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Politics and new media, or “Should I really tweetspam Congress?”

I lectured in my friend Jonathan Zittrain’s class at Harvard Law about ten days ago. I shared the stage with Nicco Mele, internet strategist for Howard Dean and co-founder of tech consultancy EchoDitto. I gave a typically long-winded talk on citizen media in Kenya and Madagascar… and then I was blown off the stage by Mele’s short, sweet and direct speech.

Mele explained that you need to hire five people as a politician to succeed: a fundraiser, a PR director, a field director, a pollster and someone who produces your television commercials. The internet, he argues, really only affects one of these functions – fundraising. The goal of a political campaign in an internet age, Mele tells us, is to collect email addresses as quickly as possible and use them to raise small donations – which are more time-efficient than large donations, which require in-person shmoozing – so you can buy televisions ads.

Jerk that I am, I turned to Mele after his talk and said, “So if online politics is all about collecting email addresses, raising money and buying television ads… how do you teach a semester-long class at Harvard on the topic?” He laughed and explained that, while I had the model down, implementing it took some subtlety and skill.

Fair enough. I’m certainly no expert on electoral politics, and I have no basis on which to challenge Mele on the subject of winning US elections. But it seems like we’re learning to do more politically with the internet than just raise money.

In a board meeting with a foundation I advise, I made the case that we’ve now got good evidence that the internet’s useful to activist and political organizations in at least three ways:
– It’s good for raising money, especially in small donations
– It’s good for mobilizing people to participate in specific, discrete events – see the march on Jena, LA for a US example, or marches in Colombia against the FARC, planned on Facebook
– It can be a useful “back door” into the media – a story that gains attention online can gain attention offline, even if it wouldn’t have been news without the online following

I’d expected a discussion that raised questions on other areas where the net had proven its value to political activists – countering misinformation, strengthening internal communications – and hoped we’d have a debate about whether the internet could help organizations solicit and synthesize ideas online, enable distributed deliberation and participation. Instead, the conversation turned to fears that the tools we were talking about would make majorities too powerful, that these tools might simply be a way of assembling mobs and aiming them at targets.

I was baffled by this direction in the conversation. It’s my strong sense that internet technology isn’t neutral. It isn’t equally useful for participatory and repressive movements – it’s inherently participatory and open, and inevitably easier to deploy for conversations than for a theoretical fascist movement leader.

I still think I’m right, but I’m bumping into examples that make me more sympathetic to my colleague’s concerns. The best of these examples involve movements I support, organized by people I admire, using tactics that seem like a really bad idea to me.

My friends at the Sunlight Foundation are some of the smartest thinkers about the use of technology in US politics, and have been doing amazing work on transparency issues in the amazingly opaque US congress. They’re big supporters of S.482, “A bill to require Senate candidates to file designations, statements, and reports in electronic form.” And so they’re organizing a campaign to lobby Congress to pass the bill via Twitter.

I went over to the Sunlight page, assuming that I’d participate in the campaign, as I support the bill and the organization behind the project. And then I realized that the “ask” of the campaign was to send 17 identical tweets to the congresscritters who’ve adopted Twitter. This means that all my twitter followers get to see me nagging Congress – including the roughly half of them that don’t live in the US – with seventeen messages. And it means that Congressfolk start seeing what amounts to Twitter spam, and start dismissing it much as they learned to dismiss email.

Several folks raised similar objections on the blog post announcing the campaign, including “Queen of Snark” Suzanne Turner, who declared that “Twitter has jumped the snark. As with all other technologies, when it starts to become mainstream new rules (and uses) begin to apply.” That may be so, but it seems a shame to render less useful such a new medium so quickly.

My guess is that the campaign isn’t going to take off, as other Twitter users make the same mental calculation I did – “Piss off all my followers to marginally influence a senator?” – and either send direct messages or choose not to participate. I’ve been following the string “482” on Twitter’s search and while messages are coming in, they’re a trickle, not a flood. And some folks are doing a good job of personalizing and de-spamming messages.

If Sunlight can use Twitter to flood Congress – and if there’s any upside to doing so – it’s easy to see the NRA adopting the same technique. Maybe the lesson here is that the easiest, most straightforward ways to use these tools will inevitably descend into spam. Or that we should look for less obvious, more participatory ways to use the tools. The good news, I think, is that we’re working in a medium that immediately lets people push back on the idea, posting comments on Sunlight’s blog, writing our own blog entries, or twittering back at @sunlightnetwork.

9 thoughts on “Politics and new media, or “Should I really tweetspam Congress?””

  1. Ethan, I am going to leave commenting on your Twitter remarks to my colleagues at Sunlight. What I want to address is Nico’s over simplification stating that a politician needs the internet only for the purposes of raising money to ultimately be spent on TV.

    The arrival of multimedia closely followed by social media on the web has dramatically altered the political media ecology. However its impact is still unmeasured and therefore under appreciated in its breadth and scope.

    Let me explain: If I was to recommend a movie or restaurant to you, you’d be more likely or inclined to go to see it or eat there than if you read a review or saw an ad. This works the same in politics. One of the primary ways political opinion is formed in our country is through people talking to each other.
    They do so in the most ordinary of places like around a dining table, around a water cooler in the office, on a park bench, local bar, VFW hall, etc.
    In these conversations people share their perspectives, their fears, their aspirations, and their prejudices regarding the candidates, the parties, and the issues they stand for. This dynamic happened in the election of 2008 the same way it has for over two hundred years of US democracy.

    But I have proof that something is different this time around. My 82 year Dad called me up about 8 months before election day and asked me to come over to his house and help him figure out how to send more than one e mail at a time. When I got there and looked over his shoulder, I discovered that he was e mailing his 50 friends a note that said “Watch This” and a link to a Barack Obama youtube video.

    Now in all previous elections, my Dad would have voiced his support for some issue or candidate at a dinner table, or at the gym, or at the office if the subject came up. But if it did not come up he would not have picked up phone the to suggest to his friends how to vote, nor would mailed them flyers, He would have considered these acts as intrusive. But here he was at 82 years of age becoming a 21st century political pamphleteer without even knowing it. He was able to reach 50 friends in one afternoon even with one e mail at a time whereas it would have taken him 18 months or more to have face to face conversations with the same 50 in the various places they might meet.

    So for a candidate or any political campaign to succeed, you definitely need money. However, e mail is just one way to collect it. If campaigns thought of themselves more like a media operations than just a vehicle for a politician to raise money and get people to the polls, they would be producing tons of fawning but detailed content that their supporters would distribute for them at no cost which at the same time helps build community. You see money is the by product of community not just a product of e mail solicitations.

    In addition by becoming media operations and creating authentic and compelling content, campaigns will have a chance to take advantage the economies of abundance that the internet offers and limit the need to live in the economy of scarcity where ideas get turned into sound bites in newspapers and on television and half the people you are trying to reach are not even paying attention.

    Lastly, this is all brand new and we don’t have any way of really predicting what the new rules of engagement with electoral politics will be next cycle or next century. However one thing is certain: Power will come to the people or campaigns that are the most networked not the ones with just the most money.

  2. We hear you concerns about our Tweet Lobby effort — but we don’t think that a genuine message of concern about a pending bill can be “spam,” as most of us understand that term. It is Members’ job, after all, to pay attention to public opinion as they wrestle with the issues before them.

    That said, we can understand if you, and other folks who want to get involved prefer the time-tested method of calling (here’s the link for that http://sunlightfoundation.com/pass482) or writing your Members, and prefer to save Twitter for other kinds of communication.

    We also hear you that “twobbying” Members by sending them direct messages via Twitter may eventually cause them to stop participating in using this two-way medium. But, it IS a two-way medium, isn’t it? Members of Congress who adopt social media can’t expect it to work like top-down media.

    That said, there is a larger point here for all of us to ponder, as we foster greater transparency and participation by embracing interactive communications technologies. We are going to need better tools for filtering and managing mass participation, as these media are adopted by more and more people. Right now, it’s pretty cool that Members of Congress are experimenting with Twitter and personally paying attention to the tweets landing in their in boxes. This situation probably can’t last. It’s incumbent on all of us to figure out what comes next.

  3. Ellen, I certainly credit you, Andrew and all of Sunlight for being responsive to criticism and willing to engage with critique. I also agree wholeheartedly with your last point – we don’t yet know how these tools are going to work, and it’s incumbent on all of us to figure them out. I also think it’s important for us to acknowledge when campaigns work and when they don’t, so we can mimic the best tactics and dismiss the others. I would have been far more sympathetic to the idea if the tweets encouraged us to call congresspeople – my fear was that the post I saw simply encouraged people to cut and paste 17 messages, which had unpleasant implications for twitter and for twitter users. Again, really glad you guys are experimenting, and especially glad you’re listening to all the feedback, positive and negative.

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