Beneath the Glitz of Digital Activism

Blog Post
Sept. 27, 2013

Guest blog post from Dr. Becky Lentz, Assistant Professor of Communication in the Department of Art History and Communication Studies at McGill University.

On January 18, 2012, Internet companies and users alike pooled their efforts in a 24-hour online demonstration to make a statement. Wikipedia went dark for the day. Google blacked out its logo. And Facebook continued to be saturated with an image reading, “NOTICE: This image has been found in violation of H.R. 3261, S.O.P.A. and has been removed.” As a result, over 200,000 citizens called their representatives to voice their opposition.  

This tsunami of online activism targeted the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act (PROTECT IP Act or PIPA) that were pending before Congress. The digital demonstration appeared to demolish support for these bills and lionize the image of online advocacy.

Unfortunately, most policy debates in the nation’s capital hover significantly below the radar, rarely garnering the sort of large-scale, organized public response of the SOPA/PIPA movement. That brand of digital activism is not easily replicable. Few bills before Congress can plausibly be described as threatening essential services – like the internet – and thereby elicit such an explosive response. They are often perceived as simply too boring.

So should advocacy groups try to make every issue into SOPA/PIPA, or is there an additional path to advocacy success?

Results from a survey of former Esther Peterson fellows at Consumers Union (CU) [1] may give new hope to those who believe that effective advocacy also requires the old-fashioned tools of persuasion in instances where online advocacy can't replicate SOPA/PIPA’s success. From 1998 and each year after, CU trained a fellow in a sink-or-swim-like experience aimed at fostering strong communication and advocacy skills so each could fully grasp the complexities of the policy advocacy process. CU's year-long training focuses on hands-on experience.  Fellows are encouraged to implement what they were learning with tasks like drafting comments for regulatory proceedings or public testimony, writing policy briefs and reports, public speaking, making press calls, and participating in meetings and visits to Capitol Hill and regulatory agencies like the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

A defining element of the CU fellowship experience is its apprenticeship model. By working alongside veterans in the consumer advocacy field, fellows are able to strengthen their research, critical thinking, organizational, and networking capabilities while simultaneously learning to cultivate meaningful relationships with key actors in Washington, DC. Fellows gain practical know-how about leveraging media, cultivating relationships, and mobilizing issue-specific knowledge to revitalize policy conversations. The well-rounded nature of the program enabled fellows to pursue rewarding careers ranging from law and government to public interest lobbying.

What was reported as essential to effective public interest-oriented advocacy work is being able to understand a policymaker's or her staff's needs, reservations, and motivations for supporting something; to break down complex technical issues into accessible talking points; to cultivate relationships with key people in Washington, DC; to think strategically, creatively, and with foresight; to use media preemptively and effectively; and to present oneself as a credible resource.

While digital activism will continue to grow in importance for galvanizing public engagement in policy issues, investment in internship, fellowship, and apprenticeship programs is essential for sustaining policy advocacy in the public interest. The glitz of the former should not eclipse attention to enduring support for the latter.

[1] Results are part of a larger McGill University study (p. 3) on experiential learning programs in communication law and policy.

Becky Lentz is an assistant professor at McGill University and former Program Officer for Media and Technology Policy at the Ford Foundation between 2001 and 2007. She specializes in comparative research on capacity building for effective policy advocacy.