CFP'93 - The Role of New Telecommunications Technologies in Issues Advocacy and Citizen Participation in the Democratic Process
by Mark Graham
IntroductionOver the last few years, many advocacy groups, non-profits, non-governmental organizations, and individual citizens have used computer networks, fax and audiotext systems, and other communications technologies, to organize, educate, popularize, share, and otherwise act, to bring about change. Organizations as diverse as white-supremacist groups, soup kitchens, and rape crises centers are using communications options to advance their cause, establish partnerships with others, and generally increase their effectiveness and efficiency.
With the recent, dramatic growth of computer networks and other personal and interactive communications systems, we stand on the edge of a renaissance of participatory democracy. We can create a new age of citizen involvement and action in helping to solve diverse and critical problems, and advance the condition of all members of our society and the health of our planet.
Many people working in the areas of human rights, environmental issues, social justice, women and minority advocacy, poverty, healthcare, homelessness, violence, international and ethnic conflict, and arms proliferation have joined online communities, using them in creative and powerful ways.
In order to implement the ideas and problem-solving plans that emerge from these networks, government and policy-makers must cooperate and participate. Individuals and groups can take the initiative, but local, state and federal government must be actively involved by making the deliberative process, and the decision makers themselves, available to the public.
An important trend in today's online environment is the linking together of systems via the global Internet. Until recently, most public networks were isolated and unable to even exchange e-mail. Today, nearly all of the commercial entertainment networks, professional business networks, small BBS systems, research and academic networks, as well as emerging community information systems, can exchange messages, files, discussion groups (e.g., Usenet newsgroups and Bitnet mailing lists), and have direct host-to-host connections via applications such as "telnet" and "rlogin."
With the advent of this new internetworking have come challenging opportunities for people to gather and share their thoughts, databases, news services, newsletters, and other forms of communications with others. Many activist and advocacy groups use these capabilities to reach a much broader constituency, faster, cheaper and with greater impact than if they used only one closed network.
This paper presents examples of communications technologies and citizen action as part of the democratic process.
Necessary Factors for Effective Use of Online Tools
Conditions necessary for the successful use of communications technologies by citizens involved in the democratic process include:
Access - People must have physical access to systems and services when and where they need it, whether from their homes, offices, libraries, municipal buildings or other public facilities. (Special problems of Security and Safety must also be addressed.)
Cost - These services must be within the financial reach of those who need them. A person looking for a shelter to sleep in will not have the resources to pay for network access. Most advocacy groups cannot afford to spend several thousands of dollars a year to keep track of legislation and other government activities.
Content - Informational resources must be complete, timely, accurate, comprehensive, and diverse. One must be able to access the positions from a range of perspectives in order make fully informed decisions.
Ease of Use - This addresses issues of both design and technology. The user interface of systems software must be intuitive and supportive. The technology must have sufficient speed, connectivity, adherence to standards, and integration to be useful for the novice, as well as expert user.
Functionality - Information must be searchable and filterable. People must have the ability to track issues and themes with ease and consistent results. And the services must facilitate information-sharing and conversation between like-minded people.
Examples of Ways Computer Networks Can Be Used
An electronic democracy can begin to form as the infrastructure develops that will link more and more schools, libraries, businesses, and private homes to the global matrix of networks; and as the interfaces and navigation tools become more user-friendly.
Computer networks can be used to include more citizens from all sectors of our society. These systems can support the needs of the traditionally disenfranchised and others not considered to be part of the mainstream. Individuals and organizations can or will soon be able to:
- link with others to organize campaigns and undertake lobby efforts, as
well as offer personal and emotional support. Online systems can help people
find others who share their concerns and interests.
- access government information, reports, news, studies, magazine
articles, books, and other databases. People can participate in group
conversations about particular topic areas and access these resources from
online archives. Material about specific issues can be assembled for easy
one-stop information shopping.
- promote political and social justice. Online networks have been
powerfully used by people isolated by repression or political crisis to be heard
by the outside world, (as in Tian'anmen Square and the Moscow Coup).
- promote local public outreach and infrastructure. Members of a group
(e.g., homeless) can get online at public access terminals in airports,
libraries, and shopping areas to leave suggestions, ideas, and concerns
regarding their particular situation. Cities can offer matching services for
volunteer organizations and public service jobs and online community support
groups on many kinds of problems.
- participate in government-sponsored distance learning coursework,
accredited from numerous universities and accessible to people of all ages,
backgrounds, and financial situations.
- use internal communications to help manage administrative operations.
LANs and sophisticated databases, groupware, project management, and other
software tools are taken for granted in the business world, but non-profits and
advocacy groups traditionally have lagged behind in office automation and the
acceptance of new technologies.
- involve more citizens and media in information distribution. The primary
purpose of most advocacy groups is the distribution and promotion of information
and perspectives on particular problems and issues. The integration of e-mail,
fax, and audiotext services offers great promise for flexible, timely, and
cost-effective distribution campaigns.
- search databases covering entire fields of knowledge available on a
subject to help advocates research the most current documentation that supports
their cause. Experts can discuss the most advanced thinking in their area, as
well as interact with concerned citizens, in moderated forums.
- combine efforts with other organizations. Geographically isolated groups
can gather support from others around the country and the world. Local issues
are often experienced by people in many different locations. Computer networks
can be used to help break down time and distance barriers and bring special
interest organizations together. For example, a town has a cancer cluster that
may be related to a toxic dump. These citizens could use the net to find the
appropriate studies, advocacy groups and other communities in similar
circumstances. In another example, Native Action, a Native American
organization, used computer networks in their effort to force a local bank to
make more loans to businesses and individuals on their remote Cheyenne
reservation in Lame Deer, Montana. The networks allowed Native Action to
transcend the barriers of physical isolation and gather support from all over
the United States.
- promote government involvement. Over the last few months we have seen a
great deal of activity in the area of government use of online networks. Various
House and Senate members have an online presence, as does the executive branch.
For more than a year, the Supreme Court has made its positions and briefs
available via many online services as part of the Hermes Project. Grassroots
citizen groups can be linked to their government representatives, policy-makers,
legislative and political action groups and parties, as well as the press and
media. An interactive environment in which policy-makers can directly hear the
concerns and data of their constituents can be created by:
- offering a hotline to the White House where people can leave
immediate feedback on important events.
- linking political parties with their branch offices, and
outreach centers with their main offices.
- helping citizens track the progress of legislation and other
activities. Individuals can send fax, telex, paper-mail, and now electronic-mail
messages to many of their elected officials.
- linking the offices of representatives and senators and
committee members with issue-oriented newsgroups and databases.
- polling citizens, students, and experts on specific national or world events.
- offering a hotline to the White House where people can leave immediate feedback on important events.
Specific Organizations and Projects
Here is a representative overview of how people are using new communications media to advance social change in the democratic process. (For those interested in learning about other resources in this field, please consult the concluding section, "For More Information.") Amnesty International, an international human rights organization maintains ActionLine, a 900-number-based audiotext and fax delivery service which they call the "911 number for human rights." The charge is $3/call. Callers are told of a specific case of a "prisoner of conscience" somewhere in the world and are prompted for their fax number. Within minutes of the call, a fax message is sent to the caller detailing the specifics of the case and recommending actions. The caller is also given additional information about Amnesty International and a membership enrollment form.
American Peace Test. This organization has used electronic mail and computer conferencing in coordinating many civil defense demonstrations at the Nevada nuclear test site and other locations of nuclear weapons testing and research. Computer networks helped coordinate logistics, transportation, supply, action, media, and other rapidly changing factors in staged demonstrations, involving thousands of people from around the country.
American Political Network (APN) produces and distributes several issue-related daily news services delivered via e-mail and fax. Two of these news services -- The Daily Report Card, focusing on school reform, and HealthLine, which deals with the American health care policy debate -- are underwritten by foundations and made available for free. Other APN services, such as The (campaign) Hotline and GreenLine, are available for a charge.
PeaceNet, EcoNet, ConflictNet. These three network services are sponsored by the Institute for Global Communications (IGC), a division of the Tides Foundation. These services meet the e-mail and computer conferencing needs of nearly 9,000 peace, environment, and human rights activists and organizations, as well as many specific issues, such as conflict resolution. IGC has promoted the formation of an international association of similar networks, called the Association for Progressive Communications (APC). The APC has member networks operational in more than 10 countries, with more than 15,000 members.
HandsNet is a computer network that specializes in serving the needs of those involved in social and economic justice work. HandsNet has more than 2,000 users, many of which are organizations, law firms, and direct service providers. HandsNet has forums dedicated to such issues as Housing and Community Development; Legal Services; Rural Issues; Children, Youth and Families; as well as Health Care Reform. HandsNet is now moving its technology, and extending its online services to Johannesburg, South Africa, in support of the local efforts of WorkNet. HandsNet is based on the CONNECT online service and sports a graphical user interface for Windows and Macintosh systems.
Hawaii FYI are online services for the State of Hawaii. Hawaii FYI is a free service administered by Hawaii Inc., which provides a range of online gateway services to third-party information providers. The FYI service delivers comprehensive information about legislation and other government-related state data. Users are taught techniques to involve themselves in the political process, are given specific instructions and advice on how to influence the legislative process, and are informed about how that process works. Hawaii FYI is a model of how other state governments could further involve their citizens in politics.
SCARCNet is a computer-based network designed by the Smoking Control Advocacy Resource Center and the Advocacy Institute, to meet the information and communications needs of the U.S. tobacco control community. SCARCNet offers its members a 2-4 page daily bulletin highlighting current tobacco news, SCARC Action Alerts to help mobilize advocates counter the tobacco industry, Strategy Exchanges for sharing news of regional and local activities, Advocacy Resource Databases, and other services. The Institute's next network project will be an online service to support the process of advocacy itself, as it may be applied to any issue or cause.
Democracy in America Faxline, produced by Turner Educational Services, Inc. (TESI) and Information Marketing Concepts. The Faxline was established during the last presidential campaign to provide individuals and educators access to classroom guides, background papers from the candidates, and other legislative and political information. The service was advertised by CNN during the presidential debates. Callers were instructed to call an 800-number-based audiotext service and request a free, fax-delivered index of available material. Callers could then call back the 800 number and order particular documents and pay for them with their credit cards. TESI also made their material available for free to more than 20,000 educators.
KIDS-'93 helps tens of thousands of children, (aged 10-15), from dozens of countries, to participate in global dialog via electronic mailing lists, newsgroups, fax, video conferencing, and ham radio. The dialog is an exchange of personal presentations and views on the desired future of this world, and are structured around four questions: 1) Who Am I?, 2) What Do I Want To Be When I Grow Up?, 3) How Do You Want The World To Be Better When You Grow Up?, 4) What Can I Do Now To Make This Happen? Related to the KIDS-'93 dialog are discussions grouped around further action, art, special projects, and general discussion.
TogetherNet is a computer-based network about to be launched by the Together Foundation for Global Unity. Two of the unique aspects of TogetherNet are that it is based on one of the most advanced graphical user interfaces for use with Macs and Windows-capable PCs, and it is being sponsored by a combination of non-profit support, as well as the underwriting of corporations, such as Pepsi and Motorola. TogetherNet will be a global service. Based in Boulder Colorado, it is promoting the establishment of a distributed network of host services to meet the unique and specific needs and values of international cities and communities.
SIGs (Special Interest Groups) on Genie, CompuServe, Prodigy, AOL, and Delphi. There are many areas on these major online services that have been established to serve the needs of activists and other political organizers. A good example is the Non-Profit Forum on Genie, which includes a roundtable BBS called "Government and Political Current Events." Topics of discussion within this section include: Gun Control, Animal Rights, Hate Crimes, Hilary (Clinton) Watch, the North America Free Trade Agreement, Haitian Boat People, and Campaign Finance Reform.
For More Information
ActionLine, 1-900-446-4020, Amnesty International USA, 322 Eighth Avenue, New York, NY 10001, (212) 807-8400.
Alliance for Environmental Education, 51 Main Street, P.O. Box 368, The Plains, VA 22171-0368, (703) 253-5812 (v), (703) 253- 5811 (f)
American Political Network, 282 North Washington, Falls Church, VA 22046, (703) 237-5130
Benton Foundation - The Benton Foundation encourages the use of technology and media by nonprofit groups to advance the democratic process and to help them gain an effective voice for social change.
"Electronic Networking for Nonprofit Groups, A Guide to Getting Started", by Tom Sherman - This publication of Apple Computer Community Affairs and Benton Foundation is a "must-have" for anyone interested in getting involved in the establishment, development, improvement, or effective use of online networks by non-profits and other advocacy groups.
GAIN, Global Action and Information Network, Environmental Citizenship Program, Lincoln Filene Center, Tufts University, Medford, MA 02155, (617) 381-3423
HandsNet, 20195 Stevens Creek Boulevard, Suite 120, Cupertino. CA 95014, (408) 257-4500
Information Marketing Concepts, 901 15th Street, N.W. Suite 230, Washington, DC 20005, (202) 408-0961 (v), (202) 408-1134 (f)
Institute for Global Communications (EcoNet, PeaceNet, ConflictNet), (and a member of the Association for Progressive Communications), 18 De Boom Street, San Francisco, CA 94107, (415) 442-0220 (v), (415) 546-1794 (f)
NAPWA-Link, National Association of People with AIDS, P.O. Box 18345 Washington, DC 20036, (202) 429-2856
Public Forum,NonProfit Connection, General Electric Network for Information Exchange (Genie), 401 North Washington Street, Rockville, MD 20850, (800) 638-9636
SCARCNet, Advocacy Institute, 1730 Rhode Island Avenue, Suite 600, Washington, DC 20036, (202) 659-8475
Telecommunications Cooperative Network, Suite 2000, 505 Eighth Avenue, New York, NY 10018, (212) 714-9780 (v), (212) 967-2047 (f)
TogetherNet, The Together Foundation for Global Unity, 2129 13th Street, Boulder, CO, 80302, (303) 444-9567 (v), (303) 444-7512 (f)
The WELL, Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link, 27 Gate Five Road, Sausalito, CA 94965, (415) 332-6106
For a list of various electronic mailing lists, newsgroups, and other online resources, please e-mail the author at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Created before October 2004