The New Republic
October 23, 2000
by John Aravosis
"Dr. Laura" Schlessinger had it coming. Known for her take-no-prisoners conservatism and her biting tongue, she calls homosexuality a "biological error" and suggests that a "huge portion of the male homosexual populace is predatory on young boys." To many in the gay community, Paramount Television's decision to reward such slander with a TV talk show this fall reeked of a double standard: Had Schlessinger called blacks or Jews genetically deficient, Hollywood wouldn't touch her with a ten-foot pole. So, on March 1, three friends and I launched StopDrLaura.com to educate Paramount and its parent company, Viacom, about Dr. Laura's extreme anti-gay rhetoric.
What started as a simple six-page website is now a high-profile grassroots movement comprising 31 chapters in the U.S. and Canada and tens of thousands of registered activists worldwide. In response to the site (which has 50 million hits to date), advertisers immediately began dropping Schlessinger's highly rated radio show, even though our real target was her upcoming TV show. In the end, over 26 blue-chip advertisers dumped the radio show, and nationwide protests erupted in nearly three dozen cities. But Paramount wouldn't blink, and on September 11 "Dr. Laura" hit daytime television. We responded by listing the program's advertisers on our site, and the real slaughter began.
That first week of "Dr. Laura," StopDrLaura.com got four million hits, and netizens around the world inundated the show's advertisers with e-mails and phone calls. By September 15, over 30 additional big-name advertisers had dropped "Dr. Laura." And, while at this writing the show continues to air in the U.S. (it's already been cancelled in Canada), Paramount has already paid a high price in ad revenue and reputation, and most critics say Dr. Laura's TV career is not long for this world.
How did we fight a major Hollywood studio, one of America's top radio talents, and some of the country's biggest brands? With a $15,000 budget (mostly raised from online sales of T-shirts with the slogan "Are you a biological error?"), an ever-growing army of volunteers (gleaned mostly off the Internet), and a website.
While StopDrLaura.com has had marked success, it's certainly not the first time the Internet has given birth to a spontaneous grassroots movement. In September 1998, a group of previously apolitical friends started asking people to sign a Web-based petition demanding that Congress "immediately censure President Clinton and move on to pressing issues facing the country." Within three months, MoveOn.org got half a million signatures, 5,500 volunteers, and pledges for $10 million in donations to be used to oust members of Congress who voted for impeachment. And StopDrLaura and MoveOn are not the only political players to have had an impact online: John McCain raised $6 million via the Internet for his failed presidential bid, and the ACLU sends nearly 300,000 messages a year to Congress through its website. But the most effective, highest-profile online campaigns to date have been run by people, not organizations, because the benefits and demands of the Internet favor the individual.
The most important benefit of the Internet for an individual is access to a cheap and easy means of communicating with millions of people. In the early '90s, I wanted to get involved in gay rights advocacy, but I didn't know the players. Over the last three years, using the Internet, I've been able to start my own online publication, cultivate an audience, establish credentials, and ultimately launch my own pro bono issue campaigns. The credibility I gained during those campaigns (along with the combined reputations of our co-founders) helped us launch StopDrLaura.com with no initial budget.
In addition to credibility, small players also lack resources (namely money and staff). The cost of running StopDrLaura.com as a traditional pre-Internet grassroots organization would certainly have required more in fund-raising than the T-shirt equivalent of a bake sale. "Postage alone would have killed us," says William Waybourn, a co-founder of StopDrLaura.com and former head of several national gay rights groups. Yet through our website and via e-mail we reach thousands of people a day, essentially at no cost other than our time.
While StopDrLaura.com was started by four friends who had full-time jobs elsewhere, we now rely on a loose-knit network of organizing committees in 31 cities and, more importantly, tens of thousands of private citizens we've never met who take it upon themselves to regularly visit our website, read our e-mail alerts, and act. StopDrLaura.com has "members" in China, Latin America, Europe, and across North America. The ability of the Internet to connect allies and forge relationships is perhaps the greatest secret of our success, and it is the reason why individual political actors prosper online.
The Internet provides activists with the ability to reach and empower even disparate constituencies. The gay community in particular lives in a diaspora. Most gays and lesbians are born into heterosexual families and must affirmatively seek out others like themselves, unlike children born black or Jewish. The religious right, our number-one nemesis, has always had the advantage of gathering its "family" every Sunday, which provides a ready-made venue for indoctrinating the troops on a regular basis. But for a new generation of gays and lesbians, the Internet is our church, our gathering place. And we go every day.
In addition, gay civil rights advocates have long had to contend with activists who are afraid of getting politically involved, fearing for their families, their jobs, and their lives. The Internet, and the anonymity and safety it provides, offers closeted gays an opportunity to fight back for the first time in history. Sean Williams, who runs an extremely popular online community called SeanPatrickLive.com, says the Internet is of particular benefit to gay activism because it empowers closeted gays to "publicly stand up for themselves in a private way."
No matter when Schlessinger's TV show is finally canceled (the ratings are so bad that it's only a matter of time), StopDrLaura.com has already won. We've used the Internet to teach Paramount and Viacom a painful lesson about profiting from prejudice, and we've gotten Schlessinger to tone down her anti-gay rhetoric (which, with 20 million radio listeners, is no minor achievement). And, most importantly, we've used technology--so often perceived as cold and dehumanizing--to empower a new generation of gay activists to recognize the value of their own humanity and stand up for their civil rights.
JOHN ARAVOSIS is president of Wired Strategies, an Internet consulting group.
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