Correction appended: July 3, 2013, 10:58 p.m. E.T.
Every night, thousands of Internet users come home from work and hop onto Reddit, a discussion-based website. But lately some of the users who log on at 8 p.m. haven’t been perusing the site just for fun. They’re coming in hopes of fighting government surveillance.
These nightly meetings take place under the “Restore the Fourth” section of Reddit, where supporters are currently planning nationwide protests in over 100 locations on July 4. Restore the Fourth — a double entendre that invokes both the nation’s founding and Fourth Amendment privacy rights — also created a website that will serve as a central hub for supporters in planning these rallies.
“Reddit didn’t take well to all the information about the news leak as far as NSA goes,” says Michael Reed, Restore the Fourth’s director of communications. “So we started organizing there, and the next thing you know, we’re organizing in over 100 cities and it’s only getting bigger.” Although the group first formed at the beginning of last month, its Reddit page has quickly gathered over 19,000 subscribers. In just the first three days of the site’s launch, over half a million visitors accessed their page, Reed says.
“The idea is to take this energy that we’ve seen online and turn that into physical protests around July 4th,” says Rainey Reitman, the activism director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
So far, supporters are planning rallies in cities such as Los Angeles, Philadelphia, St. Louis and Boston. Reed expects thousands will turn out, possibly as many as 20,000 0r more. Organizers say the largest protest will be held in Washington, D.C., where they invited high-profile supporters like Senator Rand Paul, the Republican from Kentucky, to speak. Although Senator Paul is unable to attend the rally, last week he reached out to Restore the Fourth with a recorded video message via YouTube to express his support. Reed says Restore the Fourth plans to play the video at the protest.
“The Fourth Amendment ought to be defended,” Paul said. “I think really the right to privacy is one of the new fights of this century.” The Kentucky Senator also said he would continue to lead the fight against the government’s surveillance programs, which he called “a tragedy.”
The D.C. rally will have several guest speakers, including NSA whistle-blower Thomas Drake, Bill of Rights Defense Committee’s Shahid Buttar and president of the Libertarian Party Carla Howell. (On Facebook, more than 200 people have signed up to attend the D.C. event.)
According to their press release on June 18, Restore the Fourth hopes the demonstrations will achieve three things. First, the group calls on Congress to reform the Patriot Act and the FISA Amendments Act, so that blanket surveillance of Internet and phone records of U.S. residents is prohibited. Second, they demand the creation of a special committee to further investigate domestic spying. And finally, Restore the Fourth wants public officials who are responsible for the programs to be held accountable.
David Segal, the executive director of online activist organization Demand Progress, believes these grassroots rallies will grab the attention of lawmakers. “As Congress members are spending more and more time outside of D.C. over the summer, we can steer people to various town halls and other public events where lawmakers will be present,” Segal says. He also plans to forward information about the local July 4 rallies to his site’s 1.5 million members.
However, Segal does caution that the movement has been very decentralized, and that some rallies “will be more robust than others.” There are some other warning signs that the movement may not be as strategically decisive as organizers hope. Restore the Fourth supporters on Reddit set up a fundraising campaign to purchase a full-page ad in the New York Times, but failed to meet the $100,000 price tag. By the time their deadline was up, the group could only muster a total of $2,943.
Polls also show that public outrage over NSA monitoring is not all that overwhelming. According to a Washington Post–Pew Research Center poll, 45% of Americans say it’s okay for the government to monitor everyone’s e-mail if officials say doing so might avert future terrorist attacks. The poll also found that a 56% majority believes NSA tracking of phone records is “acceptable.”
But even without flashy newspaper ads and sweeping support from the polls, Restore the Fourth isn’t giving up hope. Restore the Fourth’s Reddit subscribers have used their fury over the NSA to fuel much of the work. Users have teamed up to create viewer-friendly pamphlets, flyers and business cards to distribute in their local communities, while others are in the process of creating a promotional video.
Restore the Fourth spokesman Reed believes the movement will make an impact, especially because of its diverse appeal. The surveillance-opposition efforts have so far brought together an eclectic group of supporters, including two unlikely partners — an Ohio Tea Party association and Occupy Wall Street NYC. This bipartisanship is an advantage Reed thinks will make Capitol Hill lawmakers stop and listen.
“The main thing is getting out there and getting our voice heard,” Reed says. “Because the more attention we have, the more awareness America will have about how deep this issue actually goes, and how many people care.”
An earlier version of this article misstated the name of the organization Shahid Buttar is affiliated with. It is the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, not Council.