Much ballyhoo has been made about the loosely coordinated mid-January effort to encourage citizens to contact Congress and voice opposition to two pieces of Internet-related legislation. The much-publicized darkening of major websites has been hailed as a wake-up call for Internet advocates. However, the strategies and tactics of those opposed to the Stop Internet Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA) actually just relied on some tried and true elements of advocacy which have existed for the last 50 years.
The Narrative. People are motivated to act by emotions, not reasoning. Arguments that touch an individual’s values are the building blocks of getting people involved in public policy. “Censorship” is a powerful word, especially to those in any way connected to the Internet industry. It is laden with images of government intrusion, restriction of freedoms, and Orwellian consequences. The specter of censorship was used effectively by anti-SOPA/PIPA advocates. Yet this is not new to homegrown advocacy. In 2006 many right-of-center groups and columnists bandied about the word “amnesty” in opposition to immigration legislation pending before the Senate. The lesson is, to induce action, it is always best to tether the reasoning to a broader story – a connection between the target audience’s belief system and the cause.
Accountability and a Clear “Ask.” You’d be surprised at the amount of money and effort invested in Washington to create targeted advocacy campaigns towards Congress with no clear and specific request to the legislator. Sometimes, vague statements such as “support a clean environment” and “get the government out of our business” are the product of coalitions which need to find broad, commonly agreed to themes. Unfortunately, the result is these advocacy organizations lose credibility with Congress when they’re not specific in what they want. (And, of course, Congress will never tell advocacy groups that fact because the groups are usually tied to constituents, and who wants to insult them.)
During the nomination consideration of then-Supreme Court nominee John Roberts, a nationally recognized group organized an email campaign to members of the Senate Judiciary Committee calling on the senators to “ask tough questions” of the nominee. Is that it? Was the group worried the senators were going to ask Roberts about his favorite movie? The anti-SOPA/PIPA efforts had a clear ask: don’t cosponsor or vote for these bills, and if you have cosponsored it, withdraw your support. One of the binding tenets of our democracy is those who are governed holding the governing class accountable. You can’t do that without a specific metric to measure accountability.
Time-Limited. The physics of good advocacy usually have a degree of concentrated pressure, focused on lawmakers for a short period of time (usually less than a month). This allows lawmakers and staff to easily measure the support or opposition because they can “see” the impact, either through phone tallies, “mail” reports, or people showing up at town hall meetings. This month’s Internet bill-related efforts concentrated their effort on a single day, the week before the Senate was scheduled to vote on a bill. Perfect. They also combined the time-limited focus with a neat gimmick (and I mean that in a positive sense). By closing down or altering their own websites they gave the mainstream media “news” – something that hasn’t happened before.I realize that a great deal of focus in the advocacy community and Congress is on the “innovations” in advocacy, whether it be social media, mobile apps, or crowd-sourcing efforts. Yet, none of those gadgets mean anything without tapping into the fundamentals of citizen engagement. It’s still all about: telling a good story, keeping government accountable, and focusing legislators for a very specific period of time.