The Distractions of Online Petitions

The truth is, online petitions to Congress and others are pretty much a sham. Most of the time, the organizers don’t follow up on the petition, some of the time the vendor has some kind of bug and they don’t end up being delivered. If and when they do go end up getting delivered, members don’t read them. There’s no possible way they could — according to the Congressional Management Foundation, the House of Representatives got 99,053,399 messages via the Internet in 2004. That’s 227,708.9 messages per member of Congress. If a member took an average of 30 seconds to thoughtfully read each email they received in 2004, it’d take them 79 days solely to read their mail from the Internet. For a member of the Senate it’s worse: 288 straight 24-hour days worth of constituent communications at 30 seconds a piece. Most people don’t spend that many hours awake in a year.

In short — sometimes the mail doesn’t even get there and when it does, it rarely gets read. So why do organizations tell you to write your members in the first place?

Because politicians and advocacy groups value your email address over your voice. It’s the great lie of online organizing: that your voice to Congress or your voice to whomever can make a difference. It can, it should, but not through them. Nearly every organization in Washington is focused on one thing — inventing new and interesting ways to get your email address. And they want your email address so that they can ask you for money. The truth is: my.barackobama.com was and still is, the most sophisticated suite of tools designed primarily to capture your email address and ask you for money.

Online organizers for political groups are trained to recognize “strategic moments” — to find events in the media and in the national narrative that they can use to their advantage. Like the Red Cross when a hurricane hits, advocacy groups are looking for battles to fight that gets people to join their group. The most basic and common method for political organizations to get your email address is via a petition.

Online organizers are also trained to analyze their own messages. Since email is their primary method of communications to supporters, online organizers obsess over email open rates and click through rates. In fact, tools like SalsaLabs, Convio and Blue State Digital allow you to create multivariate tests based on the messages they send out. The subject lines that get the most opens and the links that get the most clicks automatically get tested and then sent out to the right targets.

These tactics are concerning because organizers — the professional online communicators of a campaign — are more interested in getting you to click a link than they are in telling you the truth or solving the problems they’re supposed to solve. They’re constantly looking for events to jump on top of, and to give you just the right message that will piss you off just enough for you to fork over that email address. Sometimes, those moments and events have nothing to do with the actual purpose of the organization.

Take a look at my friend Adam Green’s post on Net Neutrality at the Huffington Post. It’s called “Breaking: Google Goes Evil.” Don’t think of it as an article, it isn’t. It isn’t even an op-ed. Think of it as an outreach. That’s the intent of this. Adam’s trying to grow his organization, the PCCC. Which is why you can find it everywhere. And why you’re asked to donate after you sign the petition.

But the point of the PCCC is to “elect bold progressives to federal office.” What the does that have to do with Google and an unelected regulatory body? Is calling Google evil going to make Google more or less receptive to Adam’s petition? Or is it a better way to get people to click on the accompanying links on twitter? In the PCCC’s accompanying email the subject line was a slightly less salacious “Google’s about to be really evil.”

Reinforcing this is the general unanimity amongst organizers to use these tactics. It means that it’s even harder for rational thought to get your attention because there’s the easy-to-get-upset-about red meat. It creates hysteria inflation: obviously organizers, competing with one another for your attention, must out-do one another and continually push the envelope of what’s honest.

Walking into Congress with a list of a few million people is powerful. And that’s another reason why online organizers want your email address. When you actually meet with a member of Congress and say you’ve got a million supporters behind you they take it more seriously. Online organizing helps organizations pull that off. At the same time though, how many people on an email list are actually supporters vs. how many of them gave you an email because the organization produced a novel online video? How many people signing Adam’s Google petition know that they’re contributing to the aggregate number Adam may use when he talks to Members of Congress?

My suggestion?

Skip the advocacy groups. Dismiss the petitions. There’s nothing in a call to action that can be considered honest. In the case of net neutrality, read what Google and Verizon said and make up your own mind. The intent of advocacy messaging isn’t to tell you the truth, it’s to get you to click a link. If you have something to say to Congress, house.gov gives you a method as does senate.gov. If you have something to say to Google, contact them yourself.

I am probably unfairly singling out Adam and the PCCC here as an example. I know Adam, and his messaging is just the most recent example I can think of.

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