Internet censure-ship

How did the Censure and Move On Web site build its anti-impeachment campaign -- and can it make a difference?

Published December 14, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

So much for representative democracy: If the polls are accurate, then the impeachment proceedings on Capitol Hill have nothing to do with what a majority of "the people" actually want. So what can "the people" do about it?

A lot, say the founders of Censure and Move On, an online campaign that for the last two months has been working to persuade the government to rebuke President Clinton promptly and get on to more important things. More than 300,000 people have signed a petition calling for censure -- and an impressive percentage of those have also continued to participate by sending e-mail messages, writing letters and personally meeting with representatives. Just this week, 76,000 people called their representatives' offices as part of a telephone campaign organized with People for the American Way, Michael Moore and Working Assets.

But is this kind of activism having an impact? We asked Joan Blades, who organized Censure and Move On with her husband, Wes Boyd. Together, they previously co-founded the software firm Berkeley Systems (best known for the After Dark flying toaster screen-savers and You Don't Know Jack game). The Internet, she says, is changing the rules of activism -- and the government is starting to listen.

Why did you decide to do Censure and Move On in the first place?

Around the time of the Starr Report coming out, we were hearing from a huge variety of people that it was time to move on. You could walk into a restaurant and you would hear people talking about it, and talking about how crazy it was. People are, and were, very worried about the distraction from the business of government. We heard a tremendous amount of consensus -- a majority stating something that was totally different from what was going on within the Beltway, so there was a real disconnect between what was happening and what the public wanted.

The public is fully educated on this issue. When people talk about not wanting a direct democracy, that's because the democracy is not educated. In this case, the people are very well educated, thank you. We thought putting up a Web site at and starting a petition might be a way to give the people a voice. And frankly, we had our socks blown off. We had hoped it would go well, but we had no idea the numbers would ramp up in the way they did.

Did you initially envision as merely an e-mail petition? Or did you envision this as the multiple endeavor -- with letters, visits, phone calls -- as it ended up being?

The original vision was as an e-mail petition, but we also realized we'd need to print it out because representatives don't necessarily give the same weight to cyberspace as they do to written words. We figured, if things went well, we'd probably have to print it out.

When we put up it was before the Judiciary Committee voted to go ahead with the inquiry, and we were hoping very strongly that it would be a short process. After the committee and then the House vote to go ahead with the inquiry, we realized that the next thing we had to do was pay a lot of attention to the election. [So we organized] the Oct. 29 event where we had Move On volunteers in 44 states going to 219 different representatives to have constituent meetings at noon nationwide. That was a first.

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You said that the Representatives didn't think e-mail is as important as letters -- why do you think this is, and do you think it will change?

I think a lot of the people there haven't had the Net be a part of their lives; e-mail seems too easy to them. Anything that's new, people need to learn about.

In the next couple of years they are going to learn that, in fact, the messages they get online are as important, or more important. Ultimately what the representative is concerned about is those voters who have influence -- and people that are online, frankly, tend to be a little better-educated and better-connected. So things could turn around in the next couple of years.

What kind of impact is the Internet having on activism? Is it making it more accessible?

I don't know how I could have done this without the Net. It made it easy for people to be heard -- they could take one minute and sign the petition, or take five or 10 minutes and send it to their friend. The e-mail was a really efficient means of communicating with everybody -- people could sign up as a volunteer and get as involved as they wanted to be with actions that we suggested in the e-mails. It's a low-pressure way to be involved.

Online activism is a new way to be active, and I think it's a very effective way to be active. It's good for democracy -- it keeps people feeling involved. And it's a great new opportunity to create community.

Have you seen previous examples of this kind of online activism that have been successful?

I haven't.

Did any previous online activist movements inspire you?

It's a pretty simple concept. The one petition that was done before that we certainly heard about was the one protesting the Communication Decency Act, and in fact that was quite effective. It got a lot of people's attention, it got media attention. Did it get the end result it wanted? No. But ultimately the CDA didn't end up a law.

So do you consider Censure and Move On a success? Certainly, it's been successful in terms of sheer numbers -- but what about impact on the government?

We felt it was very successful -- in each case along the way here, we felt like we had impact. When it came to the House vote, we found out through the press that at least one fence-sitter was influenced by all the calls and e-mail. Then there was another Democrat who said he was "bolstered" by it -- that's hearsay, but it's affirming. The election results were very affirming, and people felt very good after that. For a lot of people, this was their first political act.

The Republican Party is trying to foreclose even giving the representatives the ability to vote on censure. Our main point right now is that we at least need the opportunity for representatives to vote on censure, and that they shouldn't be forced to vote party line. In this issue, of all issues, people should be allowed to vote their conscience. If we can just influence that, we've been successful.

But it does seem like the impeachment is going forward anyway despite expressions of popular opposition. Do you think that the politicians will listen to grass-roots efforts like yours? Or is it like banging a drum to try to distract a charging herd of elephants?

I think it's had quite a bit of impact. A lot of conversations started because of Censure and Move On, most of them healthy. The fact is that the election sent a message. That the Republicans acknowledged that people at large were not happy with the pursuit of impeachment is important.

What's going on now is a real disappointment. It's a disappointment that they did not take that and say, "We have to respect the feedback we've gotten." Nonetheless, when the newly elected officials come in, it will be a new House and Senate. And representatives are getting so many calls right now that the switchboards are swamped.

So, we're certainly not as effective as we want to be -- we'd love to have a magic wand -- but I think we're darned effective considering how much the people that have signed on are motivated to make the phone calls, send the e-mails, go to their [representatives'] office.

If people can express their views so clearly and vocally and still be ignored by politicians, does that bode ill for activism in general?

You can look at it both ways. Certainly it's going to discourage some people; on the other hand, it may encourage others to organize more effectively. For pete's sake, we only put this thing up Sept. 22, and we've never done anything like this. I'm amazed at what has happened in two months. You're right: If the impeachment goes forward anyway, it will discourage some people. But I hope it will also motivate others in the future.

By Janelle Brown

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

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