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MoveOn.org and military action in Syria

By David Karpf

Last week, MoveOn.org announced its opposition to President Obama’s proposed military strikes in Syria. MoveOn will now begin mobilizing its eight million+ members to speak out against the Syrian action, and is already planning rallies around the country. As an early organizational supporter of Obama (MoveOn first endorsed him for President on 1 February 2008, back when most Democrats expected Hillary Clinton to become the nominee) this comes as a particularly important signal of progressive discontent with bombing the Assad military regime.

MoveOn did not reach this decision lightly. The organization has a longstanding record as an anti-war organization. Much of its early membership growth occurred in 2002-2003, as an outlet for protests against the Iraq War. Yet its opposition to limited bombings within Syria were not reached lightly. They came after a long cycle of member engagement and discussion. The most interesting element of this decision is likely what it tells us about how new political organizations use digital technologies to listen in novel ways.

Most political associations have taken no stance on the Syria debate. That’s understandable. International conflicts, human rights abuses, and civil wars abroad are outside the expertise of the AARP, NRA, and Environmental Defense Fund. Taking a stance on international conflicts can anger a lot of supporters without furthering the organization’s core goals.

Traditional, single-issue advocacy organizations face a simple choice when facing a complicated new public debate. Option 1: Ignore the topic, remaining focused on your primary area of expertise. Option 2: Rely on senior staff to take a stance and draft a statement. The hallmark of traditional advocacy groups is concentrated expertise. Members write checks. Expert staffers convert those financial resources into political influence within a small sphere of public affairs.

“Netroots” organizations like MoveOn tend to be multi-issue generalists rather than single-issue specialists. They aim to give voice to public sentiment while an issue is receiving public scrutiny. Ignoring a topic like Syria while it is in the center of public debate cuts against the very nature of these digitally-mediated advocacy organizations.

So how does a netroots organization like MoveOn arrive at its policy stance?

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They began on 31 August 2013 with a mass email to their membership, titled “Syria.” The message included a link to a “Video teach-in,” where five experts on Middle East politics debated the pros and cons of the proposed limited missile strike. It also encouraged members to make their voices heard, by starting or signing petitions on the organization’s website. The user-generated petition platform allows for a form of deliberative discourse, as petition signatures provide a signal about which arguments and policy options are most preferable. Finally, the message encouraged members to donate to Doctors Without Borders, a nonprofit providing emergency healthcare inside Syria through six field hospitals.

As members visited the video teach-in and signed one another’s petitions, MoveOn staff also sent out surveys to a random subset of MoveOn members, asking for more detailed feedback on what stance and activities they would support.

On 3 September 2013, the staff called for a membership-wide email vote. Over 100,000 members weighed in over the next 24 hours, and 73% urged the organization to actively oppose the use of military force in Syria. Only then did MoveOn make its announcement that it would oppose Obama’s military strikes. Digital technologies provided three strong signals — user-generated petition activity, detailed member surveys, and a full-membership vote — all in the space of a few days.

Some remain skeptical about these digital engagement tools. Micah Sifry, of Personal Democracy Forum, offers an insightful challenge with his article “You Can’t A/B Test Your Response to Syria.” He writes:

“…while the e-groups are best equipped to move quickly in response to breaking events compared to their older forbears, Syria isn’t an issue like, say, the crackdown on labor rights in Wisconsin, or the Trayvon Martin killing, or the Texas abortion rights fight, where the progressive response was fairly clear and the main thing the managers of these groups had to do was fine-tune their calls to action.

To put it in a sentence, the answer to Syria can’t be A/B tested. But unfortunately for online activists, that’s the only really good tool in their toolbox. And now, to mangle metaphors, they’re playing a weaker hand than they might because of how that tool shapes their work. That is, they’re either admitting their ‘membership’ is divided or confused, or they’re papering over those issues with snap surveys.”

Sifry’s main point is a good one: after 10-15 years of netroots advocacy, one could hope for even better platforms for online deliberation than the ones we see on display from MoveOn and its ilk. Indeed, many digital advocacy professionals seem to agree that tools currently on display for online member deliberation pale in comparison to the tools they would one day like to build. Sifry’s argument is, in essence, that we aren’t getting there nearly fast enough.

But these new tools of online sentiment analysis (what I call “passive democratic feedback”) nonetheless represent a remarkable shift in how political associations make decisions. Gone are the days when major issues of public importance are blithely ignored by our leading advocacy organizations. Gone are the days when a select few senior staff dictate all of the decisions from on high. MoveOn’s Syria announcement is based in massive, careful efforts to use technology for digital listening.

Despite the commonplace accusations is rendering activism light, fleeting, and ineffectual, a deeper look at netroots advocacy groups reveals that our new, digital organizations are, in fact, the best representative.

David Karpf is an Assistant Professor in the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University. He is the author of The MoveOn Effect: The Unexpected Transformation of American Political Advocacy. His research focuses on the Internet’s disruptive effect on organized political advocacy. He blogs at shoutingloudly.com and tweets at @davekarpf.

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