Growing Grass Roots Online

Have bloggers and social networks triggered a new protest movement?

National coverage of the “Jena 6″ case has lulled significantly since the September marches on the Louisiana town. But before and after the story emerged, participants used social networking sites such as Facebook, along with e-mail and text messages, to spread the news about the case. Students on college campuses used e-mail to coordinate a nationwide walkout day. Text messages reminded friends and colleagues to wear black to demonstrate their support. African Americans continue to use these newly formed social networks to mobilize and organize via the Internet.

“The impact of organizing around the Jena 6 events represented a trend toward decentralizing of leadership,” says Chris Rabb, a consultant, social commentator, and “netroots” activist. “Organizers focused on empowering the individual to use [technological] tools to facilitate change.”

Rabb, one of the credentialed bloggers at the 2004 Democratic Convention, says that this departure points to a structural difference in mobilizing. Previously, organizers had to rely on mainstream media to validate and cover issues related to African Americans. Now, he says, “If you get an e-mail about Jena 6, for instance, you decide how to use that e-mail. Blog about it, convert it to a text or instant message, forward the e-mail to others, or print it out and post it on the Web and share it.”

Rabb says technology gets more people to act for two reasons: “Web blogging and coverage gets picked up by hundreds then thousands and, ultimately, by national black radio shows, which cumulatively reach millions every day. You reach the constituents you want to reach because friends and colleagues send it to other socially conscious black folks.”

This is what Tinisha Slaw, a student at the University of Western Georgia, did. She created a Facebook group to inform her friends of the emerging discussion around the Jena 6 case. “All I did was create an event on Facebook from the information that I heard on the radio and from e-mails,” she says. But that was enough to mobilize the masses. And although Slaw could not join those who traveled to Jena, her Facebook page testifies to the “viral effect,” or infectious nature of e-mails, bloggers, and social networks. There are now more than 500 Facebook groups in support of the Jena 6, with international and national membership at 30,000-plus. Groups are organized by state and/or school and include college and high school students. Groups often include postings of newspaper articles, blogs, embedded YouTube videos, and network newscasts that inform other members about the history of the case and what they can do to help, whether it is donating to the defense fund, signing petitions, or joining other non-Web-based organizers.

While many herald this as indication of a shift in the way African Americans mobilize for social change, H. Timothy Lovelace Jr., assistant director of the Center for the Study of Race and Law at the University of Virginia Law School, warns against writing off traditional methods of organizing. “These various technologies can be used to mobilize but should not become the

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