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For Lessons on How to do ePolitics, You've Got to Go Back to the Beginning

09/09/2013 12:03 BST | Updated 06/11/2013 10:12 GMT

The following is an edited extract from Justin Cash's new book "The Rise of Clickocracy: Politics for a Digital Age", out now on Lulu. Available in print here, and as an eBook here.

In the autumn of 1998, in the midst of impeachment proceedings against former US President Bill Clinton, a couple from Silicon Valley launched a one-sentence petition online. Their demand of Congress was simple: "immediately Censure President Clinton and Move On to pressing issues facing the country". Software developers by trade, the husband and wife team were fed up with conservative Americans obsessing over Clinton's sex life, hence they endeavored to oppose Republican attempts to use such triviality as a political football.

Their movement became known as 'Censure and Move On', and their original e-petition notched up 100,000 signatories by the end of its first week. Within a few months, it had half a million. What was remarkable about this achievement though, and what puzzled people most at the time, was not the sheer volume of interest shown, but the fact that it was principally generated through online channels.

"How can there be such a phenomenon as electronic political activism?" opined one Washington Post writer. " What's so active about clicking a mouse button when sending an email or logging on to a website? But with $13 million and more than 650,000 volunteer hours pledged to Censure and Move On...the realm of political activism now must bend its boundaries to include cyberspace".

Phrases such as 'word of mouse' started appearing in common usage, yet this newfangled school of 'e-politics' still had its fair share of detractors. In August 1999, in its coverage of what was emerging as an important trend in the democratic process, USA Today summed up the kind of argument used by e-political sceptics: "No medium that relies on voters to take the initiative for educating themselves can ever have the broad reach of TV, where political messages intrude unbidden into living rooms, they say."

As it turned out, Censure and Move On did fail. Republicans in the House of Representatives carried on with the impeachment proceedings against Clinton regardless. Undeterred, the movement then decided to form a political action group in an effort to give pro-impeachment Republicans their comeuppance for successfully distracting the voting public with pointless banalities.

Censure and Move On began providing financial backing for more progressive candidates to Congress. By sending out some 300,000 emails, the group managed to raise a quarter of a million dollars in under a week. 3 of the 5 candidates endorsed by Move On emerged victorious from the 2000 elections. These amazing achievements are made all the more remarkable by the fact they were made solely through the magic of the internet. At no point were any real life calls made or any physical action taken - at least not as far as I am aware. Move On chose to rely on the power of online linkages alone.

Move On survives to this day, and is actually thriving. By using publicly available records prior to the 2012 US election, Move On delivered what they called a "Voter Report Card" to more than 10 million swing state voters. This card was a gentle reminder of how often the recipient had voted in previous elections, placed side by side with a measure of how frequently their neighbours were voting. There's nothing quite as effective as a sense of shame to spur one into action, and by exposing the politically idle citizen as a slacker compared to their peers, Move On successfully gave them an additional incentive to turn out on polling day.

More than this, Move On brought e-politics into the mainstream. Two solitary individuals kick started one of the largest democratic experiments conducted to date. They are the forerunners of a movement that has gone on to develop, hone and experiment with myriad new tools and tactics to influence politics in ways that are both profound and novel. With the advent of Move On, 'netizens', people who stereotypically shy away from the real world in favour of the digital one, started playing at politics (though some are still keen to avoid the impression that they are doing so).

As the once distinct domains of politics and technology continue to encroach further and further into each other's territory, the legacy of this fledgling movement is starting to take shape. The merits of 'politics 2.0', 'democracy 2.0', 'digitocracy', 'clickocracy' - whatever one wishes to call it - where digital media is to take centre stage in the democratic process, splits opinion like little else in Westminster. And for good reason: the frontrunners in today's e-politics - leviathan campaign websites like Avaaz, Change.org and 38 Degrees - have achieved far less than what seems possible given their expansive membership bases.

Yet in their favour lies an admirable philosophy derived from some genuinely pioneering groups that preceded them: that digital technologies have the power to change our ailing democracies for the better. The historical exemplars, both of success and failure, are what today's breed of e-activist must turn to in order to guide their energies and realise their vision of a digital democracy that both enfranchises and engages. And there are few better on which to draw than the story of Move On.