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Blacksburg woman connects with a national debate
Roanoke Times (Virginia)
By Tonia Moxley
BLACKSBURG -- When the United States attacked Iraq a decade ago, Blacksburg resident Pris Sears said she was terrified that the conflict would escalate into a nuclear war.
But she felt helpless to do anything about it.
Two years into the latest U.S. war in Iraq, Sears has found a way to take action by volunteering, some weeks for as many as 30 hours, for afterdowningstreet.org, a national anti-war information network and lobbying organization.
Sears helps maintain the Web site that is the organization's virtual headquarters. Fielding a slew of e-mails and posting articles about the war "is a small thing, but it's something useful I can do," Sears said.
And it's not necessarily small. It makes her part of a growing number of citizens, many of them young, whose Web-based political participation is beginning to shape national debates and influence the stories that national newspapers and networks cover.
Sears, a 30-something network administrator at Virginia Tech, wrote her first computer program at the age of 8.
It was an online quiz that kids interesting in joining her Star Trek fan club had to pass before joining, Sears said.
Later she got a degree in information technology at Tech and taught herself to create Web sites while working at Tech's veterinary school.
Three months ago, Sears logged onto the Internet to find information on "The Downing Street Memo," a British document that suggested that President Bush manipulated intelligence on Iraq's nuclear and biological weapons programs to justify going to war.
Sears was always against the war, but the memo and the information she found on the Web "really proved it to me."
But she said she was dismayed that the U.S. press wasn't covering the story to a larger degree. So she contacted David Swanson, organizer and director of afterdowningstreet.org and signed on as a volunteer.
Since then she's worked directly with Cindy Sheehan, the mother of a soldier killed in Iraq who made national headlines when she camped out at Bush's Texas ranch.
Now Sears sees the Internet as a valuable link between citizens and the government. "It gives better access to information. It lets anyone publish their point of view," she said.
Researchers such as Tech's John Tedesco study the effects of the Internet on political participation, especially among young people.
He has found that Web sites such as afterdowningstreet.org, or its polar opposite, the conservative site iraqwarnews.com, make people "feel needed in the system," Tedesco said.
And such sites, along with personal Web logs, can even affect the stories the national media covers, Tedesco said.
He pointed to the political downfall of U.S. Sen. Trent Lott, whose praise of ardent segregationist Sen. Strom Thurmond was picked up by bloggers.
Eventually, that Internet buzz caused so-called mainstream media outlets to pick up the story.
"It was people on the Internet who wouldn't let that die," Tedesco said.
The organizers of afterdowningstreet.org hope to create a similar effect with the Downing Street memo and other Iraq information.
Sears said she doesn't know exactly what she wants to see happen in Iraq. "We can't just leave now that we've destroyed all their infrastructure," she said.
But Sears plans to keep encouraging debate online.
The key, she said, is "to stay relatively calm and keep doing something useful."