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Up Front

The organized millions online

Editor’s note: In this post, the third in a series drawing from Fergus Hanson’s new book, “Internet Wars: The Struggle for Power in the 21st Century,” Hanson analyzes the growing trend of online petitioning influencing policymaking, but argues the caveat that the nature of online campaigning is not always conducive to good policy.

Last federal election, the Obama campaign spent nearly $1 billion to get 66 million voters out to support the president’s victory.

So as the 2016 election approaches, large lists of politically-minded individuals have special value. And it just so happens in the last five years some very large lists have emerged.

These lists are controlled by online citizen-aggregation sites. The largest, Change.org, now reports more than 100 million users, but others are also huge: Avaaz reports 42 million and Care2 32 million.

So far, the operators of these sites have not directed their members in the same way as some of their overseas counterparts.

Two of the largest U.S. organizations—Change and Care2—are for-profit B-corporations and sell access to their membership, often for a hefty fee. They rely almost exclusively on petitions. This is probably driven by commercial motivations to grow membership with a view to selling access to it. But petitions are limited in their ability to effect change, especially as politicians become desensitized to them.

In other parts of the world, the model has evolved to become much more overtly political. A good example is one of the first movers in the space, GetUp!, an Australian-based group. It uses crowd sourcing to fund its secretariat, raising over $5.7 million from tens of thousands of micro donations averaging $11.50 each. It uses these funds to run successful high court challenges and other publicity (and pressure) generating stunts. It stations members at polling booths during elections and uses its members’ shareholder rights to hijack corporate meetings.

This trend is one of the radical new ways the Internet has allowed the masses to aggregate their voice in order to exert influence on decision makers. Suddenly, people are able to do this on a regular basis, outside formal structures like trade unions and political parties.

It also provides great influence to the individuals leading the campaigning sites. They can exercise this by shaping which campaigns have most prominence on a site and allocating in-house resources to help the campaigns they like with editing of material, generating media, and behind the scenes lobbying.

There is a now a long list of examples where these organizations have exerted significant influence on corporations and politicians, but in many ways they are still undergoing significant evolution.

The shift to a broader repertoire than simple petitions and more hands-on political engagement seems likely.

There is also a potential evolution underway in their politics. Most campaigning sites are openly progressive in orientation, but this is changing. In late 2012, Change.org controversially shifted its policy to allow advertising from non-progressively aligned groups. Conservative groups have also started to mobilize online, a prominent example being the Heritage Foundation in the United States, which now has a significant online presence.

Author

Whatever their political leanings, the policy reality of this new force is messy.

The nature of online campaigning is not always conducive to good policy because the groups lack institutional policymaking expertise and often launch campaigns off the backs of crises, allowing little time to think through consequences.

Ironically, these people-power sites also face a question of legitimacy. Three hundred very vocal people with a clever campaign can sometimes drive change that the majority wouldn’t necessarily support. The nature of the Internet can also occasionally make it hard to distinguish between the views of local nationals and foreign citizens voicing their concerns from abroad. Finally, there is the question of the legitimacy of the heads of these organizations who can be unelected business people with out-sized influence.

This is not the only way the Internet is empowering citizens and disrupting global power dynamics. Internet Wars looks at three messy, but intriguing ways citizen power is reshaping the world.

Read the first part in the series, “Big issues facing the Internet: Economic espionage,” and the second, “Waging (cyber)war in peacetime.”

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