Digital campaigning - scam or superpower?

Contributor: Ned Howey and Weronika Paszewska

Over the past few years, it's been interesting to see how the general perception around the power of digital to influence our politics - both inside and outside of the industry - has changed. From the excitement of the Arab Spring and Occupy days for Facebook or Twitter to seemingly magically spur organic movements that would change the world, to the fear that ‘almighty powers’ like Cambridge Analytica could ‘weaponise’ the internet with the dark political agenda of their clients.

These days though, there seems to be much - from studies to big failed campaigns - to question whether digital is really having much of an impact at all - or at least to the degree to justify the investments being made in it. 

While most of us here at Tectonica have spent the last decade eating, sleeping, and breathing all things digital organising, oddly enough we’d be apt to lean towards this last insight as closest to the true representation of the power of digital. In a recent conversation in a ClubHouse room, I (Ned) heard a Senator advising people interested in running for office to offer his one bit of advice: beware of digital vendors. Indeed. But perhaps putting digital's power “back in the box”, so to speak, is still missing something: it's more of a reflection of our failure to use digital in effective ways than to reflect its true potential. 

Is digital even worth it at all? Can movement-changing be made without some element of non-digital (‘field’)? Is the paradigm of digital vs. field even relevant in 2021? These are a few of the questions we’ll explore in this post. 

Yes, Digital Can be ‘Problematic’

We often see what some consider to be digital organising as its own worst enemy. Certainly, organisations struggling to win power get very excited about the possibility of the massive reach of their message, the ability to ‘go big’ without hiring more staff, and the potential to ‘go viral’. But the truth is, with movement-building there are no magic tricks. You can’t just come in and find the right trick to outsmart everyone else and suddenly have a movement at your disposal all tied up with a bow. 

This is why when we train digital organisers we almost always start with some of the fundamentals learned from a long tradition of field organising. We often do this in trainings by showing a short version of an incredible interview with Gwenn Craig, who was involved with fighting for LBGTI rights in the 1970s through the campaign against the Briggs Initiative in California, as well as Harvey Milk’s historic win. Gwenn hits on almost all the keys that are so often lost in the move online. 

How Digital Became Problematic 

Digital as we know it, has been focussed mostly on communications and mobilising and left organising behind - which is a detriment to our movement’s successes and perhaps a major role in why progressives have been losing.

It is understandable that we all got excited about big numbers from social media reaches and with growing our mailing lists into thousands and millions of subscribers. It cut our costs and gave the perception that we are gaining bigger power while improving efficiencies of spendings. In “How Organizations Develop Activists”, Hahrie Hahn describes how the enthusiasm for the reach of digital led to an early focus on mobilising:

“Online tools make the work of mobilizing much cheaper than before and allow associations to create bigger and more targeted prospect pools. This may enable some associations to reach their transactional goals for the number of people they want to engage in action without ever doing any organizing.” - Hahrie Hahn

This world is ruled by business models (including the advertising industry) that value fast profit over long-term commitment and effects. This also makes sense. Making money in the political industry is harder than you’d think - budgets are always a fraction of comparable business practices such as marketing - usually with much higher expected outcomes. Consultants and political business providers are apt to push models that can scale easily as the “magic solution” in part because it means more profit margin for them. This is usually more a matter of survival in a tough industry than greed. But also leaves undervalued what actually works and the hard work behind it. 

Another problem is that much of the digital politics world took their models directly from traditional political advertising (a perhaps even less valuable endeavor). Digital advertising often gives us the false impression that we are winning or gaining power, when in fact we are participating in something closer to that of a scam. In our “The State of Digital Organising in Europe” report, one of the barriers we identified was “Prioritisation of easy, cheap low-level action over long term investment”. And we see this in organisations and campaigns regularly.  

Relationships are the Key to Build Movements 

Without building relationships we can not really go broader and further than we are right now. For progressive change to happen this is a huge part of the key. Personalisation of relationships is one of two dimensions that we identified in our Five-Part Framework for Digital Organising. It is worth mentioning that we talk about relationships not only messages. Of course, good communication and narratives are also an important part of building a movement, although on its own they do not create bonding between people - something very crucial for building ongoing people’s power.

It is widely argued that voting is a social phenomenon, susceptible to interpersonal influence and social norms. This is why impactful GOTV programs concentrate on interpersonal relations, collaborate with local volunteers with canvassing and engage friends and families connections into conversations. As Green and Gerber point out in their book Get Out the Vote! How to Increase Voter Turnout, “The overarching conclusion that emerges from rigorous voter turnout research may be summarized as follows: the more personal the interaction between campaign and potential voter, the more it raises a person’s chance of voting.”

Digital vs. Field is an Anachronism (in some ways) 

The online and offline division is not the one that we recommend using for building real people-powered movement. Both digital and physical are and will stay with us for now and for the future. There are new generations of people growing up who don’t know the world without a digital component. It is obvious and natural for an increasing number of people. These two spaces are mutually permeating and often you cannot say when the one is ending and another one beginning.

One thing that was repeated quite clearly to us by those involved in interviews for "The State of Digital Organising in Europe" report, we heard from many online actions alone don’t build successful movements without a commitment of activists on a level created by deeper social connections. 

“So I don’t think that necessarily physical activism is important, but giving people the impression that this is real is more important than ever.” - Interview participant from a political party.

There were definitely many interviewed participants who expressed to us a desire to see more online methods that matched the depth of social connection found in traditional online events and activities.

That said, we’d be remiss to not mention the current limitations of our socially-distance world in the midst of a global pandemic that is accelerating our moving major social contact online. Conferences are now virtual conferences. Offices are now virtual offices. And movements, for the most part, are now virtual movements for the moment. Certainly, we ourselves and many others are working hard to innovate our online techniques to bring them closer to the deeper relationship-building that seems to happen more naturally in real life.   

The distinction that would be much more useful is this one: do we make connections to people or not, no matter what kind of tools (door knock or zoom call) we use. 

How Powerful is Digital? 

Digital in the way it's mostly used these days, is very good at some things and, quite frankly, not so good at others. If relationships are the key to organising, do we need digital at all then? The short answer is yes we need it, the long one includes three reasons why digital is necessary:

1. Better accessibility 

Digital allows various forms of engagement that are far more accessible than other traditional forms of civic engagement. While online petitions may be somewhat questionable in their likelihood of alone making change, certainly their popularity has something to credit with the ease of getting a show of mass support from people that might not otherwise become involved if it required a higher level of commitment. 

Similarly, all levels and types of political activism can be made more accessible for those with time, schedule and resource limitations. No longer do you have to travel across town to a campaign office to volunteer for your favorite candidate. Representatives can be contacted easily through tools, donations can be made easily, - even leadership positions and strategy development can be done through zoom meetings and google docs.

This is particularly important because if we are truly to win progressive power, the most important people to engage and involve in every level are usually those most marginalised and like with the fewest resources - including time. If our objective is to rebalance power between the haves and the have-nots, we have to meet the have-nots where they are - whether they are a single parent with a toddler, a worker with two jobs, or someone without the cash for gas to get across town. 

“(...) the existing tools and methods of political organising are often conceived by men and for them, and design types of engagement that usually don’t take into account the specific needs of working women. It’s no wonder this modus operandi tends to discourage and alienate women.” Check out some specific advice that our co-founder Mar Spada is providing here.

2. Across geography 

We live lives in the age of physical distancing. One of the lessons from the last 12 pandemic months is that the world became even smaller and that geographical barriers gradually have diminished. We do not know what other challenges the future will bring on us. What we do know is that the use of digital tools accelerated, and even if we experience “zoom fatigue”, we all came up with many creative ways of using them.

The other thing is that our problems are transnational - so must be our solutions. From climate change, to global pandemic response, to fighting the oppressive forces of transnational corporations, the oppressive threats to justice today do not stop at any geographical border. 

Progressives have at least one thing to learn from our opponents, which are global alliances and collaboration. Climate deniers, far-right authoritarians, and fascistic movements, not to mention global capital require us to work beyond borders and proactively learn from each other.  The old ‘act local, think global’ is losing and needs a new opening. We need to organise at every level: local, national, international. And digital allows us to do this in a way in person organising truly cannot.

3. Queen of Scalability 

There is a limit to how many relations one person can have with others just using our own mental capacities. Dunbar claims that it is around 150 persons. Although it applies to rural communities with a very high incentive to remain together. Nowadays we live in dispersed societies, we meet less often and are less familiar with each other (yes, scrolling Facebook feed doesn’t really make a job here), so the number of people would be much smaller.

Digital tools give advantages that we haven’t had before. Some organisations (sometimes called digitally-first organisations like Avaaz, 38Degrees, SumOfUs, MoveOn, Campact, GetUp) discovered them already for the use of mobilisation. From our perspective, the real art of building people-powered movement happens when we apply digital tools with an objective to do organising. 

Tools like: CRM to keep your contacts, action pages to allow people to respond to calls to actions easily, tools to schedule meetings easily, or automated emails to make sure folks have fast responses. These are just examples that make organising more efficient and effective. 

We’re Not Using the Digital to its Full Potential

Just because we’re not winning with digital yet, doesn’t mean there isn’t the big potential to win with digital. Our Report explored whether there is an untapped potential for digital organising in Europe and we found unequivocally the answer is: Yes. We are not doing enough decentralised organising - i.e. allowing supporters to run their own campaigns or be part of strategy making processes. Referring to the Five-Part Digital Organising framework, we need more activities and efforts in the outer part of the framework. 

There is not one digital. We need to speak about various approaches to use digital tools. Like in the physical world we can do things differently, the same applies to the digital world. We don’t need to abandon digital - we need to do digital better. We need to innovate and find ways to use digital smart outside of regular broadcasting communication. 

Some propose to abandon digital altogether. We propose a different route: transform the work we do on digital, push the edge on the depth digital organising can go, and innovate the way we do politics altogether.

Let’s figure it out together. Come join our discussion in the TON community.