Biggest and Baddest

Why relational organizing matters; when being inauthentic is OK; and more.


  • The story behind the story: Back in mid-July, I spent two days in Philadelphia at the annual Netroots Nation conference, an event that has grown into a critical convening for digital progressives and other organizers after starting out as a convention for the most active members of the DailyKos user community. I went to several sessions focusing on how advocacy groups were developing their own tech talent or learning to share data, and enjoyed a packed lunchtime showcase of a dozen rising start-ups offering everything from a “digital campaign manager” designed to help new candidates better manage their time and resources (Victory Guide) to a “multi-channel advocacy and civic engagement manager” (New Mode). The energy in the room was infectious as a couple hundred people voted in real-time for their favorite pitches.
  • But of all the sessions I attended, it was the one that wasn’t focused on digital that got me most intrigued. It was called “Beyond the Voter File: How Relational Organizing Can Expand the Electorate and Help Us Win.” And what got my attention was this declaration from Arisha Hatch, the chief of campaigns for Color of Change, the country’s pre-eminent African-American digital organization: “In the last ten years, we have gotten really good at targeting exactly the right person we want to reach with our paid ads, and it’s not working.” She added, “We don’t reach out to 50% of the potential electorate because the analytics say it’s too expensive to do so. In the Netroots industry, there is a capitalist obsession with scale, and it is hurting us. Now there are consultants who say, ‘We did 10 million text messages, hire us!’ Imagine instead if we had 20,000 voters each who we just focus on for two years and built deep relationships with. Being the biggest and baddest isn’t best.” And she concluded,” Changing one person’s life may mean more than reaching one million people in a really shallow way. I worry about the magnifying effect of people learning that they’re only important eight days before an election.”
  • Hearing Hatch say this, and then talk about how Color of Change was experimenting with a very different approach to engaging its activist members, as well as other African-Americans who were not already on their list, I knew I really wanted to help share her and their larger story. The result is this in-depth interview that I posted at the end of last week on Civicist: “From Textathons to Black Joy: How Color of Change is Re-Imagining Organizing.” I hope you’ll take the time to dig in. But the quick version is this: At a time of great crisis and hyper-distraction, more than 40,000 African-Americans, a mix of Color of Change core activists and newbies attracted by the offer of little more than brunch or a cookout and some companionship, have been meeting face-to-face and building relationships centered on fostering their own joy—and they’re taking action on the issues as well. The point? Maybe it’s time organizers stopped optimizing for clicks, likes, and donations with messages centered on fear and outrage and instead focused on building lasting face-to-face teams and communities that can restore vitality to local civic life. 
  • This is civic tech: Here’s a fascinating analysis of the visual side of the abortion debate in America as it played out over the first half of the year, produced by Cindy Sherman Bishop of MIT Media Lab. She used MediaCloud and a tree-mapping tool to collect and then cluster images attached to news stories from progressive and conservative sources, making it easy to see how certain frames and themes predominated as different state legislatures passed laws either strengthening the right to choose or making it harder to obtain abortions.
  • The BBC’s Carl Miller is the latest to sing the praises of the vTaiwan platform, describing “how a social network could save democracy from deadlock.” Just to be clear, we don’t think any technology is going to “save democracy” by itself, but headline writers got to headline write.
  • Colorado Governor Jared Polis (a veteran tech entrepreneur) has announced the creation of the Colorado Digital Service, “a new team of engineers, designers & product managers serving a ‘digital tour of duty’ to help make government work better for Coloradans.” 
  • Apply: Citizen University’s Civic Saturday program has opened applications for its 2020 Fellows class.
  • Life in Facebookistan: At least 250 Facebook employees have signed an internal letter addressed to top company executives dissenting from their decision to exempt political advertising on the platform from fact-checking, Mike Isaac reports for The New York Times. Critically, the letter states:
“Free speech and paid speech are not the same thing. Misinformation affects us all. Our current policies on fact checking people in political office, or those running for office, are a threat to what FB stands for. We strongly object to this policy as it stands. It doesn’t protect voices, but instead allows politicians to weaponize our platform by targeting people who believe that content posted by political figures is trustworthy.”
  • The letter-writers also make a separate and important point: While CEO Mark Zuckerberg claims that he wants to let Americans see what their politicians are saying, even if it’s untruthful, Facebook’s own Custom Audiences advertising tools allow users to micro-target messages narrowly, obviating any such transparency.
  • Popular.info’s Judd Legum continues to dig into problems with Facebook’s approach to political content, now revealing a secret network of fourteen purportedly independent pages that all uniformly and solely promote content from The Daily Wire, a rightwing site founded by pundit Ben Shapiro that consistently draws audiences that rival the New York Times or the Washington Post despite having a much smaller staff and producing little original content. “Inauthentic coordinated behavior” is against Facebook’s community rules, but a Facebook spokesperson said they would not be taking down this network. Legum points out that just a year ago, Facebook removed a similar network of accounts promoting progressive news. And he notes that recently, Shapiro was invited by Zuckerberg to dine at his house to discuss issues like “free speech and…partnerships.”
  • As Casey Newton of The Verge comments, reporting on the controversy over the company including Breitbart News as a partner in its new Facebook News vertical, “Facebook is now in a position where it fights misinformation with one hand while ushering it onto the platform with another.
  • Food for thought: Katherine Miller’s essay for BuzzFeed on how the rhythms of American life have changed in the 2010s makes some good points about what it is to live in an attention economy that is over-optimized for “the now,” but I would still put Civic Hall member Douglas Rushkoff’s book Present Shock forward as the best single thing you should read on that topic.

You are reading First Post, a twice-a-week digest of news and analysis of the world of civic tech, brought to you by Civic Hall, NYC’s community center for civic tech. If you are reading this because someone forwarded it to you, please become a subscriber ($10/m) and support our work and support our work or sign up for our newsletter and stay connected with the #CivicTech community.