Online political advocacy is growing force for democracy

January 26, 2005

Erie, Pa. -- With the advent of online activist groups such as MoveOn.org, the Internet has shown a remarkable ability to mobilize public opinion and create an increasingly powerful force for democracy, according to two Penn State experts.

"Established seven years ago, the site is a nonpartisan, grass-roots movement that promotes democracy by giving 'ordinary' citizens a say in local and national politics," said Colleen E. Kelley, associate professor of communication arts and sciences in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Penn State Erie.

MoveOn.org's chief strategy is to convince online members to sign petitions that are immediately sorted and logged by state, allowing users at the local level to donate to a range of causes and combine their individual cyber-dissent into a groundswell of collective activism, Kelley noted.

"Once MoveOn.org's electronic constituency comes to a decision, it can move with lightning speed to deluge congressional offices with hundreds of thousands of phone calls and petitions in a few days," said Rod Troester, associate professor of communication arts and sciences at Penn State Erie.

The site's high profile and accessibility also can draw the attention of wealthy, influential supporters such as billionaire philanthropist George Soros and his business partner, Peter Lewis. During the most recent presidential election, Soros and Lewis pledged a $5 million matching grant to create a $15 million advertising campaign aimed at defeating President Bush.

Kelley and Troester presented the paper, "Waging Peace and Fighting for Justice in Cyberspace: Adversarial Rhetorical Strategies of MoveOn.org" at the recent meeting of the National Communication Association.

Husband and wife team Wes Boyd and Joan Blades created MoveOn.org in 1998 in response to the protracted Congressional debate over whether or not to impeach President Bill Clinton for his sexual relations with intern Monica Lewinsky. MoveOn.org members called for lawmakers to censure the president, then literally "move on" from this issue to far more pressing concerns such as foreign policy and the state of the economy.

"The site has evolved into a significant political force capable of shaping discussions of campaign finance reform, environmental and energy issues, media consolidation, the Iraqi war and perhaps even the outcome of elections," Kelley noted. "It maintains a nationwide network of 2 million online activists and serves as one of the most effective forums for democratic participation today."

"In 2003, MoveOn.org members helped register more than a million voters in concert with other organizations; met with federal lawmakers in their home districts; and hosted Bake Back the White House bake sales that raised $750,000," Troester added. "MoveOn and other organizations launched a 'virtual march' against the American war with Iraq, inundating the congressional and White House switchboards with more than a million phone calls, faxes and e-mails."

A notable MoveOn.org success is a phone call and TV ad campaign demanding accountability for the torture of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib. This online initiative expedited passage of a U.S. Senate amendment requiring Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to issue guidelines necessitating that prisoners of war be imprisoned in keeping with international law, Kelley and Troester said.

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated July 28, 2017