Together Apart: During Pandemic, Online Groups Are More Important Than Ever

April 17, 2020   •  By Tiffany Donnelly   •    •  ,

Although the COVID-19 crisis has made “social distancing” our national mantra, the only separation we need is physical. Thanks to the internet, we can maintain our social bonds by forming, organizing, and participating in groups online. Even when we’re stuck at home, the groups we join to support shared causes continue to give us a voice in Washington and our state capitals.

Freedom of association is vital to democracy. Joining a group with like-minded Americans allows us to express and test new ideas and contribute to robust debate that advances the general welfare. Since meeting in person, while still an important right, currently poses dangerous health risks, it is now more important than ever for groups to assemble online.

By working together and speaking with one voice, we can more effectively solve problems and implement changes to government and society. While the power of one individual should never be underestimated, it’s common sense that there is strength in numbers. The Supreme Court recognized this fact in NAACP v. Alabama over 60 years ago, when it held that “[e]ffective advocacy of both public and private points of view… is undeniably enhanced by group association.”

For example, many of us have strong opinions about the way the government is handling, or not handling, the current crisis. Imagine organizing some form of protest on the coronavirus relief bill, or trying to get through to your senator, as a single individual. It would be extremely difficult, particularly now, as most Americans are self-isolating, and many continue to work from home while also caring for family.

Meanwhile, groups that represent the views of their members are still active and operating, fighting for the shared values of those citizens eager for change, but unable to engage in direct advocacy. Without these groups, we would be left to fend for ourselves, leaving more power in the hands of political leaders and those wealthy and connected enough to promote their interests on their own.

The widespread availability of the internet also enhances ordinary citizens’ ability to develop and express our views. Online platforms allow members across a state or across the country to quickly and easily pool resources and share information so they can formulate strategies and respond to new developments.

Similarly, social media offers a wider audience for organized efforts such as letter-writing campaigns, protests, and fundraisers. Platforms like Twitter can provide even the smallest of groups a crucial opportunity to interact with their fellow citizens, policy experts, lobbyists, and public officials who can respond to their views and potentially aid their mission.

The internet also enables marginalized voices and grassroots organizations to meaningfully participate in political dialogue and challenge authority. That’s one of the reasons the Institute for Free Speech works diligently to protect the ability to associate with others, privately and free from government restrictions. From opposing speech-chilling bills to defending citizens from prying government eyes, we champion First Amendment rights for everyone, whether in person or online.

The entire world is going through a tough time right now. Some things are out of our control. But as Americans, we recognize what’s in our grasp, we roll up our sleeves, and we get to work. Group associations enhance our ability to make a difference, even from the safety of our own homes.

Tiffany Donnelly

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