The Internet and American Culture P O L I T I C A L N E T W O R K I N G NORMAN MATLOFF National Review, July 28, 1997 _________________________________________________________________Mr. Matloff, a former software developer in Silicon Valley, is a professor of computer studies at the University of California at Davis.
FUTURE historians may well mark 1992 as the year the Internet transformed American politics. Tens of thousands of Chinese nationals who were studying in the U.S. used university computer accounts in a brilliantly organized congressional lobbying campaign. At stake was the Chinese Student Protection Act (CSPA), designed to give blanket political asylum to an estimated 80,000 Chinese nationals who were in the U.S. during the 1989 student protests in Peking.
Use of the Internet was crucial to the campaign. The source of this blitz of bytes was the Independent Federation of Chinese Students and Scholars (IFCSS). With guidance from a prominent Washington law firm, the organization broadcast regular announcements over the Internet, providing telephone and fax numbers of key members of Congress, suggesting wording for the messages, and continually exhorting the students to keep up the pressure. At various points during the bill's journey through congressional committees, floor votes, and so on, an IFCSS coordinator would, merely by hitting the Enter key, send detailed lobbying instructions to tens of thousands of Chinese students nationwide.
A typical e-mail instruction was the one sent out when the bill reached the House Judiciary Committee.
At this moment, perhaps one of the most critical junctions, we strongly urge students across the country to call/fax [the following members of Congress] . . . Three members need to be targeted more than others . . . In addition to calling their Capitol Hill offices, students can also talk to directors of their district office at your localities. You may as well encourage your local newspapers to come up quickly with editorials on the issue -- for sure, you may ask the [IFCSS] headquarters to provide technical support. You may also enlist your local American friends/groups to help, especially those with large or influential constituency.
Another typical message read, ``We need to exert maximum pressure [on] the whole Senate as quickly as possible . . . Starting tomorrow . . . flood every single senator's office with phone calls and faxes.''
One of the beauties of using the Internet as an organizing vehicle was that the IFCSS had no need to track down volunteers for the lobbying effort. Instead of the expense and highly hit-or-miss approach of purchasing mailing lists from other organizations, the IFCSS simply announced its efforts on the Usenet news group soc.culture.china, an Internet ``chat room'' for China-related topics, read by most Chinese students in the United States. The response was tremendous. The IFCSS also kept an eye on the bottom line: ``Another matter that is crucial to us is funds . . . please support our effort by making a donation. Now is the time to do it.'' (The IFCSS, originally organized to promote democracy in China, later saw its membership plummet after the protection bill became law.)
The Chinese students found this experience exhilarating, and were later anxious to find new issues on which to lobby. As the Internet evolved, so did the Chinese students. Back in 1992 their electronic tools were state-of-the-art for that time, namely e-mail and Usenet news groups, but when their next big chance came, in 1995, the World Wide Web had been developed. Now they used the web (and the older tools as well) to coordinate a campaign against congressional proposals which would have made it more difficult for foreign students to be hired by American employers after graduation.
For example, their websites made use of a mechanism by which students could sign a ``virtual'' petition opposing the legislation. Through this they collected (and later presented to Congress) 15,000 signatures in just over a week's time -- a feat that would have been impossible using conventional methods. They also set up another mechanism by which each student could send a single e-mail message to a given Internet address which would automatically forward copies of the message to all members of Congress who were considered crucial to the bill's fate. The UCLA webpage included talking points for use in phone calls to congressional offices. The instructions also advised the students to misrepresent themselves during these calls: ``They're not supposed to check up on you. . . . Do not worry about your [foreign-student] status. Yes, you are counted as voting citizens because they never bother to ask the status.''
As usage of the Internet has become more widespread, the variety of political uses has also broadened. And such methods need not even be focused on any particular piece of legislation. A good example is that of the cleverly named Mathematically Correct. This is a group of mathematicians and scientists who are alarmed at trends in math education in the California public schools. Their declared enemies, including dumbed-down curricula and de-emphasis on precise thinking and individual efforts, are leading our children down the road to innumeracy, the group believes.
Mathematically Correct's regularly updated webpage is a cornucopia of materials related to their crusade: news of pending legislation on K - 12 math instruction; reviews of math textbooks; lists of ``target'' school districts in which concerned parents are urged to battle ``fuzzy'' math curricula; data on standardized test scores; and a host of newspaper articles and columns. One of Mathematically Correct's founders, math professor Wayne Bishop of the California State University at Los Angeles, says that the group began out of parents' frustration at the utter indifference educators showed to their concerns. The Internet, Bishop reports, has been central to the group's success so far.
Is all this impressive? Certainly. Is it technologically difficult? Absolutely not. Anyone with a modem and rudimentary knowledge of the Net can do it. And once the word spreads on how effective these tactics can be, we can all look forward to occasional days on which impending House votes cause traffic jams on the Information Highway. ___________________________________