You’ve heard it before. The digital age will change everything-including political activism. With the costs of communication at near zero, social change agents can mobilize people on a vast scale, upending old institutions and democratizing public policy. Hahrie Han’s careful qualitative study of two civic associations fosters some doubt in these assumptions. Advocacy groups making strategic choices about organizing and mobilizing would do well to heed what she’s learned. It has very real takeaways for organizations relying exclusively on list-building to generate a base of support as well as insights applicable to the widespread global protests in 2019 and 2020.
Han’s research begins by asking a slightly different and straightforward question: what makes civic associations more or less effective at recruiting and inspiring people to take action? To find out, she interviewed members of a dozen chapters in two anonymous nationwide civic associations. One focused on engaging doctors in health policy and the other on environmental conservation. She met with high- and low-performing chapters from each organization and chose locations from a range of communities to control for the impact of demographics and other variables.
Each of the chapters pursued some combination of three strategies to create social change. “Lone wolves” relied on relatively uncoordinated individuals with unique policy expertise and relationships to show up at hearings, comment on local regulations, and influence policymakers. “Mobilizers” sought out individuals already interested in an issue and offered opportunities to engage further. They behaved like marketers for a political product. “Organizers” also used these tactics, but throughout the process added another set of tools. While they might use similar communications (email and social media) to bring volunteers or potential volunteers to an event, the organizers also had an eye on how to move individuals to ever-higher levels of activism. Tactics might include hosting events designed to build a common identity. Organizers also gave volunteers increasing levels of responsibility for outcomes in advocacy campaigns and mentoring them to help them achieve their goals. Rather than simply taking volunteers as they were, organizers invested in volunteers to grow their capacity and transform their perspective. Han’s term for this—“transformational organizing”—refers in part to the change it brings about in the people involved.
Her core finding is that chapters that combine organizing and mobilizing tactics recruited more activists and mobilized more people than those using lone wolf or mobilization tactics alone. Cue the collective shrug from organizers trained in building power. In general, if you count yourself among this crowd you won’t be surprised by anything in this book. From a strategic resource allocation perspective, it may also seem glaringly obvious that if you spend time building skills among volunteers to recruit, train, and mobilize others, you’ll achieve greater mobilization than if you limit yourself to your current crop of activists.
However, the research has important implications. Data driven confirmation of our intuitions is worthwhile and unique in this case as far as I know. More importantly, and returning to the topic I started out with, this book presents a cautionary tale for those who think the digital age has changed everything. It has certainly changed a lot. The organizers whom Han observes in her study use email, social media, and other software to enhance their effectiveness. Nevertheless, the fundamental tools of the most effective groups, such as mentoring, coaching, and group identity building, require a lot of personal interaction. Technology can only do so much.
To my mind, it adds another data point to the experiences of the Bernie Sanders campaign organizers in 2016. The Sanders campaign’s distributed organizing program relied on a skeleton crew to recruit, train, and engage volunteers in late-primary states. While they used a variety of digital tools including a huge email list, social media, Slack, and a clunky digital phone-banking system, their most effective tactic turned out to be an in-person barnstorming event where they brought in online supporters and matched them up with team leaders to run phone-banking operations. Eventually volunteers ran these events on their own.
For issue-advocacy groups the takeaway is that there is no shortcut to building political power. Investing tens of thousands of dollars or more in acquiring followers online— whether through Facebook ads or a change.org petition—is not, on its own, the most effective way to change the world. Even if you do build a lengthy email list or social media following, you will have less impact than you might by instead combining your existing following with other tools. However, building an online following has a role to play, for example, online petitions are a proven recruitment device. Acquiring a large digital presence is nothing to sneeze at, as it is one signal to policymakers of your potential reach. But ultimately what matters is what you do with that following.
MoveOn.org’s history is instructive. The group started out with a viral petition asking Congress to move on from the Clinton impeachment trial. In addition to pioneering a series of digital organizing tactics, the they eventually came to hire an army of in-person organizers across the country to complement their enormous digital following. As I’m writing this, I’m increasingly curious how innovative groups with strong digital programs like Color of Change, the Sunrise Movement, or Indivisible fit in (or not?) to this analysis.
I should be careful not to overstate the implications of one study. Han notes that organizing work takes more up front time and resources to implement. For national groups with large digital followings, shifting to organizing from a pure mobilization model might be cost prohibitive even if it results in higher volunteer engagement. Further, while “lone wolf” individuals relying on policy expertise do not come off well in the book, many think tanks and advocacy organizations do rely on these tools to achieve change. I do concur with her that collective action will usually have more political influence than expertise alone. Han fairly focuses on what makes organizations seeking to build citizen power most effective.
She also includes a brief but fascinating discussion of the literature and implications for digital-driven social movements like the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street. These often leaderless mass mobilizations have only picked up the pace with the global protest wave of 2019 and 2020. It’s clear that digital tools have lowered the costs of mobilizing. To paraphrase Zeynep Tufekci, who has since written a book of her own on the topic, Han’s research helps explain why some of these movements appear to recede without achieving the policy gains one might expect from their size and energy.
Prior to the digital age, in order to achieve mass mobilization, you needed a civic association doing careful organizing work, often for years at a time. When the time was right, there were natural leaders and representatives of the movement to seek and enforce policy demands. The policy wins achieved by the civil rights movement resulted from years of strategic movement building on the part of groups like the NAACP and SNCC. On the other hand, Occupy Wall Street, while successfully raising awareness about inequality, failed to achieve significant policy change.
To be fair, the yellow vests movement in France and recent civil protests in Chile have triggered government action. However, like the Arab Spring, participants have focused on opposition to the regime or its policies rather than around a coherent policy agenda. Martin Gurri’s Revolt of the Public captures this dynamic well, as does his analysis of the 2019 protests. Mass movements driven by new digital technology have real political consequences, but mainly by pushing back or toppling the current regime and have lacked the civic infrastructure to advance a platform of commonly supported solutions.
Issue advocates and membership organizations have much to learn from Han’s work. Digital mass communication and networking tools should be seen as complements rather than substitutes for traditional organizing tools. Looking forward, as digital tools further democratize political participation and increase the speed of political action, traditional advocacy groups may initially appear obsolete in the face of leaderless movements. In fact, the capacity to develop civic leadership and drive policy change may be even more important to ensuring that popular concerns are adequately addressed. Han’s insight suggests an opportunity for issue-advocacy and organizing groups to complement and provide infrastructure to mass mobilizations, channeling the energy toward real reform.