Towards a rebirth of freedom: activism on social networks, part 1 (DRAFT)

Get FISA Right logo


Revised version posted at Pam’s House Blend and (under a different title, and minus the introduction ) Open Left.

Thanks to Pam for encouraging me to post on the Blend, where I’m a regular reader and occasional commenter. For the last month or so, I’ve been heavily involved as one of the organizers of Get FISA Right, which started as a protest group on and quickly spread to the blogosphere, Facebook, the message boards, MySpace, and yes, even the mainstream media with coverage by Time, CNN, the New York Times, NPR, and elsewhere.

The FISA battle’s far from over. The July 9 Senate vote on the “FISA Amendment Act” permits warrantless wiretaps with virtually no oversight and grants telecom companies immunity for any illegal actions they may have taken at the Bush administration’s request. Fortunately, the ACLU immediately filed suit on behalf of plaintiffs including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International USA, SEIU, Naomi Klein, and The Nation. EFF is preparing a lawsuit as well, and so the issue will remain alive into the next administration and Congress. Get FISA Right’s strategy-in-progress sketches how we intend to take advantage of this time to influence this debate, and the discussions and poll in our What is your vision for the future of Get FISA Right? thread chart a likely path towards a more general focus on civil liberties issues.

The experiences from Get FISA Right and other social network activism campaigns are much more broadly applicable. As Cheryl Contee says, a lot of people “aren’t as concerned about, say, FISA or impeachment. They want jobs” — or an end to wars and institutionalized violence, voting rights, affordable food, different commencement speakers, marriage equality ….We did a fairly good job of taking notes as we were going, and so hopefully there’s a lot for people to build on; still, there’s much more to be said.

Along with my significant other Deborah Pierce and brother Greg, I’m working on a book about social networks called Tales from the Net, and the current working subtitle for our chapter on online activism is “Towards a rebirth of freedom”, from an inspiring talk Chip Pitts gave describing his vision for Get FISA Right’s future. Deborah and I lived in the Castro for a decade and still hang out there, and so for me “freedom” starts with marriage equality, an inclusive ENDA, Pride, Folsom, and Pink Saturday every bit as much as it starts with privacy, the First and Fourth Amendments and the rule of law.

So I hope Blenders will forgive me for picking up the story in midstream as I start cross-posting here from OpenLeft. Dawn Teo’s Networked Obama FISA Group Takes Fight Forward on The Huffington Post gives the history of the first two weeks; today’s post follows Aviva’s Netroots 2.0: Crashing the cable gates from last Monday.


If you’re one of the thousands of voters angry over the Democrats’ cave on domestic spying and telecom amnesty, a new online grassroots movement is now making it easy to buy a local ad on MSNBC, CNN and several other networks, for less money than you’d think.

The Fight FISA on TV! campaign we’re doing in partnership with got some major momentum when Sarah Lai Stirand’s Opposed to Wiretap Amensty? Run a TV Ad for Six Bucks on Wired’s Threat Level got picked up by Slashdot. [Credit where credit is due: Jack and Jill Politics was had covered the ad a day earlier. Looks like they’re not as popular with Slashdot readers as Wired is. Who would have guessed?] We’re over 3,000 views of the two versions of the video on YouTube ([1], [2]), well on the way to our goal of 10,000-20,000 by September 2, and at least dozen ads have been placed already. OK, nobody’s plunked down for the four-figure prices for placements like Fox News in New York yet, but’s going to be introducing the ability for people to pool their contributions for these pricier placements … I bet we’ll get some premium placements by the end of the month.

And although it’s less flashy, our work to influence the platform is also going well. jawboneblue’s leading the effort to get our language adopted as part of the Netroots platform, where our Get FISA Right plank has now merged with various others into the highest-ranked civil liberties plank. We’ve also gotten our position, and in many cases our exact language, adopted in the Obama campaign’s in-person “listening” meetings in at least five states; Thomas Nephew’s “Listening to America” hears “Get FISA Right” on is a particularly good writeup. Once again, our timing’s perfect: the existence of these new channels for grassroots influence is tailor-made for groups like Get FISA Right, and our members continue to be great at finding effective ways to work with them.

It’s interesting reading different people’s perspectives on the ad campaign and more generally on Get FISA Right. A few I found particularly thought-provoking:

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It’s also interesting to look at who is and isn’t picking up the story. Sites at the intersection of technology and politics are all over the story: techPresident, with Nancy Scola’s regular updates in her Daily Digests as well as Carlo’s and Micah’s posts; Wired’s Threat Level with an article by Ryan Singel as well as two from Sarah; for that matter, Jack and Jill Politics is known among other things for the Clinton Attacks Obama wiki. Ditto for people: danah boyd foregrounds political issues a lot more than most other social computing bloggers; Julian Sanchez is a contributing editor at Reason as well as writing for Ars Technica; Dawn Teo is a social networking expert as well as a Off the Bus columnist; Ari Melber is The Nation‘s Net Movement reporter; and the pseudonymous “I don’t believe in imaginary property”, who submitted the most recent Slashdot story, presumably has a political bone or two in his or her body as well.

On the other hand pure technology sites, the “web 2.0” bloggers have largely passed the story by — ReadWriteWeb, TechCrunch, Robert Scoble, etc. We also don’t seem to have gotten any attention from traditional civil liberties organizations like the ACLU or EFF, or the “internet in society” crowd like the Berkman Center. Similarly, while we got some great support from some corners of the progressive blogosphere in the ramp-up to the vote, and there continues to be substantial discussion of FISA there (Glenn Greenwald’s excellent interview with Daniel Ellsberg, for example), we got relatively less coverage in the broader political blogosphere than the mainstream media; and thus far as far as I know we still haven’t gotten a major link on the ad campaign from the “big blogs” like dKos, FDL, or TPM yet — despite being in Wired, Slashdot, and NPR.

One of the things I suspect is going on here is that from a pure numbers standpoint, we pale in comparison to MoveOn or Facebook. Also, our approaches to social networks and to advertising are foreign to a lot of political activists — and to bloggers more generally. So in some sense the patterns of coverage aren’t that surprising. The encouraging thing is that it points to ways in which it should be fairly easy to do a lot better moving forward, for example by reaching out more in a more organized fashion to the technology and civil liberties communities.

These patterns also really highlight the importance of the sites at the intersections. Despite limited coverage by “the usual suspects”, we still got our story out via the blogosphere — and into the MSM.

All of these things are good to think about as the platform work winds down and we continue to focus promoting the ad and video. The initial results are very encouraging, with our first wave of promotion getting solid coverage — and a lot of learning of course; putting my web strategy hat*** back on briefly and analyzing a week’s worth of statistics reveals all kinds of opportunities for improvement, small changes that can significantly increase how many people watch the video — and how many of the people who see the idea join us and/or pay to put ads on cable. With the ad available in Seattle, Washington DC, and elsewhere in mid-August, it’ll be time to crank things up, taking a local focus in various cities (go Darcy Burner!) and trying to get some “web 2.0” as well as mainstream TV coverage (presumably Keith Olbermann will be interested). In parallel, with all of this, we’re working on our organization and infrastructure, and refining our strategy. It’s almost like we’re building a movement or something.

I was talking with a reporter last week who asked me what I thought the chances were for some real changes in the FISA legislation next year. Of course there are a huge numbers of unknowns at this point, but overall I’m very optimistic. There was significant progress between February and July, and I’m not just talking about the Senate votes: the Strange Bedfellows libertarian/progressive coalition is huge, as is the infrastructure developed by Blue America and the shared experiences we all have in working together. Get FISA RIght burst onto the scene relatively late and while I think we helped a lot in the last week, we were hampered by technology limitations and most of our media coverage came after the vote. If we can help keep the story in the headlines, and do our bit in reframing media coverage, that can make a big difference.****

And who knows how we’ll evolve, but with six months to deepen connections with members, grow our base, improve communications, address our infrastructure, and continue to learn more effective ways of using social networking technologies I think it’s very possible we’ll contribute even more to a victory next year.


* apparently a rare exception to “on the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog”

** Mike Stark’s Salon article Why progressives should keep organizing on from a week earlier goes into more detail on this

*** a trendy little chapeau, really

**** speaking of which: civil liberties are not a partisan issue!!!!! We can disagree with our candidate on an issue and still support him!!!!! etc.