Cyclical Patterns in Activist Politics: What Do We Know about the Politics of Opposition?

We’re about to experience a phase transition in American activist politics. It’s a move from the “politics of articulation” to the “politics of opposition.” I’ve written about this before, both at this blog and in my first book. But those were sunnier times, and eons ago in internet time. So I want to use this blog post to reflect on three distinct movement dynamics that appear during periods of opposition and articulation.

The difference between opposition and articulation is fundamentally an agenda-setting issue. Major policy change in the United States is tremendously rare and difficult. Our system is designed to reward incremental changes to the status quo, and to punish big, new proposals. The party network that controls the White House generally gets to set the political agenda. When activist groups are part of that party network, they have to articulate a positive policy vision, and then mobilize the support necessary to overcome all the hurdles to a major bill becoming law. When activists groups are aligned against that party network, they merely have to oppose whatever the President is trying to accomplish.

As an example of these dynamics, consider the founding of the Tea Party. The first Tea Party protests convened around the moniker “Taxed Enough Already” (Get it?… TEA?). This was in spring 2009, just after Barack Obama had taken office. He had not passed, nor had he proposed, any major new taxes. The anti-tax revolt was not a response to new policies, it was a response to new politics. As soon as conservatives had a Democrat in the White House to rally against, they started rallying. Later, they settled on opposition to health care reform as their primary agenda item. The reason wasn’t because they had some deep commitment to the American system of insurance companies; it was because Obama had set the agenda, and they were going to oppose him.

The politics of articulation creates a lot of tension over what comes first. Michael Heaney and Fabio Rojas admirably demonstrate this point in their book, Party in the Street. The anti-war movement dissipated once Obama entered the White House. This wasn’t because people stopped dying in Iraq and Afghanistan! It was because activists who had been united in opposition to Bush’s foreign policy agenda turned attention to the myriad other issues that they cared about. The ability to help positively promote a policy agenda exposes fissures in activist values and priorities.

So what should we expect from, and how should we prepare for, moving back to the politics of articulation?

  1. Rapid-response infrastructure is about to become a lot more valuable. Micah Sifry pointed out in The Big Disconnect that the internet is “better at saying stop than go.” Particularly during the early Obama years, this limitation seemed painfully clear. A senate supermajority and the makings of a mass digital movement still weren’t strong enough to overcome the combination of Mitch McConnell’s strategy and Joe Lieberman’s ego. During the Trump years, I expect we are going to find that the rapid-response infrastructure built to oppose Bush suddenly seems a lot more vibrant and viable. We aren’t starting this fight from scratch.
  2.  Intra-movement fissures are going to recede into the background. It’s no accident that the anti-globalization movement, and occupy wall street both emerged under democratic administrations. During the politics of opposition, we can confidently claim that the world would be made better if we just removed the current administration from power. During the politics of articulation, we are instead faced with the existential limits of our own party coalition’s ability to create the world we seek. This creates the conditions for heightened infighting around matters of policy and strategy. The agenda-setting dynamics also become tougher and more salient. It’s easy for labor and environmentalists to unite against regressive policy. Collaborating gets tougher when both are trying to articulate a vision and identify what types of compromises are unacceptable in the messy legislative process. Working through those tensions can be an important, generative process. It’s also painful and messy and no one particularly enjoys it. During the politics of opposition, we can expect these tensions to largely subside as we are all united against a common foe.
  3. The loss of positive momentum. This last one is the kicker. Opposition politics is easier, and opposition politics is cleaner. We know how to stop terrible policy ideas much better than we know how to promote innovative, effective new solutions to living in this complex world. But the hope for making real, positive strides around income inequality, or civil rights, or climate destabilization, or a host of other progressive causes is now going to be put on hiatus. The clock is ticking on some of these issues (*cough* arcticseaice *cough*), and that is time that we will not get back. But that’s what happens when you lose-an-election-by-only getting-~1.5-million-more-votes-than-the-other-guy. We’re going to have to focus on stopping terrible things. The window of opportunity for promoting good ideas is effectively closed for the time being.

One final note: all of these points are premised upon the assumption that the Trump Administration will be fundamentally similar to previous Republican administrations. That is a premise that I actually have very little confidence in. We may very well be heading into a time period where activist opposition in American politics looks less like it did in 2002 America and more like it does in present-day less-democratic countries. The challenges and the stakes are much higher than they used to be. And while I still consider the distinction between opposition and articulation is useful to think with as we plan for 2017, I don’t want to leave any readers with the false sense that it will all be alright.

It’s time to prepare. And then it’s time to fight.

Another Opinion Columnist Took a Cheap Shot at Upworthy… You’ll Totally Guess What Happens Next.

Every month or two, it seems like the same cranky opinion piece gets written about Upworthy.  The latest, “Upworthy’s unworthy politics” comes from Jordan Fraade at Al Jazeera America, bears all the hallmarks of the genre: There’s (1) the glib references to “you won’t believe what happens next” headlines, (2) the equating of A/B headline testing and “clickbait,” (3) the pretend-OUTRAGE that the site is neither a non-profit advocacy organization nor a venue for traditional journalism, and (most importantly) (4) the lack of any actual understanding of what Upworthy is trying to achieve.

Here’s the worst passage from Fraade’s think-piece:

To the extent that Upworthy has stated goals, they basically run along the lines of “We want to help you share things that are meaningful,” and “We want viral content to be a tool for social good.” (Upworthy also has actual goals, which involve making money for itself and its investors.) The site leans left; its 30-something founders both worked at MoveOn.org during the 2008 presidential campaign. But the ideology of the site and others like it isn’t a recitation of the Democratic Party platform. It’s not really a cohesive liberal worldview of any sort. Upworthy liberalism is liberal politics stripped of any awareness of systemic barriers or perverted incentive structures. It’s what happens when liberalism is treated as merely a set of lifestyle preferences.

There are two head-smackers in this paragraph.

First, describing Upworthy’s founders (Eli Pariser and Peter Koechley) as having “worked at MoveOn during the 2008 presidential campaign” is a bit like saying San Antonio Spurs coach Greg Popovich “worked for the Spurs during the 2012 NBA lockout.”  Pariser was the Executive Director of MoveOn from 2004 through 2008, and was central to turning the organization into a progressive juggernaut.  He’s also the author of The Filter Bubble, an excellent book about the danger of online echo chambers (close readers might recall my shoutingloudly review of the book, incidentally).

Upworthy was created as a partial solution to the Filter Bubble problem.  This is pretty important contextual information for anyone who wants to actually understand the site.

Second, Fraade asserts that “Upworthy liberalism is liberal politics stripped of any awareness of systemic barriers or perverted incentive structures.”

Bullshit.

I’ve met a lot of Upworthy staff.  Every one of them is deeply aware of systemic barriers and perverted incentive structures.  I’d go so far as to say that this sort of awareness is one of the things they look for in the hiring process.  And I’ve watched a lot of Upworthy videos.  Nearly every one of them deals, in one way or another, with systemic barriers to social change.

They just don’t deal with it in  Fraade’s preferred format.

Though Fraade never gets around to describing a solution or preferred model, his complaints all center around the supposed lack of nuance in Upworthy content.  Upworthy does not promote 6,000 word essays on mass incarceration.  It doesn’t produce two-hour documentaries on race in America.  Its vision and values aren’t neatly arrayed in a platform or manifesto for our perusal.  And, since it has become massively successful, it is now a convenient vessel for us to place blame for the failings of the broader media system.

Here are four basic things you should actually understand about Upworthy:

1. Upworthy is curation, not journalism.  Upworthy isn’t meant to replace The New Republic, MSNBC or The New York Times.  They don’t hire journalists or film crews.  It plays a strict curatorial role.  They find quality content, tinker with the headlines and visual frames, and try to help videos about the health care system get as much traffic as videos about kittens.**  If you’re pinning your hopes for the future of journalism on Upworthy, you’re going to be disappointed.  They aren’t journalists.

2. Upworthy reaches beyond the echo chamber. I wrote about this last year, but it bears repeating.  Outside of elections, the politically-attentive segment of the American public is vanishingly small.  The biggest barrier for activists trying to engage in a public conversation about inequality, or fracking, or racism isn’t that the other side is reframing the debate; it’s that almost no one is paying attention.

Upworthy reaches between 40 and 80 million individuals per month.  That’s between 10 and 30 times larger than any program on MSNBC.  What Pariser and Koechley have done seemed downright impossible.  They have found a way to reach large segments of the American public with substantive progressive content.  It may not always be the specific content you or I would choose, but I would argue that it is the most dramatic change in the political information landscape of the past 5 years.

3. (High clicks)x(High shares) = virality. Upworthy has been surprisingly public about their model.  One of the most important elements is their “virality equation” (see below).

Upworthy Virality

 

“Clickbait” generally refers to headlines that draw a lot of clicks, often in a misleading fashion.  That isn’t an accurate representation of Upworthy’s model, though.  Upworthy measures both shares and clicks.  If shares and clicks are both low, the content isn’t particularly exciting.  If clicks are high but shares are low, then you’ve probably caught people in a “clickbait” trap.  When shares are high, but clicks are low, it indicates that the content has the potential to engage a large audience, if and only if it is framed correctly.

And that’s where Upworthy’s vaunted A/B testing regime comes into play: they fiddle with headlines for highly-shareable content, helping it to get clicks.  The Upworthy model doesn’t work for clickbait junk.

4. Upworthy is a force multiplier.  Upworthy is not meant to be political activism.  But it is activism-adjacent.  One of the biggest evergreen problems for social movement organizations lies in reaching beyond the choir and gaining the attention of the broader public.  Upworthy doesn’t solve this problem on its own: the most popular videos on the site don’t end with a stirring call-to-action or even with a “donate” link.  But when advocacy groups create polished, high-quality content, Upworthy potentially serves as an engine for mass appeal.

As an example, consider John Oliver’s EPIC net neutrality segment on Last Week Tonight.  Oliver is also activism-adjacent.  He educates his viewers on Net Neutrality — a major, but-also-boring matter of public importance.  He is funny and informative.  He ends with a call to all internet commenters to do what they do best: leave angry comments on the FCC’s website.  Originally airing on HBO, the segment drew about 1 million viewers. It was then rebroadcast via digital links, embedded in blog posts, facebook walls, and tweets.  It quickly galvanized a torrent of FCC input, crashing the government agency’s comment site.

Upworthy is now helping to give Oliver’s segment an extended boost, under the headline “John Oliver Goes Off On An Epic, Fact-Checked, Mic-Dropping Rant For 13 Minutes That You Need To See.”

…I guess Jordan Fraade doesn’t see much value, or nuance, in posts like this.  I do, though.  I think it’s significant that a curation site like Upworthy can help drive public engagement with substantive policy issues.

The site isn’t a replacement for high-quality journalism, or for high-quality activism.  But it isn’t supposed to be.  It’s filling a vital niche in our patchy public discourse — a niche that no one else has been able to fill.

That ought to be celebrated.  Or, at least, it ought to be accurately described before we critique it.

 

*Fun fact:  Upworthy.com never actually uses that phrase.

**Related note: kittens are stupid. Dogs are amaaaaaaazing.

Hashtag Activism Isn’t Activism (A comment on #cancelColbert)

If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.” -Emma Goldman

That was one of my favorite slogans, back in my organizing days.  I met plenty of campus activists who were permanently serious.  The stakes were dire, and nothing was ever a laughing matter.  I couldn’t stand those activists.  I always felt their personal severity made them a lot less effective in their work.  They existed in an echo chamber of constant agreement, and drove away anyone who failed to tow the party line.  And their tactics always adopted the form of “let’s make our peers feel uncomfortable!  Then they’ll all realize…”

I was reminded of all this last night, when I briefly logged on to twitter and saw the #CancelColbert trending hashtag.

Here’s what happened: Dan Snyder (owner of the Washington Redskins) has faced increasing pressure over the racist name of his team.  He decided to defuse that pressure through a PR maneuver, launching the “Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation.”  He’ll give a little money to Native American communities, so long as they’ll agree to be photographed in Redskins gear.  (If he’s polite, maybe he’ll leave the money on the bedside table…)

Colbert ran a segment on Snyder, pointing out the absurdity of it.  He ended by announcing that, in the spirit of Snyder, he’d be launching the “Ching Chong Ding Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever.”  It was, in my opinion, an appropriate skewering of a desperate and offensive PR move.


Comedy Central’s @ColbertReport account tweeted the punchline to the joke.  Losing the context made the joke completely unfunny.  As Erin Gloria Ryan points out at Jezebel, “The bit only works as a whole; it doesn’t work in parts. Colbert’s character is saying here that naming a charity “Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation” is just as offensive as naming a charity the “Ching Chong Ding Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever.” That’s the joke.”

From there, it appears the professional “twitter activists” took over.  Tweeter Suey Park announced her outrage at Colbert’s “racist joke” and launched a #CancelColbert hashtag.

Now, Colbert isn’t in any actual danger of cancellation.  And Park explained on Huffington Post Live that she used this language because “unfortunately people don’t usually listen to us when we’re being reasonable.” So that’s fine, make an unreasonable demand, start a conversation.  Park will gain some more twitter followers out of the exchange, Colbert will tape his next segment, and we’ll all move on to another outrage in time for dinner.

But I can’t help being reminded of those far-too-severe environmental activists.  The #CancelColbert “conversation” hasn’t been much of a conversation.  When invited onto Huffington Post Live to explain “why Cancel Colbert,” Park’s immediate response was “well that’s a loaded question.”  She then went on to accuse the host (who was giving her airtime) of “silencing” her.

Episodes like this one don’t build your movement. They concentrate your movement.  They foster an umbrage mentality and more-serious-than-thou sensibility.  It isn’t fun for anyone, and it isn’t appealing to anyone.

This hashtag activism is the digital version of an old, severe strain of activism.  Unfortunately, it’s a strain that gives activists, as a whole, a bad name.

If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.

The Day We Fight Back, Perspective, and The Long Game

Tuesday this week was The Day We Fight Back.  Thursday this week there was a massive snowstorm up and down the East Coast.  The two may have more in common than you might think.

The Day We Fight Back was a day-of-action protesting government snooping.  Evoking memories of the SOPA “blackout” day of action, a coalition of 6,000 websites added a banner (see below) urging visitors to take action against NSA surveillance.  The single day of action generated half a million emails to legislators, 89,000 phone calls, and over 300,000 petition signatures.  …Not bad for a day’s work.

boingboing DWFB

 

The snowstorm, meanwhile, was the “biggest storm since Snowmaggedon in DC.”  We got about 8″ of snow in my neighborhood.  Classes were cancelled. The government closed down. My dog loved it (see below).  But it didn’t live up to the multiple feet of snow that fell on DC back in 2010.  It was just a really big snowstorm. Nothing to see here, move along.

photo (41)

Both the protest and the snowstorm were treated as “the largest [rare event] since [EPIC event].”  That’s true, but the framing also detracts from thinking about their overall impact.

The online reaction to the protest has been pretty muted.  The New York Times Bits Blog labeled it “The Day the Internet Didn’t Fight Back.” The Verge posted a story titled “Not many of us actually fought on The Day We Fight Back.” TechCrunch offered a (pretty cool) side-by-side comparison, “SOPA vs NSA Protests, In Pictures.”

All of these articles return to a common refrain: this just wasn’t as EPIC as the SOPA Blackout.  Where was Google? Where was Wikipedia? The New York Times piece even concludes with some Reddit-snark: “Online petitions. The very least you can do, without doing nothing.”*

It’s true, The Day We Fight Back was no SOPA blackout.  But should we have expected it to be?  As event co-organizer David Segal from Demand Progress put it, “To mark all organizing a success or failure by measuring it against the single biggest online activist moment ever is ridiculous.”

There were (at least) three important differences between the SOPA moment and The Day We Fight Back.

(1) SOPA was defense, The Day We Fight Back was offense. When the SOPA blackout happened, some awful legislation was imminent.  The Day We Fight Back calls on Congress to support The USA Freedom Act and oppose the FISA Improvements Act.  Neither of these bills are facing a vote right now.  It is a lot harder to galvanize a public to stop something bad than it is to support something good.

(2) SOPA was a direct threat to major Internet companies.  NSA surveillance is an indirect threat. The Stop Online Piracy Act was a threat to Google and Wikipedia themselves.  It was a power-play by Hollywood to turn the Internet into a giant copyright-enforcement engine.  Organizing against SOPA didn’t happen overnight either.  But one reason why TechCrunch’s side-by-side photos showed more participation from big websites during the SOPA blackout was because those websites had more directly at stake.

(3) SOPA was first, and that yields an innovation edge. The sheer scale of the SOPA blackout makes everything else look smaller by comparison.  I wrote about this in my chapter of Hacking Politics: How Geeks, Progressives, Anarchists and Suits Teamed Up To Defeat SOPA and Save the Internet.  Part of the blackout’s effectiveness came from it never having been done before.  Once “we’ve fought back” one time, targets begin to adapt and the power of the tactic slowly dulls.

The point here is that, like judging every big snowstorm against Snowpocalypse (or every hurricane against Katrina), judging a massive day of action against the SOPA blackout will obscure the impact of the action itself.

The Day We Fight Back wasn’t supposed to be as large as the SOPA Blackout.  And even if it had been, it wouldn’t have had the same direct impact, because getting Congress to pass a proposed law doesn’t happen as fast as getting Congress to abandon a proposed law.  The Day We Fight Back was part of a longer campaign.  It yielded mass attention, and increased cohesion within a gigantic, cross-partisan coalition, and it built a list of committed supporters who can be contacted for future actions.

And that’s the real point about online petitions.  Sure, they can be “the very least you can do without doing nothing.”  But they can also be a damn good initial entry point into the broader campaign.  555,000 people took action through their system on Tuesday.  That’s 555,000 people who have signaled their interest and can be re-engaged for later actions.

Active issue publics don’t appear overnight.  They don’t rove the digital terrain, waiting to ride in and save the day.  They are built through time, action, and effort.

The real question to ask about The Day We Fight Back isn’t “how does it compare to the SOPA blackout.”  The real question to ask is “so, what’s next?”

 

 

*Okay I’ll admit it, that’s a pretty good line.

My Trouble with VictoryKit

We lost Aaron Swartz a year ago today.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about VictoryKit, Aaron’s final unfinished project. He told me just a little bit about it last year, when we were both at the OPEN Summit.  The overlaps between his tech product and my emerging research puzzle (on analytics and activism) were uncanny, and the last conversation we had ended with a promise that we’d discuss it further soon.

As far as I can tell, VictoryKit is a growth engine for netroots advocacy groups.  It automates A/B testing, and draws signal from a wider range of inputs (open-rates, click-rates, social shares, etc) than usual.

The thing is, as I’ve conducted my early book research and learned more about VictoryKit, I think I’ve identified a real problem in the design.  I’m worried that VictoryKit automates too much.  It puts too much faith in revealed supporter opinion, at least as it is constructed through online activity.  And in the long term, that’s dangerous.

VictoryKit is designed to “send trickles, not blasts.”  The idea is to be constantly testing, constantly learning.

I heard Jon Carson from OFA give a talk last summer where he remarked “if you get our email before 8AM, you’re in our testing pool.”  OFA basically is the industry standard for email testing.  They test their messaging in the morning, sending variant appeals out to random subsets of their list*. They refine their language a few hours later, based on the test results, then they can send a full-list blast in the afternoon.  That’s one of the basic roles of A/B testing in computational management.

VictoryKit gets rid of the full-list blast.  Instead, you keep feeding petitions into the magical unicorn box**, it judges which petition is more appealing, and it then sends that petition to another incremental segment of the list.  I haven’t looked into the exact math yet, but the basic logic is clear: analytics represent member opinion.  Automate more decisions by entrusting the analytics, and you’ll be both more representative and more successful.

The problem here is that our revealed preferences are not the entirety of our preferences.

A.O. Hirschmann wrote about this in “Against Parsimony.”  Essentially, we have two types of preferences: revealed preferences and meta-preferences.  Revealed preferences are what we do, what we buy, what we click.  But Hirschmann points out that we also have systematic preferences for what kind of options we are presented with.

I always think of this as the Huffington Post’s “Sideboob” problem.  Huffpo has a sideboob vertical because celebrity pics generate a lot of clicks.  That’s a revealed preference: if Huffpo gives us a story about inequality and a story about Jennifer Lawrence at juuuuust the right camera angle, JLawr will be far more popular.  So Huffpo provides a ton of sideboob and a medium amount of hard-nosed journalism.

But!

If the Huffington Post gauged reader preferences through different inputs ((by asking them to take online surveys, for instance), then they’d get a different view of reader preferences.  More people click on celebrity pics than will say “yes, that’s what I want from the Huffington Post.”

There’s a narrow version of economic thought that rejects meta-preferences as being unreal.  If people say they want hard news, but they click on the celeb pics, then they must really want the celeb pics.  But that’s unsupportable upon deeper reflection.  People are complex entities.  We can simultaneously watch junk tv and wish there was higher-quality programming.  New gym memberships peak around new years and late spring, as people who generally don’t reveal a preference for regular exercise act on their meta-preference for healthier living.

In online political advocacy, the signals from revealed preferences are even weaker.  We click on the petitions that are salient, or engaging, or heart-rending.  But we want our organizations to work on campaigns that are the most important and powerful.  Some of those campaigns won’t be very “growthy.”  But that doesn’t mean they’re unimportant.

Take a look, for instance, at question #6 in Avaaz’s 2013 member survey.  Avaaz asked global members their opinion on a wide range of issues.  It also asked them “how should Avaaz use this poll.”  Only 5% thought their opinions should be binding on the organization.  The other 95% felt it should be as minor input or as a loose guide.  When asked, Avaaz members announce a meta-preference that the staff reserve a lot of room to trust their own judgment.

The problem with analytics-based activism is that it can lead us to prioritize issues the most clickable issues, instead of the most important issues.  That’s what can happen if you equate revealed preferences, as evidenced by analytics signals, with the totality of member preferences.

There’s a simple solution to that problem: maintain a mix of other signals.  Keep running member surveys.  Make phone calls to your most active volunteers to hear how they think things are going.  HIre and empower the right people, then trust their judgment.  Treat analytics as one input, but don’t put your system on autopilot.

If I understand it right, VictoryKit promotes exactly the type of autopilot that I’m worried about.

Maybe Aaron would have had a good rebuttal to this concern.  He was incredibly thoughtful, and it’s entirely possible that he envisioned a solution that I haven’t thought of.

But today, one year later, as we reflect on his legacy, I want to offer this up as a conversation topic:

Does VictoryKit automate too much?  And if so, how do we improve it?

*I have a hunch that they also test during the day. …otherwise their response pool would be biased toward earlybirds.

**Adam Mordecai refers to Upworhty’s analytics engine as a “magical unicorn box.” Adam Mordecai is funnier than I am.  Ergo, I’m going to start stealing language from him.

Change.org and the Duck Dynasty Thing

Ugh.  Really?

The Duck Dynasty Thing.

I can’t believe I’m writing about the Duck Dynasty Thing.

Yesterday, one of my former students pinged me about the Duck Dynasty petition on Change.org

Here was my response:

At the time, the petition talked about how Phil Robertson’s first AND second amendment rights were being violated.  That’s a silly misreading of the first amendment (the constitution does not guarantee your right to keep your tv show if you say something offensive.  No really, I just double-checked. It doesn’t.) and a non-existent reading of the second amendment.  But Change is an open platform, and if fans of the show want to offer an inarticulate defense of their favorite bigot, I don’t particularly care.

Change.org has now elevated the petition to the front page*.  So now I’m stuck blogging about it.

—–

There’s a business-upside to this decision.  The petition has 89,000 signatures so far.  A lot of those are probably new signups.  The Christian Right is getting an introduction to Change.org, and that has to be good for the bottom line.

The downside is that it runs directly counter to Change.org’s feel-good creation story.  Ben Rattray’s inspiration for starting the organization came from a younger brother who came out to him.  He wanted to empower people like his brother, so he switched from an intended career in investment banking to a career in social change.

Now look, this whole controversy is pretty dumb.  Chris Hayes had a great segment about this on his show last night (see below).  The appeal of Duck Dynasty is that it shows charming, self-proclaimed “rednecks” saying charming redneck things.  The show is overwhelmingly popular.  A&E is sure to un-suspend the guy so it can produce the next season.   In the meantime, a lot of commentators are going to jump on the bullshit bandwagon.  There are much more important things to care about.  Unemployment insurance is going to expire 3 days after christmas, endangering 1.3 million people and hurting the economy.  But that issue is a downer, and you can attract way more pageviews by focusing on the Duck Dynasty outrage.

My thinking yesterday was that (1) Change.org is an open platform that can be used by pretty much anyone, (2) it adds value to petitions by promoting them to the front page and putting organizers in touch with petition-creators, (3) those limited organizing resources tend to be focused more on cultural issues than political issues, and (4) the company has to hold true to its identity, so jumping on this particular bandwagon doesn’t make much sense.

I guess I was wrong about (4).  I have no idea what this company stands for.

 

*It appears they’ve also reached out to the petition-creator and helped clean up the sloppy language.  The second amendment stuff is now gone.

[correction: nope, I was wrong about this footnote.  The second amendment stuff is still there.]

Crime, News Coverage, and Institutional Racism

If there’s anything that pretty much everyone should agree on in light of the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin story, it’s that the story shows how deeply divided we remain as a country.

At least as reflected by posts on Facebook, 100% of my liberal intelligentsia friends are outraged that Martin is dead and Zimmerman is free, and the debates between us (to the extent that there have been any) have been about which people in the criminal justice system get which share of the blame.

Along with outrage, ethnic minorities and African Americans in particular also express a collective hurt and fear that I will never truly understand.

Yet others (here is where I’m grateful that not all of my friends and family are in the liberal intelligentsia) are miffed at the race-focused attention by the media and the political push to make the case into a symbol of broader issues. While I needn’t say it, let’s be explicit about the fact that nearly 100% of these folks are white. (I’m not Facebook friends with Clarence Thomas, and even if I were, I wonder if he posts more than once every seven years.)

While not all of these white, “Why the fuss?” crowd would admit it if probed, I think a good bit of this discomfort with the attention paid to the Zimmerman/Martin case comes from the implicit finger being pointed at them. If blacks are held down in schools, the job market, and the criminal justice system, surely somebody’s doing the holding. If minorities have unfair disadvantages, then the surplus unfair advantage is going to white people. If the system is racist, and you believe in the system, doesn’t that make you racist?

The good news is that the failure to be outraged over Trayvon’s death doesn’t make one a bigot, but the bad news is that this is because the answer is way more complicated than that. I hope to reassure my white, politically centrist or right-of-center friends that I’m not calling them racist or bigoted. Yet there are little things that we all do — you and me, blacks and whites, powerful and disempowered — that play into an incredibly intricate system of racial inequality.

I give you institutional racism.

The bigotry need not be in (y)our hearts; it can be in the mortgage you grant or don’t, the education policies you adopt, or the policing tactics you support. Mayor Bloomberg is obviously comfortable around racial minorities and would surely never dream of not hiring somebody due to their race, but he remains tone deaf to the incredibly not-race-neutral (and, frankly, not constitutional) nature of his policing strategies.

Which brings us back to Martin and Zimmerman. The justice system, as a whole, is heavily biased against minorities. Blacks are very over-represented in the criminal justice system; less than 1% of white men are imprisoned, while for black men, it’s 1 in 15, or almost 7%.

This happens at every step of the criminal justice system, from police investigation through trial. As the Times notes:

A 2005 study by the Justice Department found that while Hispanic, black and white drivers were stopped by the police about as often, Hispanic drivers or their vehicles were searched 11.4 percent of the time and blacks 10.2 percent of the time, compared with 3.5 percent for white drivers. Data collected from state courts by the Justice Department also shows that a higher percentage of black felons than white felons receive prison sentences for nearly all offenses, and also that blacks receive longer maximum sentences for most offenses.

Even in murder trials where defendants claim self defense, race is a major factor. See this graphic.

Versus the baseline of white-on-white violence, black defendants are far less likely to be found to have acted in self-defense, and it’s many times again less likely when the victim is white. In contrast, white defendants are many times more likely to be found to have acted in self-defense when the victim is black.

That’s institutional racism.

Yet it goes farther. Many of the white “Why the fuss?” crowd might even acknowledge the racial bias in the courts (though too few are familiar with the staggering specifics), but they object to all the political outrage over Trayvon and wonder where the sympathy and coverage are for white crime victims, especially when the accused perpetrators are black.

It turns out, though, that the news media are also afflicted with institutional racism. This goes well beyond the genuine hacks like Bill O’Reilly. Rather, it’s the whole system — the one largely staffed by left-of-center reporters and editors.

An analysis of scholarly studies of the representation of race in crime coverage is telling. As summarized here, “75 percent of the studies found that minorities were overrepresented as perpertrators, [and] over 80 percent of the studies found that more attention was paid to white victims than to minority victims.”

A somewhat newer study, which includes a representative national sample of television newscasts, finds similarly striking results, cutting in the same direction.

Even the portrayal of black female victims is far too rare — this even though female victims are more likely to be seen on the news than male victims overall.

In the aftermath of a major story about a black victim, killed by a white shooter, we’re hearing a good bit of “Why the fuss?” and “Where’s the attention to white victims and/or black perpetrators?” With no disrespect to any victim, whites have nothing to worry about when it comes to folks who look like them being shown on the news as victims of serious crimes. No news outlet can cover every story, but over time, white victims and black perpetrators have been and certainly will continue to be overrepresented.

On this count, Martin and Zimmerman are symbols for the broader problem of institutional racism in this country. Nobody needs to be energetically or even consciously racist for the major racial disparities we see to continue. Continuing racial inequity doesn’t need the next George Wallace; Michael Bloomberg will do just fine.

If you’re on the happy side of these inequalities, I think you should at least be honest with yourself and the world about the thousands of little ways in which your life is that much easier because of it. This isn’t to diminish the countless things you’ve undoubtedly done right, the hard work you’ve done, the substantial degree to which you’ve earned your place.

As white Americans, though, let’s at least all agree to be honest with ourselves and each other that we get at least a small leg up in pretty much every institution in society with which we deal.

That every right decision is likely to get us just a bit farther along than it would for an African American.

That we have at least a bit more room to make mistakes before being fired, evicted, jailed — or killed. 

That the few places where we don’t have every advantage clearly pointed in our direction (college admissions and scholarships come to mind) are the exception and, regardless of what one thinks of them as policies, will never outweigh the much larger forces that cut the other direction.

That, yes, there are a few rich blacks and many poor whites, and class inequality is also a major issue that needs to be addressed — but that this doesn’t disprove any of the above.

Then, please join me in a quest to fight those disparities, one institution at a time. Not by making life harder for whites, of course, but by extending the same understanding, opportunities, and benefit of the doubt to all.

The Analytics Floor

There was an interesting article in Politico yesterday, titled [gulp] “Honey, I shrunk the Obama data machine.”*  The article discusses next steps for the Democratic data machine in the leadup to the 2013 and 2014 elections.  The big question: can the Obama analytics tools translate to the state and congressional levels?

The answer (to paraphrase): “yes, but only some of them.”

When people talk about the #Demdata advantage in campaigns, they’re really talking about (at least) three distinct phenomena.  Two translate well to smaller campaigns, the third doesn’t.  The dividing line is something that I call the analytics floor.

(1) One of the biggest advantages Democrats hold over Republicans is the rich voter file that Democrats have developed.  Republicans are working to build their own national database, to sometimes-comedic ends.  That voter file can be exported to congressional campaigns, special elections, governor’s races, etc.  OFA alumni like Dan Wagner of Civis Analytics specialize in just this sort of data modeling.  Obama invested millions in developing the voter file and built a network of hundreds of experts in combining the voter file with polling data to produce much clearer maps of the electorate.  As those experts turn to consulting and expand their reach outward, the price of these services will become more affordable over time.

 

(2) A second advantage comes in the form of lessons learned through persuasion and turnout experiments.  The Analyst Institute was very busy during the 2012 election cycle, running tests to determine what sort of techniques and appeals can best sway undecided voters and motivate disinterested supporters.  These lessons in political behavior are transportable from one election to another — if they’ve determined that voter “report cards” drive people to the polls, that’s a lesson that can improve off-year elections as well.  Democrats have invested in cutting-edge social science, and are in no rush to share their findings with Republican competitors.  This advantage will echo into 2014 and beyond.

(3) The third facet of #DemData is what Daniel Kreiss calls “computational management.”  Computational management refers to the day-to-day role that analytics can play in campaign management, and the “culture of testing” it promotes.  The Obama campaign tested everything.  It tested e-mail subject lines.  It tested font sizes.  It tested niche television spots.  Data settled arguments and maximized investments.  Here’s where things get dicey.

Day-to-day inputs aren’t going to be available and/or useful to smaller campaigns the way they were to the Obama campaign.  If you’re running a mayoral race in Hartford, there will be one or two polls conducted *at most*, and they’ll probably come from a relatively unknown firm.  That’s exponentially less data than the Obama “cave” was working with.  If you’re running a Rockville City Council race, there may be no polling available.  And the number of people visiting your website/receiving your emails/reading your tweets is so small that you can’t run tests to find out which messages/frames/asks are most effective.  You need scale for computational management.  The analytics floor is the dividing line between large-scale and small-scale.

Computational management is a solution to large-scale problems, though.  Honestly, running for city council just isn’t that complicated.  Talk to your neighbors, earn the endorsements of community leaders, place a table at community events.  The districts are small enough that you will mostly be relying upon personalized political communication anyway.  The Hartford mayoral race is a bit more complicated, so data and modeling play a modest role.   Think of that as a rule: as we increase the size of the electorate, the power of the office, and the (resultant) money being spent on the election, the size and complexity of the campaign apparatus increases as well.

The Obama campaign’s biggest managerial innovation was using multiple forms of data to improve decision-making in this complex environment.  Analytics is a solution to the problems introduced at massive scale.  Below the analytics floor, the tools are less useful, but they’re also less necessary.

 

*C’mon Politico, a 24 year-old Rick Moranis reference?  You’re better than that.

Dear Government Snoops: Just Come Get Me Now

For a number of (really good) reasons, I’ve not been able to spend much time following the endless, ever-forthcoming details about the US government’s decision to vacuum up as much of our communication data as possible.

Even from such a less-than-ideal base of knowledge, and even though it will take months or years for everything to come out (if ever), I already believe the following:

What Edward Snowden did is one of the most heroic, medal-worthy acts by an American so far this century. I say this even though I’m also horrified that somebody with his scant qualifications was in such a position.

No mountain of prestigious journalistic prizes can repay the debt owed to the Guardian and Glenn Greenwald by the citizens of this country.

President Obama should immediately grant Snowden a full presidential pardon — and, further, give Snowden his own (prematurely given and, as is now clear, unearned) Nobel Peace Prize as a token of his gratitude.

Concerns about the steady erosion of civil liberties and all-too-quick slide into a surveillance state are finally starting to get a sliver of the traction they should have gotten since roughly the end of 2001.

The erosion of civil liberties via state surveillance has been accompanied by an ever-shrinking capacity for citizens to monitor the state. This ranges from the mundane (e.g., police officers routinely harassing, arresting, injuring, and/or falsely charging people for photographing or recording them in public) to the profound (e.g., charging journalists as “co-conspirators” for soliciting restricted information).

There is perhaps no better test of whether technology activists will be able to mobilize the public en masse on behalf of a desired change — rather than, as in the SOPA blackout, against an unpopular proposed change.

Whether or not an anti-surveillance movement can effect major changes in policy is not a fair measure of whether and how well such a movement performs as a movement; better measures include people mobilized to action, mainstream coverage, and policymakers and allies recruited.

Regardless of whether it is fair to measure an anti-surveillance movement based on policy outcomes, such policy outcomes may be a fair way to measure the viability of our democracy. If we can’t get people on the left, right, and center to join together to take back the Fourth Amendment, the promises of our Constitution are pretty hollow indeed. (Satire or not, this hits close to home.)

If I were in the position of Snowden, Greenwald, or the Guardian, I hope and believe that I would make pretty much the same decisions.

I say all of this publicly, even though I no longer have faith that I can do so without fear of retribution (yes, I use that term deliberately) by the state.

So, to the snoops that are undoubtedly listening — even though it’s unlikely that any human will ever actually read this tiny speck in an ocean of data — come and get me.

If what Snowden did lands him in prison, being there next to him would be an honor. If blowing the lid off a giant, proto-police-state phone and internet surveillance operation is wrong, I don’t want to be right. If leaking state secrets in the public interest puts one in danger of torture, indefinite detention, exile, or being disappeared, we’re all in danger — and for most people, this will be because too few will be brave enough to take such a risk to protect the citizenry from the state.

So consider me part of the conspiracy, Mr./Ms. Snoop. Tell your supervisors that we have a dissident who needs closer scrutiny and maybe a visit from an agent.

I’d rather go to prison, right now, for the rest of my life than to live in complicity as we slide ever-closer toward becoming a bona fide police state.

And just to increase the odds that a real human does see this: bombs Al Qaeda assassinate infidels fertilizer kill death murder planes airports President Obama Capitol White House 9/11 TNT flying with liquids in containers larger than 100 ml (3 oz. for you SAE holdouts) and not taking off my accursed shoes. So there.

P.S. If there’s one consequence I do fear as a result of this post specifically, it’s being put on the no-fly list — itself a particularly apt illustration of the intersection of terrorism paranoia, unchecked executive branch power, and rank bureaucratic incompetence.

The Business of Change: Omidyar’s $15 Million Investment

Change.org is in the business of distributed citizen politics, and business is good.

News broke today that Change.org has raised $15 million in outside funding, mostly from Pierre Omidyar.   From Liz Gannes, who broke the news:

Omidyar Network is taking a minority and non-controlling stake with the explicit disavowal of a future payday from a sale or IPO, two things Change.org has promised it will never do. […]

Though Change.org may sound like a nonprofit, it is actually a for-profit, mission-driven company that is certified as a B corporation.

Omidyar’s investment here isn’t a normal form of venture capital.  It is premised on the explicit promise that there will be no big payday.  But it also isn’t quite philanthropy, like Omidyar conducts through the Omidyar Network.  It’s a low payoff investment, but an investment nonetheless.

That’s part of what makes Change.org such a fascinating model.  It’s nonprofit-like, but avoids some of the harsh limitations facing nonprofits*.  Big donations to nonprofits are “major gifts.”  Donations to Change.org are “investments.”

I’ve offered my share of criticisms of Change.org’s model in the past.  The organization decided last October to adopt an ideologically neutral advertising policy, extending its business to some sketchy characters.  I think that choice carries more risk than reward.  The organization’s core model also is better-equipped for leveraging a thousand small-scale victories than creating a thousand points of pressure for a single large-scale victory.  And the issues I care most about need large-scale victories (congressional legislation, international treaties, etc).

That said, it’s really easy for me to get excited about this news.  The single issue that concerns me most in the field of political advocacy is “how do we pay for movement infrastructure in a time of declining beneficial inefficiencies” (for those reading along at home, this is a theme in chapter 7 of my book).  Change.org employs a ton of talented organizers.  Omidyar’s investment will allow them to hire more, and put better tools in their hands.   The investment will fund tactical experimentation, technological innovation, and the spread of social change infrastructure. And it’s an investment that wouldn’t have otherwise gone to some scrappy nonprofit.  Rather than fighting with nonprofit allies for a bigger slice of the philanthropic pie, Change.org is building new revenue streams that otherwise simply would not exist. That cannot help but be a good thing.

Congratulations to Ben Rattray and his team.  I’m looking forward to seeing where this leads.

 

 

*And no, the horrors of filling out extended IRS questionnaires when applying for C4 status doesn’t count as a harsh limitation.