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Robert Colvile: How the internet is empowering grassroots movements

Colvilerobert Robert Colvile authors his third article exploring the internet's impact on politics.

Yesterday, I argued that political parties can use the internet to become more agile, open, decentralised entities, appealing to people through single issues and lively, intelligent prose. But there are already people doing that rather successfully - the bloggers and campaigners.

The blogosphere is the most obvious, and most successful, manifestation of the political internet thus far - hence, perhaps, the vitriol of some of the attacks made against it (in Italy, it has so unsettled the élites that a law was being proposed to force bloggers to register with the state).

Much of the power of the bloggers and activists lies in their ability to hold the powerful to account, to pick up stories that the mainstream media have allowed to fall beneath the cracks. In 2002, Senate majority leader Trent Lott spoke at a 100th birthday party for Senator Strom Thurmond.  "I want to say this about my state [of Mississippi]," said Lott. "When Strom Thurmond ran for president [in 1948], we voted for him. We're proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over the years."

Given that the central plank of Thurmond's campaign had been to strengthen segregation, these remarks were hugely controversial. Yet the mainstream media largely ignored them - it was left to the bloggers to pick the story up, and circulate it, to increasing outrage, until Lott was forced to recant. Similarly, Michael Howard's plans to restrict democracy within the Conservative Party were scuppered not by the Tory press, but by a revolt led by the grassroots readers of ConservativeHome.

In fact, the potential for revolt - for revolution - is one of the most interesting and exciting aspects of the web. With Google, it has never been easier for people to connect to discuss issues they feel strongly about.

Take the case of Laurie Pycroft, a teenager from Swindon. Pycroft has transformed this country's attitude towards scientific testing on animals almost single-handedly. He took on the anti-vivisectionists who were obstructing the construction of a laboratory in Oxford, founding a group called Pro-Test that made the case for the number of human lives that had been and would be saved by such research. And he did so largely from his bedroom, by linking together like-minded people and stirring up debate.

He is far from alone. Eli Pariser started a petition against the Afghan war at, which attracted more than half a million signatures within a few weeks and created an email list that became the foundation of's success. Banking giant HSBC was forced to back down over plans to charge its clients more after a series of protests co-ordinated by groups on Facebook. Those with particular interests - parents of children with special needs, for example - can now go online to find others in a similar situation. David Cameron has called for such parents (in fact, all parents) to be able to set up their own co-operative schools, of which there are already more than 100 in Sweden and 600 in Spain - and the internet makes it far easier for those interested in doing so to find each other.

This is not politics as traditionally understood - or rather, it is not party politics. But as Mark Penn, Hillary Clinton's chief strategist, has argued, small groups of people - barely 1% of the population - can use the web to bond over issues that concern them, and band together to campaign about them. Before, the only way for the families of soldiers serving in Afghanistan or Iraq to communicate would be through the Army itself, or their local paper - now, they can all log on to the Military Families Support Group (a site set up by two mothers who lost their sons in Iraq). More conventionally, MySociety, the group of altruistic web experts who developed the Downing Street website, PledgeBank, TheyWorkForYou and several other sites, offer ways of engaging people in politics that were unthinkable before the internet.

The results of all this activism - such petitions calling for Borat and Jeremy Clarkson to be made Prime Minister - might not appeal to all, just as the tone of online debate on the blogs can be an acquired taste. But even if these sites are just stirring the pot, many will feel that the cosy little world of Westminster could do with a little stirring.

'Politics, Policy and the Internet' by Robert Colvile is available on the Centre for Policy Studies website. You can read a summary of its argument in The Daily Telegraph.


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