Various political blogs are reporting that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is organizing a "virtual march" on Washington, DC in opposition to a bill being debated on the Hill that would do away with the "secret ballot" means of organizing a union at a workplace. Wonkette mockingly celebrates the event as a "a protest lazier than Second Life's" and declares that "You don’t even need to actually show up to march on Washington anymore!" Slightly beside the point, one commentator notes the irony that such "grass-roots" means of protesting are being utilized by big business, suggesting that "if there were an actual march, Chamber of Commerce members would have to be carried in their sedan chairs by their illegal alien employees. No use risking loss of valuable workers should the INS swoop down during the march!"
Seriously, though, this is an impressive move - one that will surely be copied by other activists and political organizers. Though the details of the march are a bit unclear, The Chamber of Commerce website urges supporters to "Get ready to 'march' on Thursday, February 15! We’ll
send you an e-mail with a link to a website where you can create a
virtual you and 'march' on Washington." Does this mean Senators and Congressmen/women will awake on Thursday to an angry mob of avatars on their computer screens? Unless the C. of C. now also counts hacking among its arsenal of lobbying tools, I doubt this is their intent - and I wonder how otherwise they will "virtually" be able to capture the attention of policymakers and leverage any influence over their decisions. But though such virtual demonstrations may not yet be as effective as real world rallies in plain sight of lawmakers, I'm sure they will become increasingly so as the technology affords us more accessible and adoptable forums for such political activities.
In fact, a quick Google search reveals that several other groups have already or are currently mounting similar virtual marches. Moveon.org recently organized a "virtual march" to protest the escalation of the war in Iraq that combined online organizing to coordinate the rather traditional (but effective) political participation effort of having supporters call their elected representatives over a specified time-period. Similarly, Stopglobalwarming.org claims to have networked 631,684 supporters in their "virtual march" to lobby for greater restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions. The site explains that "the Stop Global Warming Virtual March is a non-political effort bringing Americans together to declare that global warming is here now and it’s time to act." Their "march" appears to consist of regional information meetings, letter writing and telephone calling to lawmakers, and calculating one's own carbon footprint in order to make individual changes to decrease carbon emissions.
Given these examples, it appears the era of the virtual political protest is already upon us and - especially as technology increases its potential to grab the attention of both the public and lawmakers - policymakers will increasingly have to grapple with how to balance free speech concerns with the inevitable disruptive effects of such demonstrations.