How to Resist the ResistBot

Imagine that you are a person who wants to do something useful about climate change, particularly by getting your Members of Congress to pay attention to the issue. Along come some techies, and they give you ClimateBot, a tool that makes it “insanely easy” to convert your text messages into payments for a gasoline-powered billboard reading “Stop Climate Change” sitting on the street across Capitol Hill. You’d probably understand why that was a stupid idea, right? Even if it’s really simple to turn a text message into a micro-payment to run a generator, you’d kind of know that pumping more carbon into the atmosphere with your texting wasn’t a good idea.

Well, consider Resistbot, a text-to-fax tool built by Eric Ries, author of The Lean Startup and CEO of Long-Term Stock Exchange, and Jason Purtorti, a designer at AngelList and previously co-founder of Causes and Votizen, along with help from a half-dozen employees of Twilio. The tool lets you text the word “Resist” to a shortcode, asks your zip code to quickly determine who represents you, and then prompts you to type in a message, which it reformats into a business letter and faxes to your Senators or Representative.

“Resistbot was born out of my personal frustrations with trying to contact my members of Congress,” Ries wrote on ProductHunt. “I know it’s important to do it every day, and there are dozens of blog posts and websites that tell you only a certain way ‘counts’ – calls, emails, faxes, town halls, etc.” Since Congress has made it somewhat difficult to email its members (actually, if you use it’s really easy), he writes, he built ResistBot “to make it insanely easy to generate a fax.”

News of ResistBot’s launch flew through tech media like a dose of salts. Good magazine heralded it as the “Most Genius Thing of 2017.” “There’s a tech tool that will take the headache out of reaching out to your congresspeople. It’s called “Resistbot,” and it’s by far the easiest way to gradually chip away at Trump’s spirit,” wrote Good’s Kate Ryan. “Resistbot helps voters oppose Trump,” blared the headline from Re/code’s Tess Townsend.

No, no, no, no, no. ResistBot is not genius, it won’t affect Trump’s spirit, and it certainly doesn’t help voters oppose Trump. As designed it does not fill a gap in the existing ecosystem of already-existing and newly designed tools and platforms aimed at getting people to contact their Members of Congress. There are more than 80 new “action-alert” tools alone, according to the ActionAlliance‘s Corinna Kester. As Ries notes in his post, Resistbot may add more channels of contact, including phone calls and town halls, but it won’t make one iota of difference even then.

Here’s why: Making it easier to digitally contact your Member of Congress paradoxically makes it more likely that they will discount the value of your opinion. Honest digital organizers have been talking about this problem for years (read the late Jake Brewer on “The Tragedy of Advocacy” and watch Clay Shirky’s talk at the 2010 Personal Democracy Forum on “rethinking representation“). This is why Members pay very little attention to emails and a lot to people showing up at their congressional office or local district office.

What’s worse about a tool like Resistbot is that not only does it give its users a false sense of efficacy because it’s so easy to use, they have to take on faith that their messages are being received and registered. Ries knows this, which is why he writes that before developing Resistbot he did some research and found that most Congressional offices “use software to help them categorize the inbound messages they get, sort them into issue buckets, and tally up the for/against numbers.” He adds, “Faxes and emails get automatically scanned and dumped into that flow – as long as they are not form letters and are verifiably from a constituent.” But that’s the rub: Resistbot does no such verification.

Figuring out how to jam Congressional fax machines a bit faster really isn’t a useful innovation, unless your goal is to cut down more trees.

Why do so many well-intentioned techies make bad political tech? One reason: both tech media and political media do a horrible job reporting on tech and politics. Stories about the launch of some shiny new tool cost little to produce compared to in-depth coverage of the ins and outs of organizing. Editors think their readers want to hear about the latest thing, and by producing shallow coverage they also dumb down their audience.

But some of the blame belongs on the people making this crap. Before the next “hack democracy” meet up, they should try to find out what serious political organizers actually need. Here at Civic Hall, our “call to action” team has built a “Resist Projects” spreadsheet cataloging more than 150 new initiatives and tools that have cropped up since the November election. It’s clear that there’s no shortage of action-alert sites or call-to-action tools. There’s no shortage of tech that will help you find out what your Member of Congress is doing, or enable you to call/text/email/fax them.

But here are a few things that call for attention:

  • There’s very little being done so far to help local groups understand how to do an effective job organizing themselves. Rhize (a Civic Hall member) is one of the only organizations providing coaching for local organizers. Likewise, there’s tons of media covering the latest outrage, but little that is reporting on how groups are organizing. A knowledge-sharing platform that enabled local volunteer leaders to share best practices with each other would fill a clear gap.
  • In such a fertile moment, you’d also think there would be lots of new tools for organizing, but so far people are relying on a fairly mundane suite: email lists, Facebook groups, Maestro or Zoom conference calls, group texting services like WhatsApp or Signal, and team management software like Slack channels.
  • Other than a few groups like Hollaback, there hasn’t been a big surge of effort focusing on combating online harassment. People aren’t happy about the rise of digital stormtroopers, but while many—especially women and people of color—keep experiencing and complaining about harassment, there hasn’t been much done to stop it.
  • And finally, there’s a dearth of attention being paid to digital security training. Other than the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Guardian Project, who have long concentrated on helping activists protect themselves online, there are few new initiatives beyond Tech Solidarity’s basic online guide and the fledgling Digital Security Exchange being led by Josh Levy, formerly of AccessNow.

What this shows is that there’s plenty techies can do to help. But first they’ll have to resist their own worst urges to build tech we don’t need.