The E-citizen

 

John K. Lee

The citizenship rationale for teaching social studies was well articulated by NCSS in 1992, when it defined social studies as “the integrated study of the social sciences and humanities to promote civic competence.” Teaching for civic competence requires a wide variety of content and constant adaptation to changes in society. One recent change with the potential to transform civic education is the growth of the World Wide Web. In helping to prepare the new e-citizen for a lifetime role in a democracy, social studies teachers should consider three major developments involving the Internet: the initiation of online voting and advocacy, the proliferation of online political information, and the emergence of online civic activism.

 

Online Voting and Advocacy

Activism represents only a small fraction of the political influence exerted by the Web. A more significant impact of the Internet involves its potential for web-based voting and other forms of constitutional political participation. The watershed event in the history of web-based democracy occurred on March 7, 2000, when citizens of Arizona became the first in the country to use the Internet to cast binding votes in a national election. The Arizona Democratic Party conducted the three-day web-based presidential primary, during which almost 40,000 Arizona Democrats voted online. Since the primary, numerous independent websites—including election.com and voter.com—have begun to promote online voting. Many state and local officials are also promoting Internet voting as a means to increase voter turnout. Still other organizations, such as Beavoter.org, are registering prospective voters online. However, although the Internet may hold the capacity to improve voter turnout, numerous obstacles—including accuracy, privacy, accessibility, verifiability, convenience, flexibility, and mobility—must be overcome before the full impact of online voting will be felt.

Online political participation is taking forms other than just voting. The lobbying of legislators, the marketing of candidates and issues, and fundraising for political campaigns are all moving online. Legislative lobbying via e-mail is rapidly replacing the old “call your Congressman” mantra. E-advocates.com recently helped the Association of American Medical Colleges generate 17,000 e-mails targeted at federal lawmakers prior to a vote relating to medical teaching hospitals. The recent presidential campaign of John McCain also demonstrated the power of the Internet to affect the political process by raising $3.5 million online in the two weeks after the New Hampshire primary. McCain also became the first presidential candidate to hold a web-based political event when he conducted a one-hundred-dollars-a-person chat session with supporters.

Commercial political portals such as Vote.com and Speakout.com have also made appearances during the 2000 presidential primaries. Although these sites provide citizens with political information and, in some cases, a voice in the political process, it is essential that they balance their commercial intent with a sense of openness and a democratic ethos if they are to enhance the process of citizenship education.

 

Online Political Information

A staggering amount of information relating to civics is already available on the World Wide Web. Digital legal archives containing federal, state, and local laws and statutes have been placed online and represent an important means of informing the public. Hundreds of local communities have made their local laws and ordinances available online through the Municipal Code Corporation. Many state and federal codes are also available online. The Library of Congress maintains federal legislative information through its Thomas Legislative Information service. Thomas contains the full text of all bills introduced in Congress since 1989 (including those actively under consideration) and the full text of all laws from 1973 to the present. In addition, Thomas contains congressional voting records and transcriptions of debates in both houses of Congress for the current session.

Numerous public and private organizations are also making political information available through their websites. Commercial organizations such as GoVote.com, PoliticalWag.com, and Politics.com provide portals to various kinds of political information. In addition, non-profit organizations such as E-citizen.org and Opensecrets.org provide information about the operation of local, state, and federal government.

 

Online Civic Activism

Civic competence entails an understanding of civic activism. While an individual may never choose to take an activist role, his or her everyday actions as a citizen (not the least of which is voting) may be influenced by various forms of political activism. Civic activists have long relied on media to form associations with like-minded individuals in order to promote causes. Abolitionists used Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, as a powerful tool for molding public opinion against slavery. A hundred years later, civil rights activists used television to galvanize support for their cause among northern whites. Today, political activists are using the Web to organize and mobilize for civic action in ways that may prove more influential than past uses of print and television media. Many established activist groups, such as People for the American Way and the Heritage Foundation, have established their organizations online. Joining them in cyberspace are new Internet activist “pure plays” such as Eactivism.com., VoxCap.com, WebActive and NetAction.

The recent Seattle protest against the World Trade Organization (WTO) provides a good example of the growing power of the Internet.1 Unlike television during the civil rights era, the Internet enables activist groups to exert some control over the dissemination of information relating to their protests. For example, the Ruckus Society maintains a website that not only reports on its actions, but also train activists and maintains digital archives documenting past protests.

The capacity for large scale disruptions inherent in the online world is represented by groups using the Internet as a means for promoting “hacktivism” (deliberate attacks on Web servers). The Electrohippies Collective, for example, established a website that encouraged individuals to send information to WTO Web servers with the ultimate goal of slowing or shutting them down.2 The Zapatista movement in the Mexican State of Chiappas was the first high profile group to employ attacks on Web servers in pursuit of its political goals. Zapatista activists switched from conventional guerilla military action to a strategy of web-based protests and attacks on the Web servers of Mexican officials. The recent “denial of service” attacks against high profile websites such as Yahoo! may also have been the work of hacktivists.

 

Teaching Activities

The sheer volume of web-based information relating to civic competency can easily overwhelm teachers and students. A good rule-of-thumb for making use of this information is to let the context of a specific social studies lesson dictate the extent to which online resources are used. Beyond learning to access information, students need to become aware of various online resources that can enhance their participation in society. Students can take part in activist movements, register online (in actuality) and vote online (in mock elections), and lobby their congressional representatives about issues.

The following activities make use of resources from the Speakout.com website to give students opportunities to practice political decision making.

 

Activity 1

This activity makes use of a brief survey of current issues and possible positions available on the Speakout.com service known as Selector (www.speakout.com/SelectSmart). Selector matches survey responses with the known positions of the current presidential candidates. Prepare students for this activity with class discussions of the issues covered. Then ask students to complete the survey. After submitting the survey, students will receive results that indicate which presidential candidate most closely matches their positions on the issues. Have students go to the website of the candidate who scored highest in their individual results and identify the issues on which they agree and the issues on which they disagree. Candidates’ websites are linked on the results page.

 

Activity 2

This activity asks students to review petitions that individuals have posted on the Speakout.com service known as Sign a Petition (www.speakout.com/SignPetition). Prompt students about their understanding of the right to petition. Several resources related to the right to petition are available online (w3.trib.com/FACT/1st.petition.html). Students should browse the list of petitions and select one. Students should write a brief description of their opinion on the issue discussed in the petition. Consider school district policy and parental concerns before allowing students to sign any petitions.

 

Websites

Online voting and political advocacy

Arizona Democratic Party: azdem.org

Be A Voter.org: beavoter.org

E-advocates.org: e-advocates.com

Election.com: election.com

Speakout.com: speakout.com

Vote.com: vote.com

Voter.com: www.voter.com

 

Online political information

E-citizens.org: e-citizen.org

Go Vote.com: govote.com

Municipal Code Corporation: www.municode.com

Open Secrets.org: opensecrets.org

Political Wag.com: politicalwag.com

Politics.com: politics.com

Thomas Legislative Information Services: thomas.loc.gov

 

Online civic activism

Eactivism.com: eactivism.com

The Heritage Foundation: heritage.org

NetAction: netaction.org

People for the American Way: pfaw.org

Ruckus.org: www.ruckus.org

VoxCap.com: voxcap.com

WebActive: www.webactive.com

 

Notes

1. S. V. Meddis, “Digital Activism in Seattle,” USA Today.com, December 8, 1999, www.usatoday.com/life/cyber/ccarch/ccsam011.htm (May 27, 2000).

2. A. Gunn, “After the WTO, Electrohippies Plan Online ‘Hacktivism’ Against Biotech Targets,” Seattle Weekly.com, April 6, 2000, www.seattleweekly.com/features/0014/tech-gunn2.shtml (May 27, 2000).

 

John K. Lee is a doctoral student in social studies education at the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville.