This Tuesday evening, President Obama will present his official case for military intervention in Syria to the American public. In the meantime, members of Congress, journalists, and citizens alike are struggling to decide whether or not they think the U.S. should "punish" Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for allegedly using chemical weapons against his own people.
Tough questions are at stake here. What tangible evidence is there to suggest Assad ordered a chemical attack? Could it be that someone else waged the attack — perhaps a rogue commander, someone trying to frame the Assad regime? Assuming U.S. intelligence reports are correct, would bombing Syria discourage Assad and other world leaders from using chemical warfare in the future?
It is difficult to discern a majority public opinion about Syria for one reason: in recent decades, the venues for public discussion and debate have dramatically shifted.
Now, instead of gathering spontaneously to protest in public spaces, passionate individuals join Facebook groups or fill out online surveys about political issues created by "email activists." Young people once initiated widespread activist movements to protest the Vietnam War. Today, millennials are virtually indiscernible from the rest of the internet population, clicking "like" in support of activist groups that claim expertise about Syria.
To influence policy makers' ultimate decision about Syria, opinionated millennials must take a big step outside the box. That means breaking away from the internet realm long enough to organize community discussions, protests, debate-watching parties and any other gathering that brings people physically together for the purpose of considering military intervention in Syria.
When I received an email from MoveOn.org stating that a majority of the organization's members had formed an "unequivocal" opinion regarding the situation in Syria, I was immediately skeptical. Particularly suspicious was MoveOn's claim that a whopping 73% of its members oppose military intervention in Syria. To my surprise, I learned that less than 2% of MoveOn's total membership ever responded to the online survey about Syria distributed by the organization. The value of that 73% statistic is further diminished by the fact that over eight million people are members of MoveOn.org.
Yet, the group's leaders felt certain enough about an oppositional majority opinion to request "every one of MoveOn's eight million members" to call their Senators and Representatives and tell them they oppose military intervention.
As blogger Micah L. Sifry puts it, "clicktivism" — the new, Web-based form of activism — is problematic mainly because it encourages leaders of email activist groups like MoveOn.org to believe they possess a real understanding of their base's thoughts and opinions.
In reality, the internet's main appeal is its capacity for instantaneous communication, not full consideration of ideas and people. Would-be activist leaders can maintain a stronger connection with members by organizing more physical gatherings and engaging with them on a personal level.
Old forms of activism have not entirely vanished, and the Syrian debate seems to have reignited them to some extent. In Chicago this weekend, protesters for and against military action in Syria gathered on sidewalks. Approximately 150 anti-war protesters gathered in front of the White House on Saturday, and public gatherings were reported in at least four other states on that day.
If millennials want to influence policy makers' decision about Syria, tweeting at, emailing and calling their Congress members certainly won't hurt.
Yet a political decision of this magnitude warrants more than "a minute" of millennials' attention.
To initiate real change and understanding, people must gather together physically to discuss and debate this complex issue for extended periods of time. Only in this way can we heighten our confidence in our opinions, which will allow us to gain enough collective momentum to make real change.