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Author: Fenghua Wang
Title: Subscribing to Democracy through the Internet
Publication info: Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
November 1999

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Source: Subscribing to Democracy through the Internet
Fenghua Wang

vol. 2, no. 3, November 1999
Article Type: Article
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Subscribing to Democracy through the Internet

Fenghua Wang

The Internet empowers individuals with the ability to broadcast easily, cheaply, and quickly. It equips people with the tools to create grassroot support to voice their concerns and motivate others to support their beliefs. Chinese students used the Internet to transmit news and solicit support during the democracy movement in China in 1989. The Zapatistas used the Internet to spread their communique throughout the world. Two professors went to the Internet to plead for public support when their administration filed criminal charges against one of them for handing out leaflets for the labor union. Two people can form grassroots lobbying groups to influence public policy because of the Internet's broadcasting power. A university's decision to publish the tabacco papers on the Internet changed the dynamics of a court's decision. This article illustrates the potentials of the Internet.

On May 19, 1994, CBS Evening News reported, "Every day, planeloads of Chinese citizens arrive legally in the United States, ordinary people. But to the Chinese Government, some of them may be future spies, who a few years down the road will be activated to steal America's military and technological secrets, whether they want to or not." To illustrate this scenario, the report staged a conversation between two people—a woman representing the Chinese government and a young person representing a student seeking to go abroad. Both persons' faces were blocked out. The "government official" was asking the young student to "lie low" and wait to be called to steal American secrets for China.

Immediately after the broadcast, a summary of the report was posted on Internet Chinese discussion groups. The report stirred up strong reactions in many recent Chinese immigrants and students. People discussed protesting against CBS for their unfounded accusations. During the next few days, CBS's fax machine was jammed with letters of protest, and thousands of phone calls flooded in. It has been estimated that over 2,000 fax and phone messages reached CBS to protest the report. On May 23, the Independent Federation of Chinese Students and Scholars (IFCSS) Vice-President Heping Shi wrote a letter to CBS President Eric Ober to express their concerns caused by the broadcast. The CBS Vice-President replied to Mr. Shi's letter on June 1 with the words "We stand by it [the report]."

Fearing that CBS would ignore the protest and use Freedom of Speech as a protection shield, ignoring the protest, the CBS Incident Committee (CBS-IC) was founded about two weeks later, on May 28 to coordinate the protest efforts. Members of the CBS-IC corresponded with each other and reported to Chinese communities about the progress through . They researched and developed strategies to anticipate any possible CBS arguments to defend its position. The CBS-IC utilized the expertise of its volunteers and developed a detailed document analyzing the sources and statistics which CBS had referred to, and sent their research results to CBS. The document charged that CBS's report was racially motivated in that it singled out the Chinese only when spying cases from Western countries far outnumber those from China. The CBS-IC argued that the CBS report was intentionally slanderous and racially biased.

Two weeks after the report was sent to CBS, CBS-IC called CBS to follow up. They were told that their complaints, along with other documents related to the report, had been sent to CBS lawyers to be analyzed for legal liabilities.

The committee also contacted all civil rights groups and Chinese American organizations and the media to ask for their support. The United States Commission on Civil Rights addressed the CBS-IC's complaints with concern. The Commission wrote,

The Commissioners were deeply troubled by some aspects of CBS's May 19 "Eye on America" segment.... Commission Chairperson Mary Frances Berry sent such a letter on behalf of the Commissioners, to CBS News President Eric Ober....

After a month, CBS called CBS-IC to inform them that they would like to schedule a meeting with leading Chinese American community members. The result of the meeting was that CBS made a public announcement of "corrections" to their report. On Oct. 21, 1994, CBS finally broadcast "an unusual 'clarification' " (New York Times, 1994). Connie Chung reported,

It was not our intention to leave the impression that there were more than a small number of such individuals among the many thousands of legitimate Chinese students, visitors, and immigrants who come to the United States every year. If we left an incorrect impression, we regret it (Chung, 1994).


Today, the Internet has been used for virtually all human communications needs in the world: shopping, entertainment, information gathering, broadcasting medium, communications, political actions, etc. In this paper, I am going to focus on the use of the Internet as a communications medium for individuals to express their political concerns to influence the public, politicians, administrators and the government. Many success stories demonstrated that the Internet has the potential to empower individuals who might otherwise not have the resources or influences to launch a campaign or form loosely connected issue networks to advocate their beliefs. The CBS case is an illustration of this empowering ability. The Chinese immigrants had no financial or political clout, but their persistence eventually forced CBS to make a public announcement to "clarify" their report. Through one person's message posted on the Internet, thousands of individuals were alerted. It requires one person's leadership in instigating hundreds of others to take action, and launch a political campaign. People volunteered their expertise across the country through emails to assist with the effort. At its peak, there were about sixty active volunteers and over 2,000 participants.

On the Internet, every individual has the potential to serve as a surveillance force in society and inform others about issues of general concern. Issue-based networks are formed quickly and easily to start grassroots political campaigns. Through the Internet, a few individuals can quickly and effectively coordinate and facilitate appropriate actions in response to certain issues of their concern. Individuals are more willing to participate and contribute when they identify with a specific issue and feel strongly about it. Using the Internet as a communications tool, one can communicate instantly with thousands of others at any time, in any place. The costs of organization are low, and all volunteers work together on an equal basis for one issue alone. Therefore, a consensus can be built more easily than in interest groups dealing with multiple issues.

Because of the economic concerns of traditional mass media, news reporters communicate to their audience from a central station where information is broadcast on a schedule, limited by time. It provides a one-way communications system, in which the audience has little recourse to give feedback and comments. Talk radio revolutionized this system by allowing the audience to call in to voice their opinions. However, the program is still limited with the "hosts" playing the central mediator who has the power to agree or disagree with the callers while the callers have little chance to rebut. There is still a hierarchical layer in this system. However, the low cost and accessibility of the Internet make it possible for all individuals to use it as a broadcasting medium, and giving them the potential to reach millions of people simultaneously with little cost. The Internet allows "one-to- many" and "many-to-many" communications. The relative low cost of this medium empowers the general public to become broadcasters, hosts or reporters. As a result, anyone with persuasive power can start a political campaign by focusing on one issue. Issue-based networks for political events or grassroots public campaigns can be initiated quickly and easily.

This paper compares the Internet to the mass media in their communication methods, and discusses the benefits that the Internet brings for the general public to take political actions. The benefits are illustrated through some successful cases of the public's use of the Internet for political campaign. Through the examination of some cases where individuals managed to influence government and administrations, I explore the possibilities that the Internet communications medium can provide for political participation. However, this is not to say that the Internet is the solution. It provides the potential place to launch a new idea left out by the mass media. However, the mass media's response is essential in escalating the spread of the idea.

Who are the Internet Users?

The profile of the typical Internet user has been thought of as a predominantly middle-class, professional, white male with advanced education, a mean age of around thirty-five, and a median income between $50,000 to $60,000 (Pitknow, 1995). According to Bonnie Fisher's survey of Internet users, "only two percent reported being laid off or unemployed, eight percent said they worked only part-time, and only one percent were retired. Eighteen percent classified themselves as students." The figure means that about twenty-nine percent of Internet users are economically disadvantaged. With the availability of the World Wide Web, the Internet users' age has increased, shifting from primarily young, computer savvy users to "the 'early adopters/seekers of technology'" (Pitkow, 1995). Asian users outnumbered African-Americans and Hispanics by a ratio of two to one (four percent versus two percent each). Fisher indicates that Asian respondents were more educated in comparison with other minority respondents.

Kevin A. Hill (1998) compares the demographic characteristics of the general public with the Internet users based on 1995 Pew Center survey:

Demographic Characteristics of Internet Users and the Public

General Public

Internet Users


Internet Activists

Ave. Age.























High School or Less




Some College




College Graduate




Income Level

(on a 1-8 scale)




Hill concludes that Internet users and activists are considerably younger than the general public, with Internet activists averaging a very young 32.8 years. In terms of gender, Internet users are still predominantly male, and Internet activists are overwhelmingly male. Non-political Internet users are divided about 60/40 between males and females, while Internet activists are 72% male. In terms of ethnicity, there is a similar percentage of white and non-white, however, a higher percentage of non-white users are Internet activists.

In general, Hill's study is consistent with Fisher's survey insofar as Internet users tend to be more educated, younger, and at higher income levels than the general population. However, what is surprising is that the percentage of non-white Internet political activists compared to the non-White general population is higher than the percentage of the White Internet activists compared to the White population. His finding is important for my claim that ethnic minorities have already recognized and taken advantage of the opportunities offered by the Internet to assert their political influences.

The Media and Open Society

Openness and freedom of access to the media are often used to measure a society's democratic values. Providing ordinary citizens with the rights, instead of privilege, to broadcast their views is central to the perception of democracy. The functions of the media are to provide an instrument for social surveillance, to inform and interpret the meaning of events and social conditions, through which to set the agendas for further political or social action. The media's public surveillance is politically important "because it arouses civic concerns and stimulates action" (Graber, 1993, 6). Citizens' voices are not only transmitted but also amplified by the power of electronics. However, the great trend in the mass media today is toward conformity. Grossman writes "the mainstream media tend to reinforce and reconfirm mainstream values and establishment views... because the news professionals themselves identify with those values and beliefs" (82).

A few big corporations largely control the media in the United States: General Electric, Time Warner, Disney, and Westinghouse. The privately controlled media are pressured for financial returns, which can affect content selection. In addition, American journalists are interested in appealing to their audiences, therefore, "their stories usually reflect the values of mainstream American society, regardless of the journalists' personal political orientations" (Graber, 1989, 49). Limitations on time, space and economic facts determine that not all news can get the media's coverage. As a result, some important events or issues are neglected by the mass media and in turn by the general public. In reality, according to Grossman, "the mainstream media are a difficult environment in which to launch new ideas or gain acceptance for new and unknown faces. But once there is a sense that an idea or a personality is starting to take hold, to "make it," the media climb on the bandwagon and accelerate the new entry's visibility and popularity" (Grossman, 85).

The Internet fills the gap precisely where the mass media left off in launching new ideas. The Internet has transformed media and communications from a necessarily centrally based organ controlled by political and social elites, to a fragmented, grassroots-based, open forum. The audience or readers who are placed in a passive position of being news "receivers" in traditional broadcast media are, with the Internet, able to become active participants or broadcasters themselves. Ordinary people who have not had access to broadcast their views are able to speak and can be heard by thousands of people in virtually no time and with little cost. While the power and influence of the centralized mass media continue, the availability of the Internet adds new voices and new representations, and provides an alternative, de-centralized communications medium. The Internet medium is diversified into numerous "mini-stations" through discussion groups, the Usenet, listservs, etc. Each mini-station represents a new interest, a sub-culture of society.

Internet users can be broadcasters by posting information to inform fellow users about certain issues of general concern. Their messages are not only read by the subscribers of one particular group, they are also transferred to other news and listserv groups quickly and easily, with just a few keystrokes. As a result, their influence can be potentially immeasurable, especially when the messages have wider appeal. While the media are perceived as the eyes and ears to the world, the many Internet users have widened their scope. Though the Internet plays an alternative role in informing the general public, the mass media still play the central role in escalating the newsworthiness of an event for a much wider appeal.

Issue Networks

An issue network is an important resource for exercising a power in the political landscape. An issue network is defined "as a communications network of those knowledgeable about policy in some area, including government authorities, legislators, businesspeople, lobbyists, and even academicians and journalists. A lively issue network constantly communicates criticisms of policy and generates ideas for new policy initiatives" (McFarland, 1992, 70). Issue networks facilitate discussions of policies and practices, sometimes followed by appropriate actions to encourage or discourage policies.

An issue network in interest group theory corresponds to the Usenet and Internet discussion groups, through which the like-minded communicate with each other and share news and opinions, coordinate actions, and influence politicians or other decision-makers. The Internet discussion groups like the media and citizen interest groups serve as a surveillance force for the political and social systems. Through the establishment of some of the new civic groups on the Internet, political discussions can be increased.

While the Internet was still mainly used for private communications among friends and colleagues in the 1980s, the Chinese students used the Internet to publish newsletters concerning China, facilitated public discussions and organized public campaigns. In the spring of 1989, the democracy movement in China prompted the Chinese students to communicate through the Internet with each other in order to share and collect news. The news was then faxed back to China to inform people who were unable to obtain such news within China due to the information censorship by the Chinese government. In October 1989, after the Tiananmen Massacre, Chinese students coordinated a Washington March for Democracy through email with over 40,000 people across the country participating in the demonstration.

The Chinese students became one of the first groups to use email to organize political protests. Subsequently, they used email to organize lobbying activities for Chinese Students Protection Act. After the tragedy in Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989, the Chinese students in the U.S. asked the U.S. government to protect them from being forced to return to China and facing prosecution by the Chinese government. They used email as the major communications medium, and successfully lobbied Congress to pass the Chinese Students Protection Act of 1992 (Li, 1990).

The Chinese students' use of email was progressive at the time, but precisely for that reason, it was deemed to be suspicious by some who did not understand the progress of technology. Senator Alan Simpson said during a congressional debate regarding the Chinese Students Protection Act,

They [Chinese students] are tough. They are not just kind of wandering through America with wide eyes about democracy. They have people who are really setting them up. They have FAX machines, they have used the computer systems of every major university (Congressional Record, January 25, 1990: S337-8).

Issue networks are organized not necessarily by people of status, but possibly by someone totally unknown. Conventional mass media have worked to homogenize people through the creation of images. Traditionally, people rely on the mass media "as attitude and behavior models. The media's image-shaping power prompts people to "accept" certain kinds of people and reject "others" who are deemed to be outside of the mainstream. Image becomes more important in determining what kinds of people they want to socialize with. However, users of the Internet are often race and colorblind in communicating. Users do not know the sex, age, race, or social status of the people with whom they are communicating, which results in the elimination of the boundaries of the above groups of people who are from different social positions. The invisibility of one's image provides opportunities for those who would otherwise be subjected to the prejudices of their audiences. "In face-to-face groups," says Robert Kraut, a research psychologist at Bellcore, "the person with the highest status tends to dominate, whether that status was earned or not. In an electronic group, the effects of status are reduced. Attention is focused on what is said, not who is saying it" (Kraut, 1991, 12).?Accessing to and spreading information empowers the underprivileged individuals to achieve influences at a level that they had not been able to achieve in the past, and gives other groups the bargaining power through the capability to get organized quickly and effectively. The invisibility of one's image on the Internet helps make it possible for individuals with persuasive abilities to take leadership in issues by organizing people with similar interests across the geographical boundaries.

Huang Lin, a Chinese student who had shied away from presenting himself in public, was suddenly made a hero among Chinese Americans because of his leadership in organizing protests against CBS's report that implied that all recent Chinese immigrants or visitors were potential China spies. Before the CBS-IC's existence, CBS responded to the uncoordinated protests by Chinese Americans with the curt reply that the broadcast was fair and protected by freedom of speech. In the wake of these initial fruitless protests, Huang Lin and two other Chinese organized CBS-IC to coordinate further protests, which resulted in the final success. CBS-IC used the Internet to communicate, and wrote all their reports and documents. They used the Internet to fax the documents to other Chinese-American media and groups. As a result, many influential Chinese American associations joined the protest. Almost all Chinese media reported the events and developments. This incident demonstrates that the Internet has the potential to increase minorities' political representation, particularly of groups that have traditionally maintained a low political profile.

The reason Chinese students in the U.S. were able to react quickly to the democracy movement in China was because a Chinese student network already existed. The Chinese students used email for casual and intellectual exchanges across campuses in the United States. Such is also the case with the Zapatistas. Before the January 1994 rebellion, the Zapatistas had already built networks of communications system. During the Rebellion, the electronic networks ensured that all their documents and claims were disseminated to the world.

The Internet issue network is especially effective when an issue is time-bound, necessitating immediate action and response. Chinese students used it to conduct a survey in four days when the result was urgently needed for a congressional hearing in order to gain protection from the U.S. government (Li, 1990). When the message that a survey was needed came from Washington, DC, student leaders on different campuses went around their cities collecting signatures from faculties, fellow students and citizens. Data was tabulated, and the signatures were faxed to their lobbying team. All of this was done in four days.

All of the above cases would have been virtually impossible to achieve with the traditional means of communications by interest groups. Although the number of people who are currently able to take advantage of such technology are still limited to the educated elites, the progress signifies a step closer towards a more open society.

Case Studies

The Internet is an effective and efficient tool to organize some kinds of public campaigns, particularly campaigns that are more likely to motivate the economic and cultural elites. In addition to its advantages in resource saving and speediness, the Internet offers another very important factor — individuals on the Internet are clustered around their interests and professions, the most effective issue networks. The issue networks are linked together through file transfer capability, which can be used to create a larger network.

1. Labor Activities and Administrative Conflict:

Any individual or a group can initiate a public campaign on the Internet. However, its success or failure is bound by the appeal of the message to its audiences. The use of such a tactic by Dennis Fox resulted in a peaceful way of solving a dispute between the administration of Sangamon State University and Fox and his colleague, Ron Sakolsky.

On March 15 1995, two professors, Dennis Fox and Ron Sakolsky, went to hand out leaflets on the Sangamon State University (SSU) campus where they teach, to the audience going to a mayoral debate, encouraging them to ask questions listed in the leaflets during the debate. A campus police officer ordered Fox to stop and leave the building, and grabbed leaflets out of the hands of a few people who had taken them. Finally, Fox was handcuffed and taken away, charged with criminal trespassing on state property. Sakolsky was inside the auditorium, quietly handing leaflets to people. Without any warning, "the police grabbed Ron, twisted his arm, and began to push him out...Ron tried to get loose and was charged with aggravated battery, a felony" (Fox, 1995).

Fox went "to the net" and asked the public's support. His public campaign generated about 400 messages sent to Naomi Lynn, the President of the Sangamon State University (now The University of Illinois at Springfield). A support committee consisting of professors and students from SSU was formed to get the charges against Dennis Fox and Ron Sakolsky dropped. Another student created a WWW home page with a graphic copy of the police reports and letters written by Fox and updates of the negotiations.

In his subsequent updates, Fox provided readers with the phone and fax numbers and addresses of Naomi Lynn and other key campus administrators. Professors, students, lawyers, labor activists, and many others from all around the world responded to the Action Alert. Dennis Fox emphasized in his updates that they did not rush to publicize this incident until four weeks later after an effort to reach a reasonable agreement with the administration had failed. Fox writes, "although we hope that the law ultimately will come down on our side, both of us have more faith in the power of people to push for justice than we do in the uncertain protections provided political activists by the legal system." In order to get broader support, the support committee recommended that people send the story of the university's violation of freedom of speech to journalists, or to their campus newspapers.

Under pressure from all sides, finally on May 12, President Naomi Lynn committed herself to reaching an agreement with the interested parties. The agreement was finally reached on June 14, consisting of a statement that Fox agreed to issue in relation to the campaign because the President felt that the Internet messages had embarrassed the university. The statement emphasized the important role that the Internet played in the final decision to settle the incident peacefully.

I emailed Dennis Fox and Naomi Lynn some questions regarding the campaign, which Fox kindly replied. However, I never heard back from the President of the university. The following is the email exchange.

> 1. On which groups have you posted your previous statements?
I posted the original message to half a dozen discussion groups that I am a member of, including Psychology-Law; SPSSI (Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues); radical-psychology-network; clspeech (a free speech lawyers group); law and society (mostly academic researchers); legal studies (for teachers of legal studies). In addition, a student supporter posted the message on many other lists, but I don't know exactly which. We received a lot of from people on all kinds of lists I never sent anything to, such as AAUP (Amer Assn. of Univ. Professors), Tikke, Wobblies, etc.

There was also a World Wide Web page set up at the U of I by a grad student, Peter Miller, and a number of other sites set up links to Peter's site.

> 2. In addition to [Internet news] groups, did you try other means to get public support, through any conventional channels such as newspapers, letters, telephones, fax or civil rights groups?
Yes, but because of the time constraints initially, we relied mostly on [the Internet]. A reporter from The Chronicle of Higher Education saw the posting on and contacted us to write a story. We did mail out some notices to a few dozen individuals around the country.

> 3. Do you know the response rates of your campaign efforts with different media—especially, the success rates of the campaign, newspaper or others?
We received copies of over 350 messages to Naomi Lynn by the April 20 court date, and another 50 or so later on. No real information on other aspects.

> 4. Do you contribute the success entirely to your public campaign or also anything else, such as your status as a professor and your association with the University?
Hard to say exactly. The agreement was a result of long on-again off-again negotiations. The was a significant factor in getting them going again after they broke down, as we indicated in earlier updates.

As Dennis Fox wrote in one of his updates, he did not want to publicize the story if he felt he had any hope that the campus administration at SSU was going to drop the charges against him and Ron Sakolsky. The lack of prompt attention from the conventional mass media makes the Internet become the only eminent medium to use in order to gain support from the interested public. The protesting messages sent to the SSU administration created pressure to reach the final agreement.

2. The Public Interests verses Corporate Profits:

The Internet has proved to be yet another effective way for non-profit groups to conduct public campaigns and seek grassroots lobbies. In comparison with the previous case at Sangamon State University, Congressional lobbying has proven to be more complex and more difficult. It needs the media aswell as several citizen interest groups and organizations to work together to form a coalition and motivate broader public support.

The Taxpayer Assets Projects (TAP) was created by Ralph Nader to monitor the management and sale of public property, including government information with James Love as its Director and two other staff members. It publishes electronic newsletters as a way to keep in contact with the public. TAP-INFO is one of TAP's several newsletters. TAP-INFO was started with about 10 subscribers, whose addresses were collected through James Love's contacts during conferences and meetings; now it has about 2,800 direct subscribers, most of whom are politically powerful people, such as Congressional committee members, media reporters, government officials and other highly educated activists.

After the Republican victory in 1994, Newt Gingrich outlined a new effort to give citizens instant and free access to Congressional information. However, the private sectors resisted the idea of providing public access to government information. As James Love writes, "the private vendors are lobbying the Republicans to tone down the dissemination project, or at least limit it to Congressional information only" (January 3, 1993). The West's lobbying resulted in a special provision in a bill HR 830 "Paperwork Reduction Act of 1995". Section 3518 has a special provision for the West Publishing Co., which writes, "If any person 'adds value' to public information, the federal government would not have 'any right to obtain, collect, acquire, disseminate, use or convert,' the data, database or information product, or 'any method used by the person to identify such resulting data, databases or information product,' except 'under terms that are expressly agreed to by such person'" (February 7, 1995).

TAP informed the public about the special provision and its background noting that, "two former House members who are lobbyists, one of whom is one of Newt Gingrich's closest friends, played a leading role in persuading the aide to insert the provision in the bill" (February 22, 1995). The special provision for West on the bill was sneaked on to a popular bill, a discovery which embarrassed some people so much that no one wanted to claim to be the father of the provision (Obey; Wittes, 1995). TAP launched an aggressive public campaign against the special interest provision. Obey writes that "subsection 3518(f) of H.R. 830 had become a textbook example of how Congress sometimes operates to serve private interests." ?When TAP published its stories on West Publishing Co.'s monopoly over legal information and the politics behind it, the stories were not only read by the direct subscribers but by people who do not subscribe to TAP-INFO because the messages got cross-posted into other related discussion groups, such as Government Documents librarians' discussion groups, law librarians discussion groups, legal discussion groups, etc. As a result, what had been taken for granted by individuals using legal resources and citations formatted by the West Publishing Co. suddenly became an issue of controversy, and raised numerous serious debates and articles in various settings. Topics of discussions are: "Who Owns the Law?" (Wolf, 1994), the future of legal publishing (Hansen, 1994), monopoly, rights to access government information, and value-added services to government information (Love, 1993), and lobbying (Obey and Eisele, 1995; and Wittes, 1995). Both Obey and Wittes in their separate articles provide background on the special provision for the West Publishing Co. in the legislative bill "Paperwork Reduction Act of 1995." As Wittes summarizes, "the provision seems tailor-made to protect West's citation system, as well as other companies that market products based on government information" (5). The provision escaped the notice of citizen interest groups until a policy analyst at OMB Watch faxed it to James Love on February 3. "With less than a week until the full-committee markup, Love and his allies — mounting a counteroffensive fitting for a battle over information policy — put out the word on the Internet.... By the time the full House committee met on Feb. 10, members had heard from their Internet-savvy constituents — a lot of them." Obey provides more specific information about the public interest groups' efforts to counter the special provision using the Internet. On the same day when the provision was discovered, James Love immediately notified West's competitors, public information advocates as well as the Internet discussion groups interested in this topic. They immediately responded by sending emails and making phone calls to their congressmen. "Committee staffers and lobbyists alike agree that the resulting barrage of and fax messages was ultimately crucial in defeating the amendment. 'They had 19,000 people on their Internet,' said one lobbyist who was tracking the motion of the bill through committee" (Obey, 1995).

The reason why TAP — with limited human and economic resources — was able to launch such a massive public campaign against such a powerful publisher was because of users's grasroots support on the Internet. Unlike the traditional way of communicating action alerts through letters and faxes, action alerts on the Internet can engage users in discussions, and debates. The public deliberation can often persuade the otherwise political indifferent individuals to participate in the political process.

3. The Tobacco Paper:

Dr. Stanton Glantz, Professor at the University of California at San Francisco received a FedEx box from an anonymous person in May 1994. The box contained 4,000 pages of documents which Brown & Williamson, a tobacco company, later claimed to be their "stolen" property. The documents represented a smoking gun in the debate over the effects of tobacco on health, especially when the executives of tobacco companies gave sworn testimony in Congress a month earlier pleading ignorance on the issue. The documents revealed that the tobacco industry had known that nicotine was an addictive substance, causing cancer, but the information was kept secret from the public. The documents became a "landmark not only in tobacco litigation, medical scholarship and government policy but also in the battle against corporate control of information" (Wiener, 1996, 12). Glantz gave the documents to the U.C.S.F. library's Special Collections Department, which had already established an archival collection on tobacco policies. Journalists and tobacco litigators had been flooding to the library to look at the documents, which had been the subject of a series of articles in The New York Times by Philip Hilts, who had seen about 10 percent of the material sent to Glantz by an unnamed Congressman. Congressman Henry Waxman of Los Angeles had read some of the documents into the Congressional Record after receiving an anonymous shipment. The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal also obtained copies and printed stories.

In spite of all the press coverage, B&W did not find out about it until January 1995 when an attorney representing a client suing B&W tried to introduce the material into the case. B&W filed a lawsuit to force the return of the documents. However, due to the popularity of the documents and its long waiting list of users waiting to examine them, and the security issues, the librarians at the UCSF had decided to scan the documents to publish them on a CD-ROM and on the World Wide Web. The step taken by the library and its subsequent preparation to publish the documents on CD-ROM and Web site transformed the case because B&W was not simply trying to recover the documents, but to persuade the courts to engage in prior restraint of publication. On June 29, 1995, the California Supreme Court rejected B&W's arguments. Within twenty-four hours, the library started putting the documents on-line at For the first five weeks of the Web publication, more than 52,000 documents were requested by computer users. Wiener comments, "Although newspapers published articles about the leaked tobacco papers, the Web site for the B&W documents shows how the Internet has made it possible to convey sensitive materials to the public without the help of the news media...A.J. Liebling wrote in 1960 that 'freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.' Stanton Glantz and the University of California have shown that is no longer as true as it once was" (13).

4. The Electronic Fabric of Struggle—the Zapatistas

In addition to facilitating national political activity, the Internet's elimination of spatial and temporal boundaries also makes possible quick and effective grassroots struggles on a global scale. News of the declaration went out through a student's telephone call to CNN. As journalists arrived, stories went out via the wire services, newspaper reports, radio and television broadcasts all over the world. However, La Jornada, a local newspaper, was the only newspaper published Zapatista material in full. Those in Mexico, who read the declaration of war, and felt it to be inspiring, typed or scanned the communiques and letters into e-text form and sent them out over the net to potentially receptive audiences around the world. Quickly after the Zapatistas rebellion in Chiapas, the Zapatistas' declarations were already available on the Internet worldwide. Friendly and receptive readers spontaneously re-posted the messages in new places while sometimes translating the Spanish documents into English and other languages. In this way, the words of the Zapatistas have been disseminated from a few gateways throughout much of cyberspace.

While the government-controlled news media in Mexico did not give the Zapatistas coverage in order to isolate the uprising, the Zapatistas broke the attempted isolation through the communication chain built by the international volunteers, journalists and international observers. Volunteers facilitated the communications through fax machines and electronic mails, finally circulated on the Internet to potentially receptive audiences around the world. Through these interactive and spontaneous activities, the Zapatistas's messages became spread throughout the cyberspace. According to Harry Cleaver, "Vital to this continuing struggle has been the pro-Zapatista use of computer communications. While the state has effectively limited mass media coverage and serious discussion of Zapatista ideas, their supporters have been circumvent and offset this blockage through the use of electronic networks in conjunction with the more familiar tactics of solidarity movements: teach-ins, articles in the alternative press, demonstrations" (Cleaver, 1996).

The Washington Post reported:

.... Chiapas has become one of the hottest informational topics on the Internet, with computer linkups enabling Zapatista leader Subcommandante Marcos to circulate his communiques world-wide, at virtually the push of a button, via bulletin boards like PeaceNet, Chiapas-List, and Mexico 94.

Two weeks ago, President Ernesto Zedillo became acquainted with the power at Marcos's fingertips through the Internet when the President announced the start of a military offensive aimed at capturing the ski-masked Zapatista leader....Within hours, 'cyber-peaceniks' and human rights activists here and elsewhere in Mexico had distributed the President's words verbatim via the Internet—along with a call for 'urgent action' to press Zedillo into reversing course. Included in their computer messages was the direct fax number to Zedillo's office, as well as the fax line to Interior Minister Esteban Moctezuma.

"I don't know how effective the campaign was, but I do know that Zedillo's fax machine broke or was eventually turned off," says Mariclare Acosta, president of the Mexican Commission for the Defense and Promotion of Human Rights. She estimates hundreds of faxes were sent to the president, who eventually changed tack and order his troops to halt their advance (Robberson, February 27 - March 5, 1995, 17).


The vastness and diversity of the Internet and its users provide an alternative and inexpensive medium for the people who would otherwise have no access to disseminate their opinions widely to voice the viewpoints. One individual's email can sprout to a mass political campaign. While the media have been used as a symbol of democracy, the Internet provides the potential for an alternative medium to instigate more political participation by the public. This is particularly the case for those who would otherwise lack the economic resources and political strength to gain access to the mainstream media or to organize political campaigns on a massive scale, and achieve the same kinds of results and recognition. The Internet provides the means to fulfill the promises of democracy. It has the potential to provide an effective tool for citizens to exercise their freedom of speech, protect their rights and facilitate actions. Individuals or groups using the Internet as a major communications tool reduce organization costs, and are able to speedily reach a large audience. The Internet provides grassroots organizations with the means to get more effectively and quickly organized, equipping individuals with the power to communicate with thousands of people in very little time and with virtually no resources. Most importantly, it provides opportunities for under-represented individuals or groups to speak for themselves. It has the potential to reduce corporate control of information.

The media's surveillance and interest groups' ability to check and balance social, political and economic conditions of the country can be enhanced further by the additional communications means which the Internet offers. The Internet media are creating a revolution in areas that have been traditionally dominated by the elites and the powerful. As a result, issue-based, electronic grassroots "citizen groups" can be effectively organized, and function as a countervailing power to break the traditional iron triangle of the Congress, government agencies, and economic interest groups. The Internet provides an alternative communications tool for ordinary citizens to voice their opinions, and to make it easy for people to get organized. People of different colors and classes can become integrated more easily on the Internet.

The Chinese students' successful use of the Internet has made them exemplary but also an exception among marginal minority groups, for most of the students have free access to the Internet provided to them by their universities. While one hopes that the majority of the traditionally underrepresented groups eventually will be able to take advantage of the democratic promise of the Internet, at present they still have limited access to it, given the educational disparities of status that lie between them and groups such as the Chinese students. Ironically, although the Internet is one step further towards the fulfillment of the democratic dream, that revolutionary technology stands in danger of replicating and even aggravating a very old problem, namely, reiterating and even amplifying the differences between social hierarchies. This question should be a major issue of policy concern.

Further, because of the speediness of communicating on the Internet and the vast amount of information one can get, people tend to develop a tendency of react to information instead of deliberating and thinking through it before they act. For example, In November 1995, when the Republicans threatened to shrink funding for the PBS, Elizabeth Weiner and her roommate, both university freshmen, decided to take actions. Weinert crafted an email petition, and sent it out over the Internet, instructing people to sign it and pass it on. They asked every 50th recipient to return it to either of them. More than three years later, the petition is still circulating. Ironically, the petition never reached its target. Soon after it was sent, it was spun out of control, generating too many responses for them to handle. The computer systems department was not happy for its computer to circulate so much "junk" email. Weinert dropped out of school for unrelated reasons. So, for the next two years, her roommate responded to each petition-related email (up to 400 a day), asking senders to stop forwarding it. "I've been trying to take responsibility and sort out the mess," she says. "It was not a smart thing to do" (Fryer, 1999).


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Fenghua Wang
The University of Pennsylvania