to uncover 254 criminal cases and capture 445 suspects.”

However, Duncan Clark, director of a Beijing consulting firm, notes, “China’s rapidly emerging middle classes, numbering tens if not hundreds of millions, are dependent on the Internet and the Internet is dependent on them. There’s no putting the genie back in the bottle now, and no real attempt to do so.” [source]

Still, users continue to develop their own technologies and techniques to route around content controls.

State laws are still bound borders, and posting copies of sensitive content on Web servers around the world (also known as “mirroring”) is a simple way to evade content controls in a particular country. Users may also access the Internet from a neighboring country with fewer content restrictions, for instance dialing from Cuba into Jamaica, or from Saudi Arabia into Bahrain.

In an increasingly globalized world this is also no guarantee of safety: in October 2004, the U.S. F.B.I. ordered the seizure two Indymedia Web servers in the U.K. from a space owned by a U.S. corporation “at the request of Italian and Swiss authorities.” [source]

Protection and Anonymity

By default, every Web site you visit collects information about you: where you are located, what kind of computer you are using, and which Web site referred you to a given page.

For instance, your own IP Address is, your hostname is, and your browser signature looks like CCBot/2.0 (

So is it possible to surf anonymously? Or provide a mechanism to protect users who wish to participate in an international campaign?

There are steps one can take to make yourself and your users more difficult to track, but nothing can guarantee security and anonymity online.

For instsance, users may browse the Web through a “proxy server,” a second computer or software service that masks a users identifiable information. Web services like Anonymizer or Tor are available freely on the Web and may allow users to circumvent local content censorship.

In a May 2001 survey by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, 10% of surveyed users admitted to regularly using proxy servers to defeat censorship.

The Six/Four System creates an encrypted, anonymous tunnel between two computers. It is designed to allow a user behind a firewall that restricts Web access to browse Web sites on the other side of that firewall. It is currently in beta.

Activists should also use an email provider they trust. Normal email is something like a postcard: anyone can read it, your letter carrier, your nosy neighbor, your house mates. All email, unless encrypted, is completely insecure. and a coalition of other activist run email hosts use StartTLS to encrypt connections their servers, though connections to other servers without StartTLS are not encrypted.

Users can also use an email client with encryption to make their messages more difficult to snoop, though this would not address a case of entrapment in which the government lured citizens to an arrest via email communication.

Still, some security is better than none. There are some basic things a an online campaign could do such as serving the site through an encrypted Web connection (aka Secure Sockets Layer.) The technique is commonly used by e-commerce sites to protect users who make credit card transactions online. Some NGOs and activist groups use this method to protect email access via a Web based interface.

However, while this may protect against general snooping, a more targeted effort which gains access to a network could use other techniques like ARP Poisoning to monitor or “sniff” traffic.

Any of these techniques would also be defeated by keystroke logging, which records all keystrokes to a computer independent of the security of the Internet connection. In most cases installing a key-logger requires physical access to a specific computer (as the F.B.I. has done to prosecute the mafia in the United States), though the F.B.I. has admitted the development of a software based key-logger called Magic Lantern which may be installed remotely. Cheap hardware key-loggers are available commercially.

Security may also be enhanced by notifying users of security risks. Sensitive information sent via “free,” commercial email providers or from a public cybercafe may by easier to monitor, particularly in countries where cybercafes are registered by the state. Commercial email providers may turn over records to state agencies freely — even without a formal subpoena.

A Web site for homosexuals in Saudi Arabia provides their visitors with some basic advice on how to protect themselves:

  1. Do not use your real name
  2. Use a secret or confidential e-mail address.
  3. If some one offers to meet you, be careful.
  4. Do not give your home address to anyone.
  5. Do not give your phone number to anyone. [source]

Advocacy Tools

Application Service Providers

A number of for-profit companies provide readymade software systems for activists, non-profits, or political campaigns to manage their activist database online.

The systems have different feature sets, but each provide a combination of Web page management, email list management, and member database management. The systems often include ready-to-go, updated contact information for U.S. state or national officials. Some systems can also synchronize with an organizations donor database to allow targeted email messages to donors who match certain criteria.

When users input your zip code, their elected officials are identified, you can fax or email the text of a sample letter, or customize it.

In my opinion, the most powerful feature is the ability to email users based on their zip code. Using this, one can target key Congressional districts before a vote.

These systems are maintained on the companies’ own servers, and can be managed and customized via a Web based interface. While some services may be available to very small non-profits at little or no cost, set-up and monthly fees often add up to tens of thousands of dollars per year.

Companies offering these services in the U.S. include:

Each provides a different feature set and data set. Most specialize in Congressional lobbying, while some maintain lists of State and local officials and media contacts. Some companies may be more willing than others to customize their services to your campaign’s specific needs.

At this time, none of these systems offer much multi-lingual support — particularly of non-Latin scripts. The generally do not maintain lists of foreign officials.

Free Tools

Included here are a mix of software tools that are ‘free’ — some at no financial cost to the user, others ‘free’ to share and modify — and a few that are both.

The Organizers Database is a membership database program for Windows designed for small organizations to keep track of activist members or donors. is a public service offered by Capitol Advantage useful for lobbying members of Congress by fax or email via a Web interface.

The Petition Site and Petition Online offer free electronic petition hosting to anyone with an email address. The latter currently hosts petitions in a variety of languages.

mySociety has developed several free, open source applications enabling citizens to lobby and track their elected officials:

The site lets Britons fax their Members of Parliament for free. The site was instrumental in killing the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act of 2000 and the national ID card campaign. The site was set up by volunteers because Parliament did not offer such a service. It is run by a private citizen on a shoestring out of a spare bedroom. Blogger Corey Doctorow sums it up: “Some code, a good meme, DSL, and a few hundred bucks’ worth of hardware adds up to a tool that moves governments. I am agog.” is an extension of which includes additional local and national officials, and sends an email or fax depending on the targeted official’s preference. data-mines the voting records of Members of Parliament to help citizens hold them accountable.

Online Community Building

There are several free content management systems suitable for Web campaigns. AMP is a system design specifically with activists in mind. It integrates basic Web publishing with email list management.

Activists and organizations are using other tools to coordinate offline actions. The AMP system includes a ride-sharing module to match drivers with passengers. Supporters of Howard Dean’s presidential campaign made headlines with their use of Amnesty International USA gives its membership the option to broadcast notice of local events to other email subscribers in neighboring zip codes.

Another software tool used to foster collaboration and coordination online is CivicSpace, a free distribution of the Drupal open source content management system.

GroupServer is an open source replacement for Yahoo! Groups, a Web and email application that enables people to share files and conversations in groups and communities online.


Still, a tool does not make a campaign. An online campaign, like any other, requires planning and labor. While online tools help automate some processes, keeping track of campaign activities and responding to an online constituency of hundreds, thousands, or millions is obviously labor intensive.

Too many organizations send out action alert after action alert using the same template, with little variation and little feedback to their users. Too many online petitions continue to circulate and gather signatures targeting officials who have long since left office.

In the U.S., members of Congress are slowly learning to adapt to the onslaught of email messages generated by the tools listed above. Congressional staff sort and assign weight to the messages they receive by email, fax, and phone. Needless to say, thousands of identical emails carry less weight.

Some campaigns coordinators are adapting their strategies, for instance, varying the subject lines of the messages they send out, and encouraging users to cut-and-paste from a list of talking points (or write their own) rather than send thousands of identical messages.

Nonetheless, such email lobbying should not necessarily be the beginning and end of a campaign because a tool makes it easy to use. Electronic lobbying should be considered within the broader arc of the campaign strategy and goals.

Given your target audience, what will they find compelling and meaningful about the action you are asking them to take? You may not need high technology to encourage them to do so.

Easy email lobbying may also have the unintended effect of reducing additional or offline action if users feel like they have taken sufficient action online.

(See the sections on cell phones and examples for additional notes on tools.)

On Email

Building a network of supporters from scratch is a slow process.

Email Graphics Organizations should be much more conscious of soliciting email addresses from their supporters, particularly at offline events. Far too many presentations end before a signup sheet is passed around. By then it’s almost always too late.

While maintaining a Web site does require some specialized knowledge, maintaining an email list is easy. Human rights groups can use email lists to broadcast human rights abuses in real time, reaching out globally for solidarity and support. Whether publishing a newsletter, sending out an action alert, announcing an event, raising funds, building solidarity, or generally spreading the word, the costs for maintaining an email list are minimal. And the impact can be great. (See the examples page.)

There are several free listserv services available to individuals and small organizations.

Steer clear of “free” services from big corporations, though. Not only are these often padded with advertisements, but Yahoo! and Topica don’t much care for the privacy or security of your users.

Below is a list of organizations that provide email list services run by for activists, generally staffed by volunteers and funded by donations. They generally do not include advertisements on their email lists. Many have specific policies about the types of groups they support and the types of email messages they do not. See:,,,,,,,,,, sindominio.

You can also set up a free announcement list on your own Web server with phpList. The software is easy to install, manages bounces and multiple lists very well, and seems perfect for folks who are not yet ready to tackle Mailman or Sympa — two industrial strength applications.

If you do have a Web site, make sure it’s immediately clear on your site you do have an email list. And make it very easy for people to sign up. No need for pop-up windows — a prominent link or sign-up form will do.

Here are a few tips.

These pages offer a few other basic tips on using email for advocacy:

While some of these tips may seem like common sense, they are ignored with surprising frequency. In some cases, this may be because maintaining an online campaign is more resource intensive than it seems at first. At the height of its campaign activities in the 2004 presidential election, MoveOn employed a full-time staff of six (plus volunteers and consultants) to drive its online campaigns. A campaign that asks time and resources from its users should consider the time and resources it devotes to them.

On Blogs

PoliticsOnline summarizes some of the impact of blogs in 2004:

And from The Rise of Open-Source Politics, November 22, 2004:

Blog-based political networking has had all kinds of concrete political effects. Best known is the way prominent bloggers like Joshua Micah Marshall, along with some conservatives like Glenn Reynolds, fired up the Trent Lott-Strom Thurmond story, which led to Lott's fall from grace. More recently, bloggers have spurred the resignation of a homophobic Congressman (Ed Schrock),... distributed Jon Stewart's blistering October 15 appearance on CNN's Crossfire, beat back Sinclair Broadcasting's plan to force its stations to air an anti-Kerry documentary, and formed a back channel for unhappy soldiers in Iraq and their families back home.

Blogs by Language
January 2005 [source]

Large scale online collaborations have emerged in recent years that are not centrally or hierarchically organized. These exist outside of, and in some cases in opposition to, traditional membership structures coordinated by non-profit organizations.

These movements are enabled by access to free and easy to use publishing tools and fora on the Web.

Web logs, or blogs, started out as personal diaries, with short, journalistic entries published in reverse chronological order. There are no defined rules for blogging, though stylistic conventions have emerged.

Anthropologist Alireza Doostdar, provides a useful analysis of Iranian blogs as a kind of fluid “speech genre”, closer to oral than written modes of communication in their informal and personal tone. “Shorter, bolder, more provocative but perhaps less coherent writings are often preferred to longer, better thought-out but possibly less exciting ones,” she notes.

Blog entries do tend to be short, under 500 words or so, and often refer to other Web pages or blog entries on other sites.

Some blogs are open to comment by other users, either the general public, or limited to registered users. Often a blogger will respond in the comments section to comments others have made to a blog post, generating a kind of conversation.

Some blogs are built collaboratively with multiple authors submitting stories or links. Some feature the ability to rank stories and/or comments so that, while open to the public, various filters exist. (See more on moderation.)

The blogosphere thrives on commentary and discussion and interlinking. Bloggers linking to and responding to each other create other another kind of online dialog. A particularly persuasive analysis may be picked up by many other bloggers, spreading from blog to blog. This has prompted the creation of Web sites that monitor blogs for the day’s popular topics and news. Many blogs also link to blogs they read along a sidebar, or “blog roll.”

The interlinking, interactivity, structure, and tone is quite the opposite of most NGO Web sites which lack any mechanism for public feedback, save a general email address. Also contrary to traditional NGO campaigning, information flow between users is both visible and encouraged.

The barrier to access is extremely low, with several free and low-cost blogging tools and services available online. This has enabled enormous numbers of people to post to the Web in real time. This massively parallel, instantaneous feedback has led to huge spikes in traffic around certain issues. (See more on viral marketing.)

Within these loose conventions, it is the content and community that attracts users. Sites that frame their message in a digestible way attract communities of users who respond to it. As anyone with access can join the blogosphere, there is some jockeying for popularity — any social group will have its core group, its “in-crowd.”. Popular blogs receive huge amounts of traffic. Blogs that publish frequently are also more likely to attract repeat visitors looking for new content. Thus a collaborative blog maintained by a community has a better chance of building a following very quickly. Successful blogs also strike a balance between a focus and variety — finding a niche, a unique voice, or point-of-view, vs. posting an interesting mix of links and topics that provide different points of entry and relevance to a diverse audience.

Organizations and commercial entities have had mixed success in their attempts to promote an issue or product on community sites. Members of a community can be very protective against what they perceive as exploitation. On the other hand, a well crafted argument or interactive Flash piece may be very widely linked.


In January 2005, the Pew Internet and American Life Project published the results of survey on blogs in the United States. Among their key findings:

Blog creators are more likely to be: Men: 57% are male; Young: 48% are under age 30; Broadband users: 70% have broadband at home; Internet veterans: 82% have been online for six years or more; Relatively well off financially: 42% live in households earning over $50,000; Well educated: 39% have college or graduate degrees

In December 2004, it was estimated that Iranians maintained 300,000 blogs online with around 75,000 of them written in Persian from inside Iran.

China’s biggest blogging service provider reports that the number of subscribers increased from 10,000 in June last year, to more than 500,000 in December 2004. [source]

Other easy blogging tools are emerging as well: audio blogging or posting short audio clips recorded via a telephone call; photoblogs for sharing digital images online; and moblogging, posting photos or text to a Web log via a cellphone or mobile interface.

The increasingly popularity of cell phone cameras has had political consequences as well as a kind of grassroots surveillance. In one example, in November 2003, a photo taken with a cell phone camera outside a Portland nightclub shows a large toy monkey stuffed behind the bumper guard of a Portland police car parked in front of the club. The car was clearly visible inside the restaurant/bar, where a hip-hop party involving mostly black patrons was being held. The resulting press, which published the photo, pushed the police to conduct an internal investigation.


XMLOne consequence of the rise of blogs is the increasing use of different methods of syndicating content. Using a standardrized content tagging system like RSS and Atom, users tag chunks of text to indicate title, date, and topic. Users can quickly check the latest headlines from a variety of Web sites without downloading the entire page, Web page designers can incorporate automatically updated headlines from favorite or related sites into their own. Popular news aggregators like Google News and Yahoo! Full Coverage may scan RSS feeds rather than full Web pages for new headlines to include on their sites. One well-placed link on these sites can generate huge amounts of traffic.

U.S. government agencies are syndicating weather alerts, disaster alerts, and press releases. The Supreme Court of West Virginia syndicates summaries of recent court decisions through RSS. scans RSS feeds to track what bloggers are saying about bills as they work their way through Congress. For more on use of RSS in Government visit

Syndication feeds can be transferred to other formats: phpList will forward updates to an email address. Recently announced feedbeep will forward syndicated content to SMS text messages you can receive on your cell phone.

Related to audio blogging is the phenomenon of podcasting, in which digital audio programs are released at regular intervals. This is a kind of independently produced “radio” broadcasting through a syndicated feed that the user subscribes to. Using a special RSS reader, the programs are downloaded as MP3’s to the users computer or MP3 player when new ones are available. Democracy Now! the largest community media collaboration in the United States posts digital audio of its programs at A podcast feed is available at


Another consequence of blog publishing is the aggregation of information by theme. Bloggers may have a particular point of view or thematic interest. Many blogs sort their postings into into thematic categories, making it easy to find related content., Metaefficient, and collect technology-related news, products, and strategies for sustainable development.

Though not strictly a blog, since 2002 Online Volunteers, a personal Web site, has posted links to news about the massacres in Gujarat, and its subsequent investigations. Over time, it has become a primary resource for information.

On Openness

The many-to-many broadcast model that the Internet has enabled is historically unprecedented. Never before have so many people around the world been able to reach so many others. The amount of free information online, the ability of users to post easily to the Web, and to share endlessly reproducible digital information (text, music, images, software, etc...) has fostered myriad affinities and communities online. It has allowed for deep collaboration and fostered a spirit of openness.

The freedom of knowledge and freedom of expression is also embodied in the realm of software — free to use, distribute, and modify — that powers many of the systems though which Internet traffic travels. The Free Software Movement is not just a matter sharing code and making better software collaboratively, but embracing and extending the freedom to do so. It is not tool building for advocacy, it is tool building as advocacy.

These freedoms have additional political consequences. Individuals are not just embracing freedom of expression online, but pushing for the freedom to access information about their rights and about the government that is supposed to serve and protect you, for instance access to the language and the ability to comment on legislation before it is passed.


Below are some powerful examples of the power of openness.

Transparency International, an international coalition of organizations fighting corruption, uses the Internet to share project ideas within their network, and with the public at large. Among their recommendations is a push for governments to develop online bidding systems for public contracting, opening the process to review, fair competition, and eliminating favoritism and graft.


From Asia Times:

While South Korea’s journalists and political leaders have been debating how to reform Korean media for decades, the hot new OhmyNews website has paved the way for a new type of democratic journalism with its thousands of ’Net citizens — netizens — as contributors. Readership is in the millions and netizens act when called upon....

Three [media] reform bills are expected to be pushed through the National Assembly soon, and one reason is the alternative Internet media, especially OhmyNews.

A last minute appeal on the site and via cell phones is credited with tipping the close election in favor of opposition candidate Roh Moo-hyun, a candidate “summarily rejected by South Korea's conservative media.”

In contrast to South Korea’s “overwhelmingly conservative mainstream newspapers”:

A close reading of the site's articles reveals that its young non-professional journalist contributors are anti-corporate, anti-government and often virulently anti-American. OhmyNews covers the topics found in the daily media, from sports and entertainment to politics, but always infused with a point of view.

From Japan Media Review:

The pioneering South Korean news site posts hundreds of stories every day -- most are written by housewives, schoolkids, professors and other "citizen journalists." Founder Oh Yeon-Ho says his site is changing the definition of journalism -- and who can be a journalist....

Citizen reporters submit about 200 articles every day, and about 1 million readers visit OhmyNews each day. The site mixes straight news reporting and commentary. Its influence at the grassroots level has been widely credited with helping President Roh Moo-hyun win the popular vote last December.

This takes place within an extremely wired society. More than two-thirds of the population of South Korea has Internet access. South Korea has the highest per capita broadband usage in the world.


A wiki is a software application that allows any user to create and edit Web page content via a Web browser. Wikis use a simple text syntax for creating new pages and links between internal pages on the fly. Lots of decentralized organizations and groups (for instance, Indymedia) use wikis to collaboratively develop documentation and resources.

Wikipedia was founded in 2001 as a collaborative encyclopedia edited wiki style. It is a massive experiment in knowledge production, allowing anyone to edit a page. Every day thousands of users contribute new pages and update existing ones on Wikipedia.

The Wikipedia strives for “balance” in its entries on contentious subjects, encouraging discussion on discussion boards when controversy heats up.

Critics charge that the reliability of Wikipedia can never be guaranteed. However, this has not dissuaded its fans and users.

Of particular relevance to campaigners is the rapid response to December 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean. The sites network of volunteers rapidly curated links to some of the best resources and information on the disaster and reconstruction.

The site is also accessible in multiple languages, and many articles exist in parallel languages. Wikipedia is now one of the most extensive and certainly the most current encyclopedia in many languages. The entire contents of the site can be downloaded to CD for offline distribution to places with unreliable Internet connections.

Others have used Wikipedia’s free software engine to create their own wiki encyclopedias. Disinfopedia is a project of the Center for Media and Democracy. It is “a collaborative project to produce a directory of public relations firms, think tanks, industry-funded organizations and industry-friendly experts that work to influence public opinion and public policy on behalf of corporations, governments and special interests.”


IndymediaIndymedia is many things to many people: a collection of autonomous independent media organizations; an open publishing system; a global, grassroots infrastructure for free speech, dissent, and activism; a network for solidarity and technology exchange; a movement for truth and social justice, both local and international. Indymedia rose to prominence during the protests against the World Trade Organization in Seattle in November 1999. Since then, the global justice movement and Indymedia have grown along side each other, often intersecting and mutually supporting one another.

“The Independent Media Center is a network of collectively run media outlets for the creation of radical, accurate, and passionate tellings of the truth. We work out of a love and inspiration for people who continue to work for a better world, despite corporate media's distortions and unwillingness to cover the efforts to free humanity.” [source]

The Indymedia centers are operated by the principles of open collaboration and consensus. “Open publishing is the same as Free Software.” writes tech volunteer Matthew Arnison. “They’re both (r)evolutionary responses to the privatization of information by multinational monopolies.” On the open news wire, news is distributed at no charge and without advertising. The process of creating news is also transparent to the readers. (Many local Indymedia Centers hold regular journalism training sessions open to the public.)

Web sites of the over 150 Indymedia Centers around the world provide an online forum for independent journalism documenting local and international struggles for social justice, and forging local and international solidarity and popular power. The network produces printed newsletters, documentary films, radio programs, and photo exhibits, and works with international gatherings of progressives like the World Social Forum and regional Social Forums.

Centers also collaborate with each other across state and national borders. The global tech group is a decentralized collective that coordinates tech issues that affect the main Indymedia site, listservs, and other shared resources. The Indymedia Tech Solidarity Project “works to ship containers of computers to Indymedia centers and social movements in the global south to build popular communication capacity.” While participants in local Indymedia Centers organize face-to-face, international projects are coordinated through email lists and Internet chat.

The Indymedia network does not have a single, clearly platform or set of issues they are pushing for, however, I believe the network has augmented the force of protests by the global justice movement against the Bretton Woods organizations. I credit that movement for recent reforms and gestures those organizations have made, including opening discussion with more moderate NGOs.


This openness is not without its consequences, though. Open discussion boards and email lists are prone to erupt into hostile “flame wars” and other arguments. Open content collaboration is open to sabotage.

Electronic networks have proven relatively effective at stopping things. They effectively connect communities who share similar opinions and provoke discussion among those who do not. Hoeever, it is has proven less effective at building consensus or getting people to agree on something that they do not already. An ongoing challenge for activists and organizaitons is generating places where open discussion leads to the forging of new opinions.

To maintain openness and quality, different sites use different methods. OhmyNews retains a staff of professional editors. IndyMedia’s publishing software gives administrators the ability to hide content they deem contrary to the mission of the organization.

Others, like Wikipedia and Slashdot, a popular technology news and discussion site use the size of its user base to balance content. Slashdot randomly grants registered users moderator points they can use to rate articles as positive or negative. Users who post informative or funny comments receive “karma” points for their quality posts. Users who post redundant or ignorant and belligerent posts lose karma. The general readership can then browse comments at different thresholds - viewing only the highest rated comments, only the generally good and above, or all comments. Moderators may also be meta-moderated, receiving karma points for particularly good rating decisions.

Wikipedia fights sabotage via the sheer number of members online checking each others edits.


The spirit of openness is also spread and protected with a handful of licenses that grant varying degrees of freedom to reproduce or alter content and software. The licenses may grant or restrict terms of commercial use. The GNU Public License, Mozilla Public License, and the Creative Commons Licenses are perhaps the most important. See this extensive list of Open Source licenses approved by the Open Source Initiative.

Viral Marketing

One of the attractions of Internet campaigning is the potentially huge number of readers who can take action. A well-placed link on a popular site, or passed from friend to friend may generate millions of page views very quickly.

Viral marketing is defined in the Wikipedia as “marketing techniques that seek to exploit pre-existing social networks to produce exponential increases in brand awareness, through processes similar to the spread of an epidemic.”

Campaigners may use a Web video or animated Flash piece complete with music and dialogue to convey their message. There are generally large files that require slow modem users to wait will the files are downloading.

Free Range Graphics has designed and produced the extremely popular campaign animations The Meatrix and Conflict Diamonds. See their gallery of Web animations for more. Free Range’s pieces shy away from dry facts and statistics in favor of a compelling narrative. They rely on humor and a mix of cultural references, particularly pop culture, using images that are already ‘part of the conversation’ in the news or in the culture at large as a metaphor or narrative device.

They also use music to catch the user’s attention. The Forest Slash — to the tune of the Monster Mash — uses the voice of Bobby Pickett, singer of the original tune. It was released as an MP3 around Halloween as part of a campaign on deforestation.

Messages conveyed in a fun or edgy way are more likely to attract a general public.

As such, it may be difficult to attract a wide, general audience with ‘difficult’ content. Humor, is obviously, not appropriate for every issue. Amnesty International USA’s Torture Test piece is an immersive educational piece with photos and audio, posing questions and answers about U.S. policy. The piece encapsulates the message of AIUSA’s campaign on torture and points to action alerts elsewhere on the Web site. However, the content of the piece itself is general and not directly pegged to specific actions and can thus live on after the specific campaign has ended.

Still from Guatemala Flash pieceAmnesty International’s Flash piece on Guatemala did not take a humorous angle in calling for the abolition of the Estado Mayor Presidencial (EMP). The Web movie, complete with movie and voice actors, told the story of the EMP and its implication in high profile human rights cases of abuse and disappearance. Combined with a media strategy and offline lobbying effort by local groups and Amnesty’s international membership, the campaign was a success. It was reported heavily in the Spanish press, ultimately drawing a formal response from the Guatemalan government. The Guatemalan Congress passed a law to abolish the EMP on September 24, 2003. The president signed it into law shortly before leaving office.

Developing Flash animations requires significant commitments of time, labor, and/or money. If your target audience is already dedicated to your issue, they may not need something Flashy. However, if your audience is a broad public, it may make sense to develop a compelling Flash component.

Such animations should be integrated into the overall campaign. It is very easy to generate excitement about something cool, but it may not move your cause forward. A Flash animation should also be timed within the arc of a campaign. An animation may not necessarily lead to immediate action. It may get a week of play before traffic subsides.

When attracting a lot of page views, generally a small percentage of users will take action, or provide their email address, but it should be very clear to the user how they can get involved.

Launching a viral campaign may begin with a simple email blast to supporters, particularly individuals with access to the media such as journalists and bloggers — people can reach many others if they like it.

Once in circulation, make it easy for users to send it along to their friends.

Forward this to a Friend

A survey by the Institute For Politics Democracy & The Internet found that email forwarded from a friend has greater credibility and is read more often than e-mail that sent directly from a campaign organizer.

While campaigners can provide an easy mechanism to forward an email to a friend, this is largely outside a campaign’s control. Please include an end date and a Web address. Email petitions forwarded from friend to friend can circulate on around the Internet indefinitely — long after a situation on the ground has changed.

A user taking an action on the MoveOn site is sent a confirmation email that includes a personalized ready-to-forward message to a friend about the subject of the action. This serves a multiple purpose: verifying that the email of the action taker is a working email address, proving the user with immediate confirmation, and automatically encouraging the user to forward notice of the action to their social network.

Plug into Existing Networks

Organizations like Witness, MediaRights act as distibutors for grassroots video and film production. They pull from existing communities and supply existing networks.

Translation and Accessibility


When Human Rights Watch researcher Zama Coursen-Neff met with the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics in 2001 to deliver her report, she found the staff had already downloaded the summary and recommendations in Hebrew from the HRW Web site. Rather than starting from scratch, the meeting could proceed apace.

In addition to facilitating campaigning across borders, any campaign committed to political pluralism should incorporate translation.

While automatic software translation is poor, content management software can help facilitate the management of translations by staff and/or volunteers.

Google has the largest network of translators in the world, combining staff management with translation tracking software and an enormous network of volunteers to translate its interface messages and documentation.

Sites with self-governing translation networks include Indymedia and Wikipedia. Both sites feature open access for users to submit translations of articles, relying on a critical mass of users to vet the quality of translations. See Wikipedia’s multilingual statistics page to view the breathtaking number of languages they support.

Depending on your Web site content management system, one can incorporate free software libraries to manage remote translation of text into multiple languages.

Juan Cole, Professor of History at the University of Michigan, regularly posts summaries in English of Arabic language news reports on his blog. His commentary has become a popular source of information about the war in Iraq. In February 2004, he announced a project to translate classics of American thought and literature into Arabic, and to subsidize their publication and distribution. “The project will begin with a selected set of passages and essays by Thomas Jefferson on constitutional and governmental issues such as freedom of religion, the separation of powers, inalienable rights, the sovereignty of the people, and so forth.” [source]

And, as in the case of the Dai in southwest China, software tools are making minority languages easier to preserve.

Again, however, tools are not a panacea or substitute for the time and labor necessary to produce quality translations. They merely facilitate and decentralize the process.


Organizations promoting political pluralism should consider the accessibility of their Web pages. This is not just a matter of content, but of coding.

People who benefit from accessible design may be blind or partially sighted, unable to use a mouse, or color blind. The very young and very old may also have difficulty using a mouse or reading the screen.

Web page authors can use specific coding techniques and design principles to make Web content accessible to persons who use assistive devices to browse the Web. These techniques also make Web pages more accessible across a variety of platforms and Web browsers including voice browsers, screen magnifiers, mobile phones, or older desktop computers with low-resolution screens.

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines are a set of guidelines developed by the World Wide Web Consortium to for building accessibile Web sites. The guidelines constitute a list of 14 concepts, broken into checkpoints and priorities. Techniques for Web Content Accessibility Guidelines explains how to implement each guideline.

The U.S. Federal Government Section 508 accessibility guidelines list coding guidelines required by Federal agencies when producing Web pages.

In 1998, the U.S. Congress amended the Rehabilitation Act to require Federal agencies to make their electronic and information technology accessible to people with disabilities. Section 508 “was enacted to eliminate barriers in information technology, to make available new opportunities for people with disabilities, and to encourage development of technologies that will help achieve these goals.”

Organizations in the U.S. have successfully brought lawsuits against consumer and financial services corporations for failing to design their sites in an accessible format.

Since 1998, the Web Standards Project, an international and informal movement of designers and Web coders, has actively promoted standards compliant Web code.

Examples of Effective Action

Below is a collection of Internet activism examples I find excellent. Not all of these cases accomplished their policy or electoral goals, but did have some impact in other ways.

Much of this list is structured around categories outlined by Sasha Costanza-Chock in “Mapping the Repertoire of Electronic Contention,” in Representing Resistance: Media, Civil Disobedience and the Global Justice Movement, eds. Andrew Opel and Donnalyn Pompper. Greenwood, in press. Unless otherwise indicated, the quoted text below has been taken from him.

Though I’ve added some of my own commentary, this is not intended to be a full analysis of the campaigns and organizations mentioned. While I disagree with the politics of many of the examples listed, I think there is something to be learned from each one.

Many of the projects also cross multiple categories, but are organized here for the sake of demonstration. The categories are as follows:


“It would be impossible to catalog the hundreds of thousands of sites devoted to social movements, but these generally present organizations in terms of mission, projects, history, membership, and links to affiliated groups, and usually include contact information. One function of such sites is to establish a kind of ongoing presence for organizations and other movement actors. In contexts of extreme repression, websites may be the only way for organizations that operate entirely underground to have a persistent visible presence at all. For example, this is the case for the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, who have spoken of how their website ( has served as kind of ‘virtual base’ from which they are able to represent themselves to the world as well as engage in all the other forms of conventional electronic contention described below.”

Information Distribution and Independent Media

“This includes, but is not limited to, the distribution of information about movement goals, campaigns, actions, reports, and so on via website, email, listservs, bulletin boards, chat rooms, ftp, and other channels. Information may be designed for the general public or for specific receivers, for example press releases, academic reports, or radio programmes and video segments for rebroadcast. In some cases the same information may be repackaged differently for various intended audiences.”

Radio B-92Radio B-92 broadcasts music and news promoting “free speech, objective reporting, social tolerance and solidarity, minority cultures, cosmopolitan values and alternative culture” in the struggle for a free and democratic Serbia. After two brief closures by the regime of Slobodan Milosevic, Radio B92 was permanently taken over on April 2, 1999. Within months, Free B92 managed to resume almost all its former activities. In cooperation with Studio B, the radio program B2-92 began broadcasting on 99.1 MHz FM on August 9, 1999. Despite constant jamming by the regime this program quickly became the highest-rated in Belgrade as had been Radio B92 before the shutdown. The government took over Studio B on May 16, 2000, terminating the FM broadcast. Despite this, the station continued to broadcast on satellite (six hours a day) as well as on the Internet (24 hours). The shift to underground, Internet broadcasting enabled the opposition to be heard throughout the war. The station continues to use the Internet in the fight against repression, and as a focus of an on-line community concerned with the struggle for democratization of Serbia.

Much has been made of the rise of Blogs in Iran, particularly as a place for women in Iran to talk freely about subjects they can not otherwise discuss in public. The debate online is an extension of the overall intellectual and democratic transformation taking place.

Blogs also played a role in the resignation of Senate majority leader Trent Lott. When the mainstream media ignored the racist remarks of the incoming Senate Minority Leader, bloggers kept the story going.

Tokyo Alien Eyes is a tiny organization that fights racism against foreign residents in Japan, particularly students. The director maintains a blog (in Japanese) of his activities which creates a level of transparency that is unique among Japanese community-based organizations.

A geek buys a new computer with a built-in DVD player. He runs the Linux operating system and is unable to play the DVD’s he owns. So he cracks the DVD encryption scheme and shares the recipe with other Linux users. Hilarity ensues. So what’s the best way to spread a piece of code? Ban it and then sue a bunch of geeks to remove the code and links to it from their Web pages. The debate over DeCSS, subsequent lawsuits and massive civil disobedience have broad implications: Is code software or speech? Are digital media (like movies and videos) software or speech? Can you really make hyperlinks illegal? And what about our freedom to tinker? The continued redistribution of the code has made a mockery of the MPAA, their tactics, and security model. (Particularly when the DeCSS code was briefly entered into the public record in the course of the trial.)

And then there are your solid campaign sites like Run by the organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the campaign targets cruelty against animals by circuses. The site provides a concise overview of the issue, a list of actions you can take, and materials for kids to download and print. The site navigation is clear, and the overall design is bright and circusy with stars and photos of circus tents... and animals in chains. The domain name is also a great Google hack. When a user searches for info on “circuses,” comes up first.


“Many social movement organizations use the Internet as a resource for gathering specific information relevant to their cause, including information about opponents or targets, information produced by other movement actors, case studies of parallel situations, historical background, theory, economic data, environmental data, media analysis, and so on.”

The Environmental Working Group Farm Subsidy Database is a database of farm program checks written by the U.S. Department of Agriculture from 1996 through 2000, obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request. Tens of millions of check records were compiled to obtain the total subsidy received by each recipient, in each payment category. According to the New York Times, it has “not only caught the attention of [U.S.] lawmakers, it also helped transform the farm bill into a question about equity and whether the country’s wealthiest farmers should be paid to grow commodity crops while many smaller family farms receive nothing and are going out of business.”

Among the myths, propaganda, and disinformation bolstering the U.S. invasion of Iraq, there were a few shining beacons of clarity and truth on the Web. The Center for Cooperative Research has produced several excellent fact sheets about America’s war without end. Their breakdown of Iraqi opposition groups, and their positions on U.S. invasion, is the best that I’ve found. See also 13 Myths About the Case for War in Iraq, a collaborative research project developed by Organizers’ Collaborative. Written and produced by “The Committee to Unsell the War,” Who Dies for Bush Lies? features a summary of Bush administration lies for this and the previous Gulf War, and addresses the cost of war on U.S. civilians and soldiers as well as Iraqi civilians and soldiers. It also points to carefully selected resources, links, and actions, and features photos of anti-war Americans from all walks of life rallying against the war. Iraq Body Count tracks Iraqi casualties of war by cross-checking news accounts.

Related to advocacy oriented research are sites that aggregate research materials.

National Security Archive, Digital National Security Archive, the Dossier Documents Library, Cryptome and The Memory Hole host extensive collections of declassified documents from U.S. government agencies. The Memory Hole was one of the first Web sites to publish photos of U.S. coffins returning from the war in Iraq, and became a site of reference collected images of U.S. soldiers torturing Iraqi prisoners published published in other media.

Tobacco Archives contains “7 million documents related to advertising, manufacturing, marketing, sales, and scientific research of tobacco products.”

Cultural Production

“Visual art, music, video, poetry,, and other forms of cultural production by artists active in, associated with, or supportive of social movements are often posted, distributed, or sold online.”

Graphic by Eric DrookerSeveral Web sites host agit-prop images that can be freely printed out and posted around town. Subvertise is a fairly broad collection. During the invasion of Iraq, many sites hosted a number of downloadable anti-war posters. The idea is good, though the quality of the images is mixed. Two individual artists with some great agit-prop images and posters online are Erik Drooker and Mike Flugennock. Micah Wright’s remixed vintage propaganda posters were widely picked up by the blogging crowd.

During the invasion of Iraq, a couple of artists remixed President Bush’s State of the Union speeches to comic and chilling effect. To this, I would also add this lip-synched love song between George W. Bush and Tony Blair.

Also under cultural production, are satire sites.

“Site parodies or replicas of target sites that subtly alter wording or images to express activist viewpoints and discredit the target have been launched against.”

Some examples:,,,, Homeland Security Cultural Bureau.

I list a few other examples in the parody section of my Web log.

The 2004 election also saw a number of feature films and grassroots video projects hit the Web. Bush TV

MoveOn sponsored a video contest to produce a 30-second advertisement criticizing President Bush.

Activist video editors provided instant, video remix analysis of the presidential debate, the Republican National Convention, and media coverage of the war:

See also the ongoing and excellent work of Witness and Media Rights.


Also known as “viral marketing,” these campaigns often take the form of Flash pieces that are emailed from friend to friend promoting a cause or action. Two examples are AIDS Concern, Hong Kong, and the Amnesty International, Conflict Diamonds animation.

Less attached to any specific campaigns are two projects by Jonah Peretti that were forwarded widely around the Web: his email exchange about customizing Nike sneakers with the word “sweatshop”; and the straight-faced satire site

Somewhere between outreach and communication is political use of the Web site The site is a “free service that organizes local gatherings about anything, anywhere.” You register your interest and city and when a critical mass of people have also registered, a date and place for the meeting is set. On April 2, over ten thousand people met across the country to discuss campaign efforts for Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean. In June 2003, Dean’s Meetup site reported that nearly 23,000 people were interested in meeting in nearly 500 cities. Also of note, is the Howard Dean Web log, maintained during the campaign by one of his staff as they stumped across the U.S.A. Read more about the Dean campaign and its use of the Internet.


Blue Ribbon for Free SpeechOne of the first electronic advocacy campaigns was the Blue Ribbon free speech. In February 1996, President Clinton signed into law a Telecom Bill and its “Communications Decency Amendment.” The “Communications Decency Act” attempted to impose U.S. broadcast-style content regulations on the Internet. Internet users were outraged. Protests were held, lawsuits were filed, and Web authors colored their pages black for 48 hours. Subsequently, the authors posted banner graphics of blue ribbons and linked to campaign pages on the fight against the CDA and Internet censorship. In June 1997, a unanimous US Supreme Court decision struck down the CDA as an unconstitutional violation of the First Amendment. The blue ribbon campaign did not end, however, as Clinton signed the “Child Online Protection Act” (aka “CDA II”) in 1998. After another round of protest and lawsuits, the law was struck down in March 2003. The blue ribbon campaign continues today and has broadened to include Internet censorship worldwide.

In January 2003, First Lady Laura Bush invited Sam Hamill to take part in a White House symposium called “Poetry and the American Voice.” Hamill, author of 13 volumes of poetry,is also ex-Marine, a Buddhist and a pacifist. He started the Web site Poets Against the War and invited a few friends to submit antiwar to be presented to the White House at the March 5th symposium. News quickly spread and in two months the site had received over 13,000 submissions. News also reached the White House, and the symposium was cancelled. The site then expanded to list events and readings of poetry against the war around the U.S. In March 2003, 13,000 poems were presented to the Prime Minister of Canada. The following May, 174 of the poems were published by Nation Books in an anthology titled “Poets Against the War.”

From the Link and Think site:

“Each December 1, World AIDS Day, the creative community observes A Day With(out) Art, in memory of all those the AIDS pandemic has taken from us, and in recognition of the many artists, actors, writers, dancers and others who continue to create and live with HIV and AIDS. A Day With(out) Art was created by the group Visual AIDS in New York City. Link and Think LogoFor the last several years, Creative Time has organized a Day With(out) Art observance on the worldwide web, encouraging diverse website designers and administrators to darken their site and convey AIDS prevention and education information to their visitors. In 1999, more than 50 webloggers took part in a project called a Day With(out) Weblogs. In 2000, nearly 700 personal weblogs and journals of all sorts participated. In 2001, the number was over 1,000. The personal web publishing community — weblogs, journals, diaries, personal websites of every kind — has continued to grow and diversify. Once again, everyone who produces personal content on the web is invited to participate a global observance of World AIDS Day. In recognition of the variety of sites participating — E/N sites, weblogs, journals, newspages and more — and to differentiate it from other, similar endeavors, a Day With(out) Weblogs became Link and Think.”


“This includes electronic versions of certain kinds of collective action aimed directly at influencing the political process and legislative outcomes. Online petitions and email campaigns fall into this category. Targets may be elected officials and government bodies, multilateral institutions, transnational nongovernmental organizations or other social movement organizations.”

In the tools section, I discuss several applications that help automate the process of coordinating among activists and lobbying state and federal officials in the U.S.

However, while tools for such lobbying are becoming widely available, elected officials have not kept pace. Electronic advocacy is overwhelming the representative process. Officials and their staff are struggling to process the information they receive and should invest in technology to enhance their ability to listen and respond beyond their election campaigns.

WWFThe WWF Panda Passport makes electronic advocacy into a kind of a lobbying game. The more actions you take, the more stamps you get in your panda passport. The more stamps you accumulate, you higher rank and title you win. At each threshold, you are offered rewards like downloadble wallpaper graphics and screen savers. Site users are also sent email action alerts. Though the game format seems very effective at encouraging participation, I find it trivializes the content.

Urgent Action NetworkAmnesty International’s Urgent Action Network existed long before the Internet. Postal mail action briefs were sent from AI’s London headquarters to national offices around the world to distribute to Amnesty International members. The briefs outlined cases of “prisoners of conscience,” often detained for non-violent expression of their political beliefs and often at risk of torture or execution. Amnesty members would respond with hundreds and even thousands of letters to the responsible government officials urging them to free the prisoners. Email and the Web have dramatically shortened response times, though much of the lobbying is still done with postal mail. Last year’s campaign on torture introduced action alerts via text messages to beepers and cell phones. Over the years, hundreds of prisoners have been released (though AI does not take direct credit for specific releases.) Also of note is the use of geography as a tactical tool. Not every urgent action is sent to every member by the 80 Amnesty offices around the world. When actions are distributed, a geographic balance is maintained so that, for instance, an Islamic country does not only receive letters from the U.S. and Western Europe, but from other Islamic countries as well. Conversely, Amnesty generally does not send cases to members that are in the members’ own country (though there are some exceptions.)

The advocacy tools I mentioned are not just helping large organizaitons with million dollar budgets. Irene Weiser, a self-described ‘an average citizen from upstate New York’ wanted to do something to save the Violence Against Women Act. The act, which provides funding for domestic vioilence programs, was set to expire in 2000. The press portrayed the Act as inevitably lost. Irene got worked with to start a one woman campaign to save the bill. She created and sent out letters to friends, colleagues and family. In two months, she built an email list of 36,000 subscribers who helped send 164,000 email messages to Congress. In October 2000, the Senate re-authorized the Act unanimously, after a House vote of 371-1. President Clinton signed legislation into law on October 28, 2000, doubling the funding for the program.[source, source]

The campaign has continued grow. When a Massachusetts state court ordered the Women’s Resource Center to hand over counseling records of a 16-year-old girl to the defense team of the man she says raped her, the Center said no, earning a fine of $500 fine for every day the Center refused to hand over the records. Through the network, 2,500 people volunteered to go to jail for a night to help protect the girl’s privacy and to fend off the fine. This generated significant publicity to the issue. [source]

In January 2005, turned to the nomination of Alberto Gonzales for U.S. Attorney General. The site urged its members to oppose his confirmation on the grounds that a man who authored the torture memo has no place overseeing the Violence Against Women Office and all federal laws regarding violence against women and children.

Lobbying the media has also had some effect. With the Capital Advantage application you simply type enter your zip code for a list of local media outlets and their contact info. Palestine Media Watch and “Honest Reporting” send out regular email dispatches documenting media bias in reports on the Israel-Palestine conflict. Their newsletters encourage subscribers to respond directly to the news agency concerned.

Rather than encouraging the pursuit of balance, these efforts may have a chilling effect:

Doug Feaver, the recently retired executive editor of, says these campaigns could make some news reporters and editors hesitant to pursue controversial topics....

Jonathan Dube, managing producer of and writer and publisher of the website, says the danger is not so much that journalists will be scared off controversial stories, but that they will cut themselves off from their audiences.

‘I do think there is a danger that these e-mail campaigns will encourage — or force — more journalists to close off communication with their audience, either by not publicizing e-mail and other contact information, or by simply ignoring e-mails they do get because they don‘t have time to separate the wheat from the chaff,’ said Mr. Dube. ‘And if that’s the result, then that's a shame, because open dialogue with readers helps make reporters better journalists and coverage more informed.’ [source]

One of the best uses of online petitions is simply building a network of supporters. started in September 1998 as an online petition to encourage the media and politicians to move on from the seemingly endless noise over the President Clinton’s impeachment proceedings. According to the site “during impeachment, MoveOn’s grassroots advocates generated more than 250,000 phone calls and a million emails to Congress.” The site has focused on other issues, but it was during the U.S. war on Iraq that it took off. Most notable, was the virtual march on Washington which organized thousands of anti-war Americans to call and fax the President and Congress on February 26, 2003. The action overwhelmed White House and Senate switchboards and offices. With their periodic email messages urging simple, concrete actions MoveOn also organized off line rallies, personal visits by constituents with their elected officials, and raised funds for the production and placement of television, radio, and newspaper ads. The email list now boasts over two million subscribers around the world.


“This includes appeals to membership and donations as well as the online sale of ‘SMO merchandise’ - T-shirts, books, buttons, posters, and so on. This is problematized by certain kinds of companies that might be considered (or consider themselves) SMOs but have a main organizational function that is commercial, for example Fair Trade Federation ( Fundraising efforts are also aided by computer-assisted direct mailing campaigns and by member database management.”

An growing number of Internet users are donating money online, though the overall percentage of charitable donations made online is still very small. According to, around 1-3% of individual giving in the U.S. was via the Internet in 2002.

Humanitarian organizations like the Red Cross raise an enormous amount of money when a big disaster hits the mainstream media. Donation sites raised an unprecedented amount of money for the families of the victims of the attacks on September 11, 2001.

Of online donation sites, I find the Heifer International Gift Catalog particularly effective. The Catalog is an e-commerce site where you can purchase cows and goats which are distributed to families around the world that live in poverty. The site creates a strong sense of transparency, giving the impression that there is no question about what your money is funding.

The Hunger Site was the first of many ‘clicks for charity’ sites. The site funnels dollars from banner ad clickthroughs into humanitarian relief efforts. I have always been impressed by the popularity of the site, considering how superficially it address the actual causes of hunger and extreme poverty. The Hunger Site is run by a for-profit corporation, though it claims 100% of sponsor banner advertising is paid to nonprofit beneficiary organizations.

In the U.S., registered non-profit organizations are restricted in the amount and kinds of lobbying they are permitted to conduct. So MoveOn, building on its enormous email network, started a separate political action committee. MoveOn PAC is a response to corporate PACs that raise money for (and curry favor from) candidates for congressional office with moderate to progressive views. “All funds go entirely to the individual campaigns in the amounts you specify. We take care of all the required [Federal Election Commission] paperwork by transmitting necessary contributor information to each campaign... Through the Political Action Committee, more than 10,000 everyday Americans together contributed more than $2 million to key congressional campaigns in the 2000 election, and more than $3.5 million in 2002 election.”

Planned Parenthood also used fundraising as an advocacy tool. After an LA Times columnist wrote that a donation to Planned Parenthood in the name of John Ashcroft was a fitting message to send to President George W. Bush on Presidents’ Day in response to his reinstating the “global gag rule” and appointing John Ashcroft as U.S. attorney general, 15,000 individuals contributed $500,000 . Fifteen thousand acknowledgment messages were delivered to the new Executive Office Building.

Tactical Communication

“[Tactical communications] refers to the use of the Internet or other electronic communications to aid mobilization efforts, both before and during street or ‘real world’ collective actions. This includes calls to action distributed electronically, as well as coordination during street actions using internet, pager, cell phone, WAP, or other electronic communications technologies.”

The idea of a worldwide day of anti-war marches came out discussion at the European Social Forum in Florence in November 2002. At the Forum, the date February 15 was chosen as a date for anti-war demonstrations “in every capital.” What transpired was unexpected and unprecedented.

On February 15, 2003, an estimated 10 million people took to the streets in over 600 cities around the world to protest the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Though email facilitated much of the organizing within individual cities, almost no coordination took place between cities. It was not until the following day that the scale was truly realized. Protest images circulated the Web in practically real time. Some articles: Wired, New York Times, Washington Post.

Other large-scale, demonstrations by the global justice movement, such as the G8 protests in Evian, France and the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil, rely heavily on the Internet to coordinate. lists upcoming protests and actions in cities around the world.

Other examples of electronic media in tactical communication include the use of fax machines to mobilize and publicize 1989 uprising in Tiananmen Square.

The January 2003 presidential victory in South Korea stunned observers by shaking off 50 years of conservative rule. The change is partially the result of a demographic shift and the use of the Internet by the younger generation to get out the vote.

Mentioned above,’s massive lobbying blitz, the February 26, 2003 “virtual march” on Washington D.C. falls under this category, too.

During the 2002 Congressional election, the Republican National Committee compiled an email list of nearly 2 million people through aggressive advertising and marketing of its Web site. “By contrast, the Democratic National Committee has a list about one-fifth that size. The RNC also maintains a database of about 200 million names... that it shares with GOP groups nationwide, allowing them to target likely voters by region and other factors. The Republican congressional leadership site,, has 1,650 email lists that users can join, broken down by everything from geography to issues to the frequency with which subscribers want to receive mail.” [source]

During the 2004 presidential election the Bush-Cheney campaign organized volunteers through "virtual precincts," networks of personal church and work-based associations in which a "virtual precinct captain," was charged with prodding people to register and vote. The virtual precinct allowed online supporters to create a permanent email list through to distribute campaign information to friends and family members. Supporters were also given information about local talk radio shows and newspapers, and encouraged to call or write telling why they supported Bush. Volunteer information such as maps to head quarters and neighborhood walking maps were also made available through the virtual precinct.

The Bush-Cheney Campaign and RNC organizers gathered over 8 million email addresses during the campaign. During the last 72 hours of the campaign 7.2 million Bush ‘E-activists’ contacted their family and friends making sure they got out to vote. Many of the captains were also part of the 1.4 million volunteers on the ground in the battleground states on Election Day, and the Saturday, Sunday and Monday leading up to Election Day — who contacted 15 million voters directly, either by phone or knocking on their door. [source]

This related article, The Tech Tidal Wave Hits Politics mentions MoveOn’s use of the Web to create a massive, distributed phone bank:

For the last weeks of the campaign, anyone who wanted to help Kerry or the Democrats get out the vote today has been able to log onto any of several Web sites like, register, and within seconds get a list of likely Kerry voters, or undecided voters, or newly registered voters in key states, along with their phone numbers and a suggested script for the call.

In 2000, a post-election survey by a group of online advocacy consultants found that “in the 8 toss-up U.S. House and Senate races where a challenger won, an overwhelming majority - 75 percent - employed a superior Web strategy, as defined by online voters in a February 2000 e-advocates/Juno survey and candidate rankings on top search engines. Additionally, in seven out of the eight races, the winning challenger raised less money than the losing incumbent - an anomaly in the results of all congressional races nationwide.”


Related to the tactical communication, these are projects that use the Internet as a means for online and offline collaboration.

Schools Demining Schools was a project of the United Nations CyberSchoolBus leading up to the signing of the treaty to ban landmines. An online curricula, frequently asked questions, and background brief about landmines and demining were posted as an initial foundation. Students could then email questions to series of respondents including activists, government officials, demining personnel, and landmine survivors. The answers were posted on the Web site and circulated back to the participating students. On December 2, the date of the treaty signing, students posted a special banner on their Web sites and held offline events about landmines. After the signing, students could correspond via the site to demining teams in Mozambique and Afghanistan and raise funds to support the demining of school grounds there.

iEarn, International Education and Resource Network, is a small office with an enormous network. Teachers and students around the world can use the iEarn network to collaborate in projects across borders. The projects are designed and facilitated by the participants themselves in a range of subjects from science and math to arts and languages.

Digital Direct Action

Site alteration or redirection involves illegal entry to target sites, altering text or images or rerouting visitors to a different site (often one that expresses an oppositional viewpoint to target policies or actions).

More than 1,000 sites were cracked and defaced in early 2003 in response to the war in Iraq.

Crackers also redirected the al-Jazeera Web site in 2003 towards other internet destinations, including porn sites. The site itself was defaced with the message ‘Hacked by Patriot, Freedom Cyber Force Militia’ beneath a logo of the US flag.

Ostensibly, in response to repeated hacking the Bush/Cheney campaign Web site blocked international traffic to their campaign Web site. This also had the effect of blocking access by U.S. citizens and military personnel abroad — constituencies perhaps less likely to vote for Bush.

In its ongoing information war against the Chechen cause online, the Russian government has closed down several of the most important of the Chechen Web sites, even seeking help from Western governments. Russian authorities (or their supporters) have also routinely cracked Chechen Web sites, destroying or distorting the materials and information they contain. Chechen supports have responded in kind. “There are suspicions that the Chechens or their backers may have been behind the defacing of Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov’s site two weeks ago precisely because of his statements against Chechnya and his efforts to expel Chechens from the Russian capital.” [source]

The Internet service provider Connect-Ireland suspects the government of Indonesia was behind a Denial of Service attack and break-in in February 1999. The attack brought down the ISP’s servers, including the server managing the East Timor domain .tp. The attack temporarily cut access to all Web sites registered with a .tp Web address. The servers offered hosted some three hundred East Timorese sites offering a rallying point and an account of the conflict to contrary to official line of the Indonesian government.

A more legal form of site redirection is the practice of Google bombing, influencing the search result ranking of Google to position ones Web site. This may be used for parody or political commentary:

Denial of service attacks and virtual sit-ins result in blockage of public access to the target site. When targets are companies that rely on online sales, such actions can have significant economic as well as symbolic impact.

The Electronic Disturbance Theater has conducted virtual sit-in in support of the living wage campaign at Harvard University and in solidarity with the people of Vieques.

At the 2003 Computers Freedom and Privacy Conference, Kijoong Kim of JinboNet in South Korea described one successful denial of service attack. In 2000, the Korean Ministry of Information and Communication proposed requiring a PICS rating system for all Web content. The proposal was defeated after activists initiated DDoS attacks on the MIC Web site. The law was, however, was reintroduced in 2001... and included provision prohibiting online protest.

Data theft or destruction. Hacktivists gaining entry to target servers may destroy or alter data, or steal private or classified documents useful to social movement organizations.

One recent example of this is the publication of internal documents copied from Diebold’s corporate servers. The documents revealed that Diebold, makers of electronic voting software, knew its software was not secure. The documents suggest that Diebold knew the system the system was flawed when it mysteriously subtracted 16,000 votes from Al Gore in Florida during the 2000 election.

Activists, students, and supporters quickly posted mirrors of the documents. Diebold responded with several lawsuits relying on the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, until Congressman Dennis Kucinich posted the documents on his own Web site and sent a letter to the House Judiciary Committee requesting a hearing to investigate abuses of the DMCA by Diebold.

Thus far, I have not found any examples of violent electronic contention, or digital attacks resulting in real-world damage, death, or injury. Still, the Internet becomes ever more integrated with our physical environments and network connections proliferate. A majority of technology scholars surveyed in September 2004 predict at least one devastating attack on the network infrastructure in the coming decade. This April 2005 article in Wired reports that “the U.S. military has assembled the world’s most formidable hacker posse: a super-secret, multimillion-dollar weapons program that may be ready to launch bloodless cyberwar against enemy networks — from electric grids to telephone nets.” With technical knowledge and basic Internet access, developing countries and non-state actors may be able to employ similar tactics, allowing them to leapfrog more sophisticated and expensive weapons regimes.

On Torture and Terrorism

On Torture

Amnesty International launched an international campaign on torture in 2000 focused on three major areas: preventing torture, confronting discrimination, and overcoming impunity. Each goal had into subcomponents with critical parts to fulfill. Each national section determined its own specific campaign strategy. In the U.S., the campaign focused on policy (such as pushing for funding a particular bill and encouraging President Clinton to sign International Criminal Court treaty), on corporations (such as Taser, vendors of electroshock weapons), and on prisoner case work.

Amnesty’s International Secretariat in London created the campaign Web site John Lannon provides a brief summary of electronic campaign activities connected to this site:

The Campaign to Stop Torture used the Internet for two purposes; firstly to try to extend the protection of international scrutiny to a wide number of potential victims, and secondly to provide the public with more opportunities for action. [At] the public could register to receive the latest appeal cases by email or mobile phone text message anywhere in the world. By replying via email or mobile phone they were then included in an online petition, and a pre-written email was sent immediately to the relevant authorities. Those who registered were offered screensavers and other freeware, and website visitors were encouraged to send postcards to friends telling them about the campaign. The Stop Torture website also provided visitors with the latest campaign information, and Amnesty reports and publications were made available in English, Arabic, Spanish and French.

Lannon attributes the “high level of support amongst those who subscribed” partly to the fact that “it enabled individuals to act politically without organizational affiliations.”

During the 12 month period up to 8 October 2001, a total of 32,791 subscribers from 188 countries registered on The countries with the highest numbers of subscribers were the US (18.4 percent of the total), UK (14.8 percent), Canada (6.8 percent), France (6.6 percent) and Australia (5.8 percent). Interestingly, with the exception of France, these were the countries with the highest English-speaking Amnesty membership at the time; although the actions themselves were available in French and Spanish, the site navigation, instructions and registration were only in English, and this may have had an impact on who subscribed. Over 4,000 subscribers also opted to receive the action alerts by SMS text message....

While Amnesty’s existing membership base was crucial to the success of, a survey of over 700 subscribers indicated that 36 percent were not involved with the organization prior to signing up.

The first month of 2005 saw several campaigning organizations circulating electronic action alerts challenging the nomination of Alberto Gonzales as President Bush’s nominee for U.S. Attorney General.

The initial round of actions called on the Senate to challenge Gonzales’s relationship to the administration’s policy and memoranda on the use of torture. However, since the hearing a handful of groups actively opposed the Gonzales’s approval blasting email alerts encouraging supporters to vote against Gonzales.

Bloggers are also organizing. As of January 28, 2004, 487 weblogs have signed on to the Daily Kos Statement Opposing the Confirmation of Alberto Gonzales. Comments to the statement provided contact information for Congress officials and updates on the Judiciary Committe vote. Blogger Walker Willingham produced a series of downloadble flyers customized with Senate contact info for each state.

Chelsea Green Publishing offered free copies of the book Guantanamo: What the World Should Know to all blogs who join the call to vote “no” on Gonzales. Dimpled Chad Productions offered free copies of the music parody CD "American Way" by Dimpled Chad and the Disenfranchised.

In conjunction with their email lobbying campaign, Human Rights First launched a Flash movie about Gonzales. MoveOn also raised funds to air a televsion ad.

The effort seems to have had some impact. Prior to the Senate Judiciary hearings, not a single Senator seemed prepared to vote against Gonzales. But the final vote was 10-8, with all Democrats voting against, including those who had previously and publicly indicated a likelihood of voting for him. All Republicans voted in favor.

On other fronts, the ACLU is pursuing a strategy of litigation seeking information about detainees held by the United States. While there is little the public can do to participate in this strategy (beyond financial support), the ACLU has posted over 600 documents acquired under the Freedom of Information Act. These have become a primary source of information about the Bush administration’s policies. The documents have been used by other NGOs and the media.

On Terrorism

“The dynamics of insurgencies are fairly similar. These are political wars. There is no military victory that is completely isolated from a political victory. It’s all politics in the end. In order to win a guerilla war you have to acquire the trust of the population. The U.S. so far has not had that in Iraq, and it was the same in El Salvador. That insurgency was able to last for a very long time and the war was ended not by a military solution but by a political one.” [source]

Terrorism is generally targeted against one population to influence them or a governing elite for the benefit of another population. Because of the highly politicized nature of terrorism, traditional NGO advocacy techniques and tools of persuasion may not apply.

Some terrorist organizations have used the Internet to coordinate decentralized activities or to promote their cause and point of view. Terrorism may be motivated by economic, religious, cultural, personal, or political concerns.

The reaction of most militaries and governments is one of force, attempting to suppress and destroy organizations accused of terrorism cutting of their means of communication and finance. Non-state actors may attempt to bring economic pressure on parties through, say, legislation or divestment. A third strategy would push for opening alternative, non-violent political avenues of expression.

Each of these strategies have online counterparts.

Elkarri was founded in 1992 as an organization and social movement promoting dialogue and a peaceful resolution to the conflict in the Basque Country. It is currently conducting an outreach campaign to generate support for its 2005 Peace Conference. The group is relaunching its Elkarri’s Web site to be an integral channel of participation.

In addition to publishing their own research, the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information collects and publishes online publications, campaigns, reports, and statements of the various human rights organizations in English and Arabic. HRinfo sees itself not only a means of exchanging information, but also a place to archive that information so that it remains available to Arabic readers in any part of the world. The organizers hope to strengthen civil society by creating a widely accessible body of knowledge that does not exist elsewhere in Arabic online, forging a secular, legal framework with which to address grievances.

Just Vision is an multimedia project telling the stories of non-violent Israeli and Palestinian civilians working collaboratively for peace across the Green Line. The Web site current features the 16 profiles in English, but will expand to a total of 180 profiles translated into English, Hebrew, and Arabic. The project is also producing a feature-length documentary focusing on four projects. The stories from interviews with individuals on both sides of the conflict who have lost loved ones. Every aspect of the production is also collaborative: the staff, production team, and advisory board include Palestinians, Israelis, and North Americans. The release of the film will be accompanied by a classroom discussion guide as well as the launch of an activist email network. (Full disclosure: I helped design and program the Web site.)

And finally, the Web can facilitate the processes of truth, justice, and reconciliation. is an online memorial to the some of the 30,000 people who were “disappeared” in Argentina during the “dirty war”.

A Web site established by Bishop Desmond Tutu's Truth & Reconciliation Commission in 1998 accepted confessions and apologies from white South Africans online.

Another type of campaign could facilitate free and widespread access to legal information, including legislation, and court judgments. [more] Human Rights Watch has published resources on how NGOs can contribute to the prosecution of war criminals at the International Criminal Court, as well as a topical digest of the case law of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda and the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia.

Tips and Recommendations

Below are a few general recommendations for online campaigning.

Additional Resources


International Web Landscape

Campaigns Around the World

Cell Phones

Surveillance and Crackdown

Protection and Anonymity

Advocacy Tools

On Email

On Blogs

On Openness

Viral Marketing

Translation and Accessibility

Examples of Effective Action

On Torture and Terrorism


This document was researched and written by John Emerson in January 2005.

For their time and insight, thanks to:

For their comments on my draft, thanks to Joe Baker, Blaine Cook, Diego Galli, Sarajean Rossito, Anthony Russomano, Elijah Saxon, Jon Stahl, and Emily Thorson.

Special thanks to:

(cc) 2005 John Emerson.