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You Can't A/B Test Your Response to Syria

BY Micah L. Sifry | Wednesday, September 4 2013

Senate hearing Sept 3, 2013. Department of Defense Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Daniel Hinton.

While Congress wrestles with President Obama's unexpected request for formal legal authorization before he orders airstrikes on Syria, it's been fascinating to watch the country's big online advocacy groups try to figure out their own position on the crisis. Should the US bomb Syria in order to punish Bashar Assad for using chemical weapons on his own people, risking a wider American involvement in the conflict and potentially further destabilizing the region? Or should the US stay out of that kind of direct involvement, even if that risks emboldening Assad and could lead to more frequent uses of chemical weapons in the future?

These are just some of the hard questions at stake. And what makes any decision even harder is the fast-moving and relatively unique nature of these events. Even tougher for big e-groups like, Democracy for America, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which collectively claim about ten million list members, the Syria crisis isn't an issue that these groups were formed to address. Nor is there an obvious consensus "progressive" position to promote, beyond the one these groups were all touting in the last few weeks (along with many others, including some conservative organizations), which was the need to bring the question before Congress. Some people are strong anti-interventionists, wary of green-lighting another American incursion in the Middle East. Others worry about genocide, and don't want to look the other way when mass killings of civilians take place.

Thus while the e-groups are best equipped to move quickly in response to breaking events compared to their older forbears, Syria isn't an issue like, say, the crackdown on labor rights in Wisconsin, or the Trayvon Martin killing, or the Texas abortion rights fight, where the progressive response was fairly clear and the main thing the managers of these groups had to do was fine-tune their calls to action.

To put it in a sentence, the answer to Syria can't be A/B tested. But unfortunately for online activists, that's the only really good tool in their toolbox. And now, to mangle metaphors, they're playing a weaker hand than they might because of how that tool shapes their work. That is, they're either admitting their "membership" is divided or confused, or they're papering over those issues with snap surveys.

Take this email a few days ago from Charles Chamberlain, the executive director of Democracy for America, the online activist continuation of the 2004 Howard Dean campaign, which claims more than one million members:

Subject: What you can do about Syria

I don't need to tell you that the situation in Syria is serious -- President Obama's address today made it clear that military action could come any day now. How we handle this as a community is important. Over the last week, I've been hearing opinions, thoughts and ideas from DFA members nationwide. Your feedback has been helpful and informative. Thank you. 

Democracy for America is member driven. We respond to your passions. We hear your ideas. We work to understand your goals. And then, as a team, working with you, we provide the leadership to direct our activism as a community into an effective unified voice. But sometimes it's not that simple. This is one of those times. 

The email then offered a brief sampling of opinions expressed by DFA members--each of them identified solely by their first name, last initial and state. It continued:

Thoughts are still coming in, but after our team reviewed responses from over 40,000 DFA members -- including you -- only one thing was clear. We are not united as a community. And if we tried to call for one united action in response, we'd be dividing our members -- instead of uniting behind them. 
So we're going to offer something different than we normally do. Instead of advocating one course of action over another, I want to provide you with the resources to choose your own action based off of the three most common themes repeated throughout the responses." [emphasis in the original]

The email then suggested DFA members call Congress to oppose military force, pointed them to donation pages for humanitarian relief organizations, or prompted them to "put your own idea for action in the hands of our members" by creating a petition on DFA's member-generated petition page.

It's really striking that a decade into the emergence of online political organizing, there is still no commonly accepted and easy-to-use tool that would enable groups to conduct large-scale debate and deliberation aimed at producing a common pro-active policy on anything--despite the fact that collectively these groups have millions of email addresses and, at least in theory, the resources to put towards the problem. (It's not for nothing, after all, that the Internet is much better at saying "stop" than it is at saying "go.") But that assumes that the folks who manage these groups even see this gap as a problem.

Just a few hours ago, I got an email from Adam Green, the co-founder of the PCCC, which claims more than 950,000 members, entitled "What progressives think about Syria." In it he reports that a survey of PCCC members makes clear that they are "anything but undecided" about Syria. "After over 57,000 responses, progressives oppose bombing Syria by 73% to 18%. That is HUGE."

Green's email adds, "Why do folks feel that way? 81% believe that an initially-limited bombing campaign would lead to deeper involvement. And 80% say, regardless of what our goal is, narrow bombings will NOT achieve it." The email includes a link to a memo the group is circulating to members of Congress titled "Your base opposes Syria military action." Interestingly, the email also gives PCCC list members the option of choosing not to continue getting email on Syria, while promising to continue fighting on the group's other longstanding priorities.

These numbers seem impressive, but how credible are they? If such large majorities of progressives were fearful of military action, wouldn't there be more evidence, such as street demonstrations, or social media sharing, indicating a groundswell of opposition? Or, maybe there is a problem with the survey that produced these numbers?

A glance at the PCCC's Syria survey page is suggestive. The first thing to note is that it's all text. There's no picture that might trigger any response in the reader. Fair enough, but is that how public opinion forms these days? More to the point, the survey itself avoids any discussion of President Obama's stated goals for striking Syria: to strengthen the "international norm" against using chemical weapons, and to deter others from doing so in the future. Given that the President, and his representatives, are flooding the information environment with that message, shouldn't the PCCC survey have included some mention of their arguments?

These qualifiers won't stop the PCCC's managers from doing their utmost to try to convince members of Congress that the broad progressive "base" is against intervention, nor should they. But what I'm trying to suggest is the email engagement channel, which is the only one these groups have, tends to produce thin engagement results. The fact that close to 900,000 of the PCCC's claimed membership didn't reply to the PCCC's Syria poll ought to give everyone pause. It could mean that actually, the vast majority of self-identified progressives on the PCCC's list don't know what to think or do about Syria. The same could be said of DFA, which only cited responses from 40,000 people out of its one million member list.

Such low response rates ought to be seen as a challenge and an opportunity to develop some deeper ways of engaging those folks that would, at minimum, explain why they're not replying. But to raise these questions is to get in the way of Taking Action Now.

MoveOn, the grand-dame of online e-organizing, with more than 8 million people on its list, has taken a similar path. Four days ago, the group sent out an email titled "Syria" that pushed its recipients to take three steps: educate themselves by watching a video teach-in, check out the variety of petitions being posted by MoveOn members on their site, or to donate to humanitarian relief groups. Then, yesterday, they sent a simple one-question survey to their members: "Should MoveOn support or oppose the congressional authorization to use military force in Syria?"

Earlier this afternoon, on the heels of Adam Green's PCCC email, came the answer: "The results are in, and they are unequivocal: 73% said MoveOn should oppose the congressional Authorization to Use Military Force in Syria." The email from Anna Galland, MoveOn's executive director, went on to cite some representative comments from MoveOn members (again, just identified by first name, initial and home town), followed by a push to get people to call their Members of Congress.

Galland told me that 109,000 people responded to the survey in the 20 hours that it was open, which is roughly 1.3% of the group's membership.

Galland's email included some definitive language about MoveOn's identify and mission:

In the early 2000s, MoveOn members helped lead the charge in opposing the misguided U.S. war on Iraq. Now, just over a decade later, the nation again finds itself positioned to enter a war half-way around the world with a country posing no direct threat to our safety or security and with unknowable consequences for years to come. 

President Obama is proposing a military strike that raises the specter of another Iraq War—and we're still dealing with the costs of that war today. It's critical that every one of MoveOn's 8 million members pick up their phones today to let Congress know plain and simple: We oppose a military intervention in Syria. 

Notably, Galland's language goes way beyond anything her email survey asked her members to ratify. It could be that most, or all, MoveOn members, share this world-view. But nothing in the group's engagement of its members around Syria demonstrates that people actually have come to this settled opinion.

The real problem with "clicktivism" isn't, as my well-first-named colleague Micah White has argued, that it creates a false sense of efficacy on the part of people who click to sign petitions and thus waters down activist energy. it's that it allows the managers of big email lists to think that they are really engaging with a "base" when actually all they are doing is aggregating the atomized voices of individuals.

Real power isn't just in being able to flood Congress with emails and phone calls--it's in knitting together networks of people who know each other, understand each other's thinking, and have come to consensus on how they see the world and how they want to act in it. The managers of groups like MoveOn, DFA and the PCCC have those networks with each other personally, and to some extent with some super-volunteers on their lists, but for the most part their so-called members don't even know they are members of anything.

To be fair, it isn't as if older advocacy organizations that claim to speak on behalf of their memberships are better on these terms. As Dave Karpf, professor at George Washington University (and occasional techPresident guest contributor) noted to me in an email, "One big lesson here is that the new groups are meaningfully deliberative in a way that the old groups aren't. I've noticed blast messages…from 38Degrees, Democracy for America, and MoveOn so far. All adopt a tone of 'this is complicated, we're thinking hard about it, and we'd really like to hear from you.' I've seen nothing from legacy groups. Legacy groups simply aren't wired to ask."

He adds, "I think that's fascinating, because it points out *calibration*. Netroots orgs don't ask their members for active direction on every issue. That would be tedious and slow. But they ask their members on the tough ones."

But Karpf, who argues in his valuable book The MoveOn Effect that what these groups are generally engaged in is collecting "passive democratic feedback" in order to speak effectively on behalf of online constituents, agrees that this isn't enough.

"On the tough issues, we should craft better deliberative tools than a blast email! I think the big dynamic is that passive democratic feedback should blend into active democratic feedback in times like this. I'm imagining a sliding scale, with different technologies arrayed from passive to active. On one end you have A/B testing -- so passive that the members don't even realize the trace opinion data is being gathered. On the other end is a face-to-face deliberative session (online or offline), tied to a binding vote. In between you'd have online membership surveys, yougov online polls, blog comment threads, twitter hashtagged conversations, network backchannel email threads, Moveon's 'member forum,' and the Liquid Democracy platform."

"My perspective is that, 10 years in, this is the best we ARE doing, and it's an improvement over the status quo alternative," he concludes.

I disagree. Email may be great for petitions and fundraising around urgent issues where a lot of people agree about something, but the structure of that model is a few people (or one person) initiate, and a lot of people join if the petition matches their interest. But no one would ever try to use email for a discussion about what to think or do about a complex issue. So, online organizers tend not to try to involve lots of people in such discussions, and instead try for a proxy effect--a small group standing in for a larger group. The reality is that this isn't really creating much power, other than for the people who manage these lists.

Worse yet, what these kinds of tools and campaigns produce is a weak "we"--the members of MoveOn, DFA or the PCCC in this case haven't really talked with each other and heard the arguments that might lead them to change their minds; or even more useful, understood where the optimal consensus of a large group might be. Instead, the leaders of these groups want to argue that when a majority of a minority of their members take a position, that's a good proxy for everyone. Or as Green's email put it, for "the base."