A Web of Persuasion, or a Web of Mobilization

Once again, it’s time for a reassessment of what the web is good for.

In political communication research, we tend to make a hardline distinction between political persuasion and political mobilization.  In simple terms, persuasion is the act of convincing someone to change their position on a topic (which candidate they support/whether climate change is real), while mobilization is the act of convincing someone to act upon their position (turning out to the polls/attending a climate rally).

The central lesson of the Howard Dean campaign was that the Internet is great for mobilization.  This may seem obvious today, but it was a revelation 10 years ago.  The prevailing wisdom before Dean was that the Internet would have very little impact on elections because web pages are “pull” media that only attract existing supporters, making them lousy persuasion tools.  The “Deaniacs” capitalized on that supporter enthusiasm and converted it into tangible mobilization resources — big money from small donors, big turnout at volunteer events.

In the decade since Dean*, a new prevailing wisdom has emerged: the Internet is great for mobilization, but it also supports echo chambers that make persuasion even rarer.  Algorithmic filtering by Google and Facebook produce filter bubbles, with Republicans and Democrats rarely even encountering the same news headlines.

At last week’s Personal Democracy Forum conference, several keynote speakers offered implicit challenges to this perspective.  As social media loses its novelty and is assumed into the background media environment, a new wave of campaigners are figuring out how to harness the Internet for persuasion.

First up is Rachel Weidinger, Director of Upwell.us.  Upwell is a new project in Big Listening – “the art and practice of tracking topical online conversations over time — listening to what ‘the Internet’ writ large, is talking about.”  They combine a few big tech tools with human creativity and intelligence to drive information campaigns that help “condition the climate for change.”

Put more plainly, there are very few ocean conservation activists out there.  Weidinger and company’s mission is to move beyond the usual suspects and get a larger public talking about ocean issues.  The details of their strategy can be found in a 165-page pilot report that, despite the length, is quite engaging.

Next is Sara Critchfield, Editorial Director at Upworthy.com.  I talked about Upworthy in my last blog post.  They now reach 2/3rds of the American public, driving viral attention to content with substance.  Critchfield mentions in her talk that they combine “emotional data with analytical data.”  She also mentions that they test the living hell out of every headline, until they stumble upon language that works.

Both Upwell and Upworthy are focused on persuasion — exposing new people to new information rather than galvanizing existing people to action.  And, to that end, both have refocused attention away from mobilization metrics (views/clicks/action rates) and toward persuasion metrics (retweets/posts/shares/comments).  As Weidinger puts it in her pilot report, “Our primary metric […] is what we refer to as a ‘social mention’ (or ‘social item’). […] Social mentions are online acts of self-expression in which individuals, organizations and other entities invest (at least) a small amount of social capital.”

The Internet of 2003 was not built for this kind of organized persuasion effort.  Social sharing of vidoes, gifs, and other viral-friendly content just wasn’t that easy.  The Internet of 2013 is different.  It contains filter bubbles and mobilization-friendly echo chambers, to be sure.  But it also contains simple sharing tools, robust analytics programs, and fast-twitch news cycles with plenty of room for serious content.

The Dean campaign forced us to rethink the Internet’s role in political mobilization.  This latest wave of political startups may force us to rethink the Internet’s role in political persuasion, too.


*Oof, it’s been a decade.  I feel old.