Pittsburgh—The goals of the RightOnline conference were simple: train more conservatives to "take control of the Internet" and steal some media coverage from the Netroots Nation progressive bloggers convention being held across the Monongahela River. These recent dueling political gatherings drew activists and bloggers here and offered a glimpse into how conservatives and liberals planned to use the web next to promote their policies and politics.
After the 2008 election, the right had some catching up to do. "The reason why our side wasn't doing well online was we didn't prioritize it," says Tim Phillips, head of Americans for Prosperity, a conservative advocacy group, which created RightOnline. Conservatives are now learning the basics, including how blogs, Facebook, and Twitter could turn those on the right who are interested in politics into a potent force. Phillips hopes activists and bloggers will use these tools to derail healthcare reform and quash the cap-and-trade bill. But his ambition doesn't stop there. "The long-term goal is to train our people so well and to make them feel a part of a movement so well that when the short-term battle on healthcare and cap-and-trade is over, they'll say, 'I'm in this for the long haul,' " says Phillips.
Still, some argue that conservatives aren't that far behind. "Twitter has been the most instrumental tool for conservatives socially organizing," says conservative author and blogger Michelle Malkin. Blogs like Malkin's have helped synchronize efforts too, and Matt Lewis, a conservative contributor to PoliticsDaily.com and Townhall.com, thinks conservatives have used these tools especially effectively in the healthcare reform debate. "If you look at what has happened in the last month, I would challenge you to say that the Netroots are in any way coming close to being as effective as the Rightroots," he says.
And while Malkin points out that most of the Web-savvy conservatives live outside the beltway, Republicans in Washington increasingly have an online strategy too. "I think Washington very much is excited," says John Randall, eCampaign director for the National Republican Congressional Committee. Motivated in part by Barack Obama's use of the Web during the presidential campaign, the NRCC created its eCampaign division in January and now offers an online component during its candidates' school, which trains Republicans to run for the House. "There's not a technology gap between the right and the left; there is a utilization gap," says Randall. "But the right has caught up in that regard."
Those attending Netroots Nation were already familiar with the technology and know Washington is paying attention, as both former President Bill Clinton and Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to President Obama, attended and cheered on the bloggers. For progressives, the next step is figuring out what strategies online and offline work best when trying to promote their issues. They discussed how best to engage Congress, how to work with local unions, and how to organize in rural areas.
And while some progressives aren't worried about the GOP's progress. "The trouble with the right's attempts to improve online activism is that they are, by nature, a top- down organization," says Jay Ackroyd, a progressive blogger. Others give conservatives more credit. "They will [catch up], and the progressives need to be aware of that," says progressive blogger Adele Stan. And conservatives have plenty of time before the 2010 midterm elections to do so.