There is a natural tendency to experience a letdown after such an exhilarating event. We must not allow that to deter us from remaining vocal. How to do that in a way that really makes a difference is the subject of this blog.
Especially for relative newcomers to activism, it’s hard to discern what’s effective, what’s a relative waste of time, and what might even be counterproductive. With the widespread attacks on our values and goals coming from the new administration, we feel pulled in many different directions, egged on by frantic calls to do something right now (and struggling to figure out which might be “fake news”).
Having worked in social change since childhood in the late 1960s, mentored by people who were active long before I was born, I’ve learned and seen for myself what works and what often does not. I’ve been in the leadership of campaigns that stopped two proposed nuclear power plants (including one already under construction), established recycling programs when that was still rare, saved a city mini-park from being turned into a fast-food restaurant, gotten green-energy legislation passed, and helped elect candidates who appeared to be the longest of long-shots. In this article, I’d like to share some pointers that I hope will help you figure out where to most usefully put your energies in the days, weeks, months, and years ahead.
In this installment, I’m focusing on separating legitimate actions from scams and on influencing legislators. I’ll address other action strategies in subsequent posts.
Over the last several decades of my social-change work, the advice from legislative staff members and lobbyists hasn’t changed much. Here are strategies for influencing elected officials, starting with the most effective — but see the important caveat* following this list):
- Personal visits to a legislator’s office; speaking out at town hall or other public event held or attended by the legislator (most effective)
- Letters to the Editor and opinion pieces written by local folks in newspapers and online news sources
- Phone calls to the legislator’s office (slight bias toward the district office, versus Washington)*
- Hand-written letters and calls mailed to the legislator’s office, especially with your personal story of how the matter affects you or your loved ones; typed letters are a little less impactful*
- Personalized e-mails using the legislator’s Contact Web page, especially with your personal story (much less effective than letters and calls, though)*
- Impersonal e-mails and online petitions simply copying the arguments drafted by the organization promoting the issue (least effective, although staff members often do report numbers pro and con to the elected official)*
Do you see a pattern here? The more effort it takes to initiate the communication, the more impact it has. If you use a method that takes more work, the recipient of the communication will consider you more dedicated to the issue.
*Important caveat: Legislators almost always ignore communications from outside of the districts or states they represent. That includes the Speaker of the House and the Majority Leader of the Senate. Staff members try to determine whether the person contacting them is really a constituent, and if not, they don’t keep track of the calls. So, whenever you see a request to contact Paul Ryan (unless you’re a Wisconsinite) or Mitch McConnell (unless you’re a Kentuckian), or any other member of Congress who doesn’t represent your home, the best thing to do is contact a friend who does live in that official’s turf and ask your friend to make the contact. Don’t waste your time expressing yourself to people who aren’t listening. (There are rare exceptions — rare enough that you might as well make this a rule.)
But what if my Senator/Rep is one of the “good ones”? As the authors of the Indivisible Guide note, it is helpful to support your elected officials who are doing good. But if you, like me, feel a little ironically disempowered by having elected officials to whom you’re always saying “thanks again,” I have an action step for you at the end of this message.
Many times each day, I’m seeing in my Facebook feed, e-mail in-box, and text-messaging app a series of urgent calls to action. Many of these (though perhaps not all) are well-intentioned, but quite a few contain tell-tale signs that their strategies are ineffective or even harmful. Frantic admonitions to make calls or send e-mails and then “COPY AND PASTE THIS” nearly always contain incorrect information and bad strategy. (There’s a reason they’re circulated in a way that makes their origins obscure.) In a few cases, they may even be planted by the right wing to keep us busy spinning our wheels, or to collect our identities for later harassment.
Here are some “action alerts” to avoid: →
1. Text this number or fill in this online form to show that you were at the Women’s March (or other event)
I saw several of these posted online in the hours after the marches, and I recommend approaching these with great caution: The ones I saw were posted on the Women’s March Facebook pages but did not come from the accounts of the event organizers. They may have been others trying to take advantage of the marches to build their own lists, or even right-wing causes seeking to identify participants for later harassment. (Before the marches, warnings circulated that exactly this kind of trolling was anticipated from the so-called Alt-Right, i.e., white supremacists.) I could not find any of these referenced on the official Web sites of the Women’s March.
March organizers wouldn’t use this kind of method to “count” attendance — it would be ridiculously inaccurate. Crowds are estimated using on-the-ground observation and photography.
At the same time, many Web sites and online groups are popping up from legitimate activists hoping to build the progressive movement, many of whom we have never heard of before. (They may be new to activism themselves.) So, we need some strategies to separate the real from the phony.
If you are asked to identify yourself by anyone online (or in person), make sure you know who is collecting your information. Go to the known Web site of the organizers and look for their form to fill out, or conduct some Web searching online to find out who they are. On Google or another search engine, search for the organization name and see what you find besides the group’s own postings and sites.
In particular, if they use deceptive tactics — such as people who are not the organizers of the Women’s March asking for your information, saying “the organizers of the Women’s March need an accurate count” — be very skeptical.
It may make sense to create a “burner” e-mail address — that is, a new e-mail address that you use only for the purpose of giving your information to groups you think are legitimate but aren’t sure. Give them that address and, if asked for other data, give phony information until you get enough communication from them or additional information to convince you they are legitimate.
Bottom line: Be judicious in giving out your identifying information; know that there are bad guys out there masquerading as good guys so they can try to break our movement. Future posts will cover how to further protect your data and communications.
2. Copy and paste this post! Share this e-mail! Like and share this photo! Now!
In general, information and action alerts that are shared person-to-person through copying and pasting Facebook posts, forwarding e-mails, or other “chain” communications should be viewed with deep suspicion. In my experience, it is rare that these are credible or accurate, unless they originate from a known good source (and you can confirm that they do). There’s a reason these are shared via copy-and-paste: The original sources are difficult to trace, and they piggyback off of your trust in your friends instead of showing themselves.
My practice is to treat “pass this along” as a big red flag that a meme/post/e-mail is probably fake. Before sharing or acting upon it, I always verify with legitimate sources. A one-minute search on the topic at news.google.com is often all I need: If it isn’t reported by a source I know and trust, and/or if it does appear on one of the many exaggerating or fake news sites, it is probably false. (Add the word “hoax” at the end of your search topic to find whether it has been reported as such.)
You might want to stop reading this article for a few minutes so you can peruse these lists of fake news sites (I’ll wait):
These lists aren’t exhaustive, but familiarizing yourself with the names they contain is a good start. There are some common patterns among fake-site names. For example, many fake-news sites have names similar to those of legitimate sites (politico.com is legitimate, while politicususa.com exaggerates; abcnews.com or abcnews.go.com is real, but abcnews.com.co is garbage, still bearing a headline as I write saying there were plans to re-do the November election). Others have names that scream “exaggeration” (infowars.com, Firebrand Left, newsmutiny.com). Watch for names that end in “lo.com” (newslo.com and a whole raft of others), or that have unusual suffixes after the final dot (abcnews.com.co).
Does it make you go “wow”? If so, it might be fake. If it makes you go “wow” and it’s not showing up in any mainstream news sources, it probably is fake. Did President Obama ban the National Anthem at all sporting events — without any reputable news source reporting it, nor Fox News? Of course not (and he wouldn’t have the power anyway).
Photos, too: These can be doctored, or misidentified. During the election season, a photo showing a gigantic crowd was circulated as an image of a Bernie Sanders rally that was being “suppressed” by the mainstream media. Looking closely, I noticed that the signage at the event was in Cyrillic (the Russian alphabet). I checked the photo in Google Images, and it turns out it was a rock concert in Eastern Europe. If an image shows something that appears to be amazing, save a screen shot of it (just the image, not the surroundings), visit images.google.com, click the camera icon in the search box, and upload the image you saved. Google will try to find similar images.
More about detecting fake news is in an article by c|net (a reliable source).
3. Online Petitions
Keep in mind, also, that some petitions may appear to be sanctioned by legitimate organizations, but are not. For example, MoveOn.org and Change.org have petition sites that allow anyone to start a petition. That’s also true at Whitehouse.gov (so far, the new administration has kept this feature), but petitions garnering 100,000 signatures or more say they’ll get a response from the administration. (As I write, more than 350,000 have signed demanding release of Mr. T.’s tax returns.)
We’ll have specific issue actions in upcoming posts. Today, we’re recommending some preparatory actions.
Be ready to contact your Senators and Representative at a moment’s notice. Especially now, the new administration and the Republican leadership in Washington are rushing to push things through quickly. Enter your address on this lookup page (provided by the long-time liberal advocacy group Common Cause) to find your Representative and Senators. Make a list with their phone numbers, and keep it handy. (I have friends who are making wallet cards to carry with them at all times.)
If, like me, you are blessed with excellent representation in Washington, it’s still valuable to have this information. You can encourage them to stay strong; and you might find on some issues they need to be pushed. For example, here in the East Bay of northern California, I’m represented by Barbara Lee in the House, who is almost always great; Kamala Harris, who is new but quite progressive; and Dianne Feinstein, who, frankly, is a mixed bag, particularly on the privacy-versus-security spectrum, where she’s been way too supportive of ever-expanding government snooping. I’ll be calling her to urge her to think twice about leaving that much power in the hands of the current administration.
But there is one more important thing to do: Start gathering lists of your friends and relatives who live in districts and states represented by Republicans. On the Common Cause lookup page, you can enter just a ZIP code and find your friends’ Senators, and usually their Representatives, too. (Some ZIP codes are split between Congressional districts.) On Facebook, you can enter in the search box, “my friends who live in Utah” (or any state), and see any Facebook friends you have in that state. In a future post I will write about a coordinated system by which progressives in blue districts and states are reaching out to progressive voters in red districts/states; you’ll want your list for that.
Take Care of Yourself
In the coming days and weeks, there will be an onslaught of disturbing, insane headlines. Just following the daily news can be frightening, demoralizing, disempowering. It’s okay to take frequent breaks from the news (or the Facebook feed or the e-mail flow). I keep an audiobook on my smartphone for this purpose — I listen to when going to sleep if the worrying begins and my mind starts to spin out. (Right now I’m into Tina Fey’s hilarious, humane, beautifully read Bossypants, which I borrowed free from the downloadable book collection of my local library.) When you do catch up on the news, remember that there is a long road between the administration’s goals and their accomplishment — and blockading that road are millions of your fellow Americans. This blog is intended as a tool to help us all stand our ground on that road. We will lose some battles, but in the larger picture, if we don’t lose heart and don’t back down, we shall not be moved.
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