The Common Good
July 2011

A Web of Power

by Jeannie Choi | July 2011

How online tools are transforming the way social change happens.

On Jan. 1, 2010, a group of four undocumented students embarked on the Trail of Dreams, a 1,500-mile march from Miami to Washington, D.C., to call for passage of the Dream Act, a pathway to citizenship for undocumented students who serve in the military or attend college. At the end of their first day of walking, a member of the team tweeted a message to the group's few Twitter followers: "VERY TIRED at the end of this first day, but going to bed with a smile and fully inspired."

Because their Twitter stream is synched to their Facebook page, they immediately received responses of empathy and encouragement on their Facebook wall. "It's worth the work ... long way to go but y'all are not alone," wrote Elder Eduardo Canul Montero. "We are with you and we thank you!" said Deborah De Santos. And Naomi Florentino-B offered: "As a Dreamer, it hurts too much not to be with you during this walk. However, in prayers and spirit, my support follows your steps. Be strong."

Gaby Pacheco, one of the Trail of Dreams marchers, says the online followers were an incredible source of strength. "They walked with us every step of the way," Pacheco says. But Twitter and Facebook were more than just lifelines to family, friends, and supporters; they were also strategic online organizing tools. By the end of their journey, Trail of Dreams had more than 6,600 Facebook fans and 1,500 Twitter followers. With a single tweet or Facebook post, thousands of co-activists could be called upon to contact their members of Congress, attend rallies, sign petitions, and circulate emails. This made a huge difference, according to Pacheco.

"Even though the Dream Act didn’t pass, last year was one of the most successful years for the immigrant rights movement, and I believe these online tools really woke up the sleeping giants," Pacheco told Sojourners. "Through Twitter, Facebook, blog posts, and websites, students were able to share their stories that the media were not portraying."

Some critics are concerned that online organizing promotes "click activism" rather than the relationships and community-building necessary for effective social change. Author and social commentator Malcolm Gladwell famously argued last year in The New Yorker, "Facebook activism succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice." But events in Egypt and elsewhere have shown that online tools can bring millions to the streets, clamoring for justice.

Even today, Pacheco and many other immigration activists continue their work with online tools, notably stopping numerous deportations of young undocumented immigrants who would be eligible for citizenship under the Dream Act. Dream activists, then, have joined a growing cadre of online organizers who are using the web with great success to enhance traditional organizing methods, proving that online tools aren’t just for socializing anymore -- they're creating actual social and political change.

The Strategies

So how do online organizers do it? To outsiders, they can seem like an elusive club of Internet whiz kids, but the truth is that many of them come from traditional organizing backgrounds and cite classic gurus such as Marshall Ganz as the touchstones of their methodology. And at the center of any organizing strategy are people, says Michael Sherrard, an organizer for MoveOn's political action wing.

"Organizing is about people power, and organizers, whether online or offline, must listen and pay attention to what people are excited and passionate about," Sherrard says. MoveOn is a progressive political action group with more than 5 million members. Despite its huge political capacity, Sherrard says that the first step of every MoveOn campaign is getting input from its members.

Matt Stempeck, the new media project manager for the New Organizing Institute Education Fund, a training institute for online organizers, marvels at MoveOn’s unwavering commitment to listening to its members. "Online organizers have to have their finger on the pulse of what your members really feel," Stempeck says.

Once an advocacy group has received sufficient feedback from its constituents and has identified a campaign goal, it then picks an online messaging medium that best fits the desired outcome of the campaign -- email, Twitter, Facebook, or texting. The four media, with their different methods of getting out the word, are effective in fulfilling distinctive campaign objectives.

The Methods

MoveOn's most powerful tool is its email list, which was effective earlier this year when Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin attempted to strip public employees of their collective bargaining rights. "Wisconsin was a great success because it was a moment where we saw huge passion and influence from progressives and from our members," Sherrard says. MoveOn's goal was to get rallies in every state capital across the country in a show of solidarity. Once MoveOn identified that its constituents were passionate about the issue, the group sent emails to its most committed and active members, encouraging them to organize rallies. Within a week, activists pulled together more than 60 demonstrations.

Other email messages include petitions that members can sign and send to their members of Congress, news organizations, or corporations. When inboxes are flooded with thousands of emails relaying the same message, people notice.

To send a high volume of messages to a campaign target in a public way, online organizers often employ Twitter, the 140-character microblogging service, which allows users to send their own brief note to other users who sign up to follow their Twitter streams. All Twitter users have followers and are following other users, creating a massive online social network of idea sharing and link swapping. Every time users log on to Twitter, they can see a list of their own tweets, any tweets that mention them, and any tweets that are sent by the users they follow. News on Twitter travels at lightning speed, allowing organizers to disseminate messages in real time with great results. Organizers have learned to use Twitter to grow and connect with their constituency, as did the Trail of Dreams walkers, and to strategically communicate with campaign targets, whether they are high-profile people, media groups, corporations, or congression-al offices. "Twitter has real implications for reaching elite audiences," explains Sherrard. "You can get the attention of decision-makers and media figures on Twitter in a way that you can’t by just sending them an email."

America’s Voice, a rapid-response immigration reform organization, often uses Twitter to let people know about important news stories of abuse against undocumented immigrants. It also uses Twitter to publicly send messages about immigration reform to people in power. Many of the tweets on America’s Voice Twitter stream are aimed at President Obama, with messages such as "@BarackObama Grant administrative relief to #DreamAct students? Yes, you can," and "@BarackObama it’s time to make good on your promise to promising young Dreamers."

These are not just notable quotations for their constituents to retweet, though that is certainly a goal. These are also ways to get the attention of the Obama administration in a very public way. "Twitter is excellent for targeting people," explains Matt Hildreth, online organizer for America's Voice. "You can put issues in front of politicians very easily." Patty Kupfer, the managing director of America's Voice, also notes that Twitter is powerful because of the volume of messages that can be sent within minutes. The Dream activists, for example, used Twitter strategically to flood the inboxes of local Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) employees with tweets about specific detainees ICE had in custody. "These young Dream activists have revolutionized the immigrant rights movement both politically and tactically," Kupfer says. "Because they are so savvy online, that's where the movement is happening."

Twitter can also have a coalition and community-building element to it because it allows an organization to drive traffic from its Twitter stream to its web page. "Organizations can and should send links to their blog posts out on their Twitter streams," says Matt Stempeck. "Organizations that are good at being personable and tweeting a decent amount of times throughout the day can grow their list of followers and supporters tremendously." Both Twitter and Facebook, the third medium for online organizers, are excellent at driving web traffic to organization pages, Stempeck says. Facebook differs from Twitter, however, because of its ability to foster a sense of community on an organizational page. "Facebook is a great way to accrue supporters who might never fill out an email form, but will post your Facebook content on their own homepage and help build your support list," Stempeck explains. "You don't own their data, but you have a chance to show them information." By fostering a connection with their members through frequent, personable Facebook posts, organizations can easily connect to a widening network of people, since every Facebook fan has her own network of "friends" she can reach out to with any given message.

Short Message Service (SMS) -- that is, text messages to cell phones -- is a relatively new tactic for online organizers, and is most helpful for reaching people who live on the other side of the digital divide, many of whom do not have access to broadband Internet connections. Because cell phones are easier to afford than high-speed Internet, text message organizing often reaches those who lack the economic status to have a voice in the political process, on- and offline. "You can’t send extensive conversational emails [through SMS], but you save text messaging for special, critical events," Stempeck advises. When the Trail of Dreams activists traveled through a town, they would encourage supporters to text the word "trail" or "camino" to sign up for Trail of Dreams updates via text message. When the Dream Act was up for a vote in the Senate, Pacheco sent text messages to these people urging them to flood their members of Congress with phone calls and emails. "If it wasn't for text messaging, many people would have been disconnected. But we could tell them what was happening through text, and people would text us messages in reply," Pacheco says.

Online Organizing at the Grassroots

While some people balk at the complexity of these methods, the underlying premise of each medium is to provide opportunities for user-based innovation. Given the volume of messages and campaigns they run, online organizing groups have surprisingly small staffs. (America's Voice, for example, has  only 11 full-time staff members.) Thus, online organizing can be used by smaller, local organizations, churches, and even individuals with great results.

In November 2009, Bernard Pastor, an 18-year-old undocumented student in Ohio, was stopped by police for a minor traffic violation and detained. ICE held Pastor in federal detention with plans to deport him to his native Guatemala, though his parents had left Guatemala with Pastor when he was 3 years old. When Pastor's friends discovered that he was in detention, they created a Facebook page titled "Free Bernard Pastor."

"That page became a catalyst for information, and the local media started getting involved as that Facebook page blew up," says Troy Jackson, senior pastor at University Christian Church in Cincinnati and a local community organizer. As soon as Jackson heard Pastor's story, he also created a simple website, PrayForBernard.com. The local faith community and Pastor’s classmates added to the content on both sites, and eventually Pastor’s story was picked up by local and national media.

In December, friends and community members gathered in support at the Morrow County jail, where Pastor was being held, joined by the media, and soon Pastor was released from jail. While he still has a pending deportation order, Pastor’s case was "moved to the bottom of the stack," Jackson says. Though the online campaign was small, with only a few hundred supporters, Jackson believes that the Facebook page and website changed the narrative in Pastor's favor. "The reality is that online social networks become a tool for organizers that help them to further the real relationships and organizing they are already doing," Jackson explains. "Bernard's classmates are 17, 18, 19 years old, but they were able to create a site that was very significant, and while the power of social change is always going to demand more than a 'like' button, I look at the Dreamers, and I see folks who are incredibly committed and use social media to grow their base, to stay connected, and to encourage one another."

Online organizers would say the same: Despite these online communication tools, the key work of change continues to operate on a person-to-person level, because relationships are how people make real change happen. In the classic organizing model, a community articulates an injustice and then spreads the message of that injustice so collective action can be taken. Today, social media tools, when used well, can disseminate these messages quickly on platforms that cross boundaries of age, gender, race, and economic status, making online organizing an effective method for gathering, inspiring, and translating collective power into common solutions.

Jeannie Choi is web editor at Sojourners.

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