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IN POLAND, A CITIZENS’ MOVEMENT ACTS AS WATCHDOG OF THE RULING PARTY

IN POLAND, A CITIZENS’ MOVEMENT ACTS AS WATCHDOG OF THE RULING PARTY

People are building a nonpartisan movement in Poland to counter the consolidation of political power by a single party.

“The poster child for European integration seems more like a moody teenager.”

This sentence, from last week’s issue of The Economist, refers to Poland, which was under the Communist Regime until 1989 and only joined the European Union in 2004.

In the past six months, the country went through a significant power shift that saw the populist Law and Justice party take control of the Polish political scene: last May, their candidate Andrzej Duda, a lawyer and former MEP, was elected President. Just a few months later, in October, the party won the absolute majority in the Parliamentary elections, a first for the 26-year old democracy.

But in less than a month, the new government has prompted many people to take to the streets to protest the party’s first, very controversial steps towards controlling the judicial power.

“Poland’s ruling party misunderstood its democratic mandate” is the message spread by the We Are Watching You coalition (in Polish: Patrzymy na Was), an informal, nonpartisan group of citizens, many of whom are active in non-governmental organizations, including Panoptykon Foundation’s Katarzyna Szymielewicz and Jakub Górnicki, of Fundacja ePaństwo, a partner of Personal Democracy Media and the organizer of the Personal Democracy Forum PL-CEE.

The group has been leading protests in the capital, Warsaw, as well as in other cities, calling for democratic standards, human rights, and the rule of law in Poland: the government’s actions, they claim, are seriously endangering the separation of powers in the country.

CHECKS AND BALANCES

The political clash started when the new parliament voted in five new judges of the Polish Constitutional Court (the highest judicial authority of the country) taking advantage of a legal conundrum.

But the critical point was reached when, as reported by Associated Press, President Duda “quickly swore in four of them in the middle of the night before the court itself could rule on the validity of the earlier appointments by the previous government.”

The controversial road that the Law and Justice party (in Polish: Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, abbreviated in PiS) is taking, had been paved by the previous government, led by the more moderate Civic Platform party, that had elected both the previous President and Prime Minister.

At Politico Europe, law professor Maciej Kisilowski explains:

Because of scheduled retirements, as many as five slots on the court—one-third of the total makeup of 15—opened around election time. Three judges retired in early November, a few days before the new parliament convened, but after the election day. The remaining two will step down in early December.
In an aggressively partisan way, Civic Platform passed a law allowing the outgoing parliament to choose all five judges. Last Thursday, the Constitutional Court decided the law was unconstitutional insofar as it permitted the election of two “December” judges. The other three judges, however, were chosen properly and, in early November, should have started their term in office.

On December 3rd, the Constitutional Court ruled that three of those earlier appointments were valid, but two were not.

WHO’RE YOU GONNA CALL? A SUPERCITIZEN!

At the moment, the political opposition to the Law and Justice party is also protesting in streets and squares. We Are Watching You, though, is not built on political partisanship, but rather on civic action, Górnicki tells Civicist.

Jakub Górnicki is a journalist, open data advocate, and longtime civic activist at Fundacja ePaństwo. We spoke via Skype on Thursday morning, before a meeting of the We Are Watching You coalition.

“We are not against this government,” he says, “but against the standards it’s setting.”

Currently, the citizens’ coalition is choosing to organize and disseminate information through social media and not to have leaders.

This appears to be both a strategy and a necessity: given the deeply polarized public debate, which is reflected in the mainstream media, not putting anyone as the face and voice of the protest will make it harder for the government-supporting media to attack people in the coalition and undermine their stances, Górnicki explains.

Instead, they have created the figure of the “SuperCitizen” (in Polish: SuperObywatel) as a voice to share information while emphasizing the civic aspect of their protest.

Who is the SuperCitizen? Here’s how he/she is described on the coalition website:

The SuperCitizen […] draws its power from the Constitution and from human rights. […] She knows what rights are and is not afraid to use them. She avoids political disputes, because she knows that it divides rather than unite, it breaks things, instead than repairing them. For her, the most important things are standards and she expect them to be implemented by all officiating authority or those who are in opposition.

In the video of one of the protests, people shout “Constitution!” and “Democracy!” and wave signs that mean “freedom of expression” and freedom of information.”

The voiceover says “Citizens have to exercise their rights.”

Many members of the coalition, though speaking in a personal capacity, are active in non-governmental organizations and have a long record of defending human rights: therefore, Górnicki explains, they are used to scrutinizing the actions of every government, criticizing if necessary, and always try to create a dialogue with them.

“But the president broke the law and now it seems impossible to talk with the government,” he adds.

The active citizens that form the coalition are also worried about the new course of the ruling party for soon-to-come reforms. In their public statement, they write:

…it only seems to be the beginning of a total makeover of various areas of public and private life. PiS has announced immediate adoption of the new anti-terrorist law. Another change expected within a month will affect public media, focusing their role on promoting national values. PiS is also planning major changes in Poland’s social and educational policy, including rolling back school reform as well as introducing financial benefits for parents with two children or more, the latter involving collection of sensitive data in a central database of all beneficiaries.

It is not clear what’s next.

Currently, a petition on Change.org has about 2,000 signatures—but this might not mean much: even if citizens were able to gather signatures for a referendum on these issues (the law in Poland requires one million signatures from a population of 38.5 million), such referendum would still have to be approved by the Parliament to happen”—something that does not seem likely to happen, given the absolute majority that the Law and Justice party holds.

On Thursday night, when I asked the activists if there were any expected developments or actions set for the weekend, one of them half-jokingly replied: “With the extremely dynamic situation we have here in Poland you never know what’s gonna happen in next few hours.”

On Friday morning, Civicist was informed that the government is refusing to print the Constitutional Court ruling in the official gazette, therefore confirming that it will not acknowledge as legal the decision of the highest court in the country.

The center-left leaning newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza reports:

“Yesterday the President of the Constitutional Court President Andrew Rzepliński confirmed to us that Minister Kemp [Beata Kemp is the Justice Minister, elected with the Law and Justice party] sent him a letter in which it informs that the publication of the judgment in the Official Gazette is paused because it was issued by improperly constituted court and is therefore invalid.”

As the only option seems to be taking the protest to the streets again, Górnicki makes clear that We Are Watching You will keep being a strictly civic force, independent from media and political parties: “It’s better for us to build a movement,” he concludes.

Categories
movements poland potects

In Poland, a Citizens’ Movement Acts as Watchdog of the Ruling Party

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Civic Engagement Direct Action movements

FERGUSON CODING WORKSHOP TEACHES TECH, ACTIVISM, AND COMMUNITY

FERGUSON CODING WORKSHOP TEACHES TECH, ACTIVISM, AND COMMUNITY

“We’re creating tech-savvy, conscious leaders, who so happen to be radical black and brown youth.” —Abby Bobé

  • Twitter. Facebook. SEO. The so-called digital divide. Everything covered during the six-week, 100-hour Roy Clay Sr. Workshop is an opportunity for political discussion. Run by the St. Louis-area activist collective Hands Up United, the workshop teaches area residents between the ages 16 and 30 how to code, and they put their new skills to use by building websites for black-owned area businesses and nonprofits.

    There are plenty of programs that have set their sights on diversifying the technology industry—Girls Who Code, Black Girls Code, Telegraph Academy—but the Tech Impact initiative is arguably even more ambitious. Alongside instruction on HTML and JavaScript, participants in the Roy Clay Sr. workshop—named for a Ferguson-area man who became a prominent black entrepreneur and engineer in Silicon Valley—receive a political education.

    “We’re creating tech-savvy, conscious leaders, who so happen to be radical black and brown youth,” Idalin “Abby” Bobé, a volunteer with the initiative, tells Civicist.

    Tara Thompson, a director at Hands Up United and point person on the Tech Impact initiative, concurs. “Changing the ratio is obviously important,” she tells Civicist, referring to programs that focus on diversifying the tech industry, “but if you’re changing the ratio solely to change the numbers and not to to have a greater impact, I wonder how effective that is.”

    The workshop meets three times a week: from 5pm – 9pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and on Saturdays from 10am – 6pm. But Bobé says that sometimes participants will hang around for a couple extra hours on Saturdays. Instruction is provided by mentors, mostly from the technology sector in St. Louis, who donate their time and energy to the program.

    Hands Up United was inspired to start this program last year during Ferguson October, when local activists called for a boycott of major corporations in the area. Unfortunately, it quickly became apparent that many St. Louis area residents were unaware of locally-owned alternatives in their community because they had no web presence. A problem with a relatively simple solution had presented itself, and Hands Up United created a program to tackle it.

    The workshop empowers students with new knowledge and skills, and it helps support local businesses.

    “Lastly and perhaps most importantly, it’s about building community,” says Thompson. “I impress on them every day that there is no honor in being the best coder in this class if there is someone who is struggling.”

    Participants are expected to stay connected after graduation. They need to keep in touch with the businesses they helped, in case the owners have problems with the website. And, according to Thompson, at least three students from the first cohort have come back to help mentor the second.

    At graduation, participants receive a $500 stipend and a laptop valued at $700. (Thompson says that of the 12 participants preparing to graduate on Sunday, only two have access to a personal computer outside of class.) The program also feeds the students every day they hold workshop, a not-insignificant expense.

    Thompson says the biggest hurdle is always money. The first workshop, held in February, was crowdfunded last November. Hands Up United launched another crowdfunding campaign last week to raise enough money to cover stipends and laptops this Sunday. ThoughtWorks, the consulting firm (and Abby Bobé’s employer), will match the funds up to $15,000.

    “We have a lot of work to do,” Thompson says towards the end of the interview. “I mean society as a whole…if you care at all about these issues and really just as a human I encourage you to get engaged.”

    She points out that protest is not all standing in the street, facing off with the police. “There’s a way for everyone to plug in if you care about other humans.”

    Read next: How Black Girls Code plans to teach one million black girls to code by 2040.

Categories
Direct Action movements organizing

FLAGGED DOWN AND RISING UP

FLAGGED DOWN AND RISING UP

After more than a decade of life in the Networked Age, the long-standing imbalance in American public life around race and gender is being reset.

In just three weeks, the call to take the Confederate flag down from the grounds of South Carolina’s capital went from a hashtag and an e-petition to conclusive legislative action. Last week’s vote by the state legislature was the result of many converging forces and trends: the rise of a new generation of Southern elected officials more attuned to the needs of global commerce than local tradition; the increasing sensitivity of many American corporate leaders to social issues; the frequently demonstrated capacity of modern social justice movements to attack and damage corporate brands using digitally-powered campaigns; and the emergence of a much more robust, youth-driven and leaderful civil rights movement powered by networked media.

Beneath the surface, a big shift is underway. Voices long ignored and issues long marginalized are forcing their way into the larger mainstream, changing the very meaning of what is mainstream in the process. And this isn’t because the number of police killings of blacks has suddenly increased, or the number of state-sanctioned Confederate memorials suddenly jumped, producing more protest. The wounds of white supremacy in America remain as hurtful and unhealed as before today. But after more than a decade of life in the Networked Age, where open and connected media is almost ubiquitous, the long-standing imbalance in American public life around race and gender is inexorably being reset.

An almost hydraulic force is at work. In the same way that the underground water table punches through the earth’s surface wherever the ground gets more permeable, the undercurrents of America’s less powerful classes are finding their release through the new open media system fostered by the internet, even as they remain less visible on legacy media and in corporate suites. As Dante Barry, the co-founder and executive director of Million Hoodies for Justice said at Personal Democracy Forum a month ago, “The open internet puts the pop in popular uprising. Popular uprisings require a platform that allow the many to speak to the many, all at once…the potential of the internet is in decentralizing who can drive governance in this country.”

Online, we can see the surge. In 2012, the membership of Color of Change, the leading online organizing group focused on racial justice, grew by 4.8 percent; in 2013 it grew by 3.8 percent. In 2014, it grew a whopping 38 percent. Now, says its executive director Rashad Robinson, Color of Change has 1.3 million members, and not only are they more actively engaged than in the past, they are also giving more.

MoveOn.org, which has a much bigger and whiter membership base of around 8 million, reports that the two fastest growing petitions in its history, in terms of how quickly they hit half a million signatures, were their recent one responding to the Charleston massacre with a call to take down the Confederate flag across the state, and an earlier one from the NAACP that it elevated after the George Zimmerman verdict in the Trayvon Martin killing. Close to one-third of the people who signed the post-Charleston petition were new to MoveOn.

Says Anna Galland, MoveOn’s executive director, “It feels like the last two years is really one long civil rights moment—with Trayvon as the launch point. If I look at the combination of the Zimmerman petition and this (ongoing) moment around the confederate flag, we’ve added something like hundreds of thousands of new members around our work on civil rights.”

She adds, “Clearly our petition was building on years of organizing and advocacy and groundwork that was laid by groups including the NAACP and others. I see this as one of those moments where an online petition served as an important accelerator—there was an opening, and the widespread outrage online absolutely helped encourage public officials like Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush and the Republican state legislators who promised to introduce legislation to take down the flag.”

Behind the big vehicles of national online campaigns are a penumbra of smaller actions expanding all over the country. A scan of both group’s platforms show literally hundreds of petitions on racial justice issues ranging from ending the veneration of Confederate symbols to demanding police accountability and economic opportunity. And Black Twitter is becoming a major force in nurturing these actions. As scholar Kimberly Ellis puts it, “#BlackTwitter is here to stay and is only growing increasingly more powerful since its emergence in 2009, when the Pew Research Study chose to highlight this phenomenon of overrepresentation of Black usage of Twitter far beyond its representative population in the United States.”

Broadening the Mainstream

To get a sense of how big a shift we are seeing, I spoke to two early African-American online activists, Chris Rabb, who ran the Afro-Netizen email list and blog from 1999 to 2009, and Cheryl Contee, the co-founder (with Baratunde Thurston) of Jack & Jill Politics, a political blog started in 2006 that joined forces with Elon James White’s This Week in Blackness in 2013. At its height, Afro-Netizen had about 10,000 people on its list-serve; Jack & Jill Politics hit about 600,000-700,000 monthly unique visitors at its height. While relatively small compared to the kinds of numbers we see today, both were vital early networking hubs for people of color hungry for meaningful political content online.

Years ago, Rabb told me that he didn’t think African-Americans would take to social networking in the same way that white bloggers were, because they needed to feel safe in sharing their concerns online. And indeed, when Contee and Thurston started Jack & Jill Politics, they both chose pseudonyms (Jack Turner and Jill Tubman, referencing early abolitionists) because it really wasn’t safe at all to be an outspoken black blogger. For Rabb that was somewhat less of a concern because he had a plethora of political connections on Capitol Hill, which in his words “led to a virtuous circle of validation.”

But those days are ending, Rabb and Contee both told me. “More people of color with more perspectives are adding their voices to the fray in an individual manner, not requiring brands, like Afro-Netizen and Jack and Jill Politics,” Rabb says. “What mattered more [back then] was our individual networks. Sharing AfroNetizen content was far more labor intensive,” he adds. Indeed, running Afro-Netizen was so time-consuming that when he started writing his book Invisible Capitalin part inspired by his own experience parlaying his connections into digital capital—he set it aside.

“What enabled me at least to stop using a pseudonym,” Contee says, “was the external validation we began to receive and seeing how large the community became. It became more difficult to represent and organize that community behind a pseudonym and I think others found that true as well.” She adds, “And while I and others like me have experienced some negativity and hacking online, no one has actually been killed or had their careers destroyed yet from speaking up online.”

Rabb points out that the over-representation of African-Americans in terms of mobile phone use, texting and Twitter usage has contributed greatly to the shift. “Now there’s a critical mass of black folk where there’s more of a sense of support, where your voice is not going to be the only voice. There’s some sense of protection and community that didn’t exist ten years ago.” Rashad Robinson of Color of Change agrees, but he puts it slightly differently: “You can be engaged in debate and conversation [online] with people having your back. But it’s not so much about safety as it is about having power.”

Contee and Rabb also both see a bigger culture change underway. Says Contee, “The overall sophistication of users…during the six years in which we ran Jack and Jill Politics has increased dramatically. It’s easy to see the impact of JJP and blogs like it in terms of the way that people talk online and present their opinions—with transparency, boldness, directness, irreverence with few sacred cows.” Rabb concurs, noting, “Now I see so many strong voices from people of color who aren’t necessarily mainstream which is great, and so the mainstream is broadening.”  

Up to a point. Rabb, for one, said that he still thinks about when to share something publicly versus only sharing within his Facebook friends circle. “When people express views that press against institutional racism or imperial capitalism,” he notes, “then there’s a real chance of reprisals that can be symbolic, personal, political, and professional.” He adds, “I’m still a black guy who travels and can be found on Google and I don’t want to be killed.”

It would also be a mistake to interpret the success of recent racial justice petitions on MoveOn’s platform as a sign that the larger white liberal community that it enfolds is ready for more systemic change. As Robinson admits, “We test other issues, more systemic issues, with MoveOn members and they just don’t perform well. They can’t go deep on stop-and-frisk or systemic racism,” he says of his MoveOn allies. He adds, speaking of the white liberal-left, “#TakeItDown is a victory but are we any closer to those people talking about the funding model for public education? Or really pushing for voting rights legislation? Or addressing the funding models in our cities around criminal justice?”

The question of what comes next as the symbolic power of Confederate culture melts down remains hanging in the air. On the one hand, it’s really a change when a Republican governor like Robert Bentley of Alabama preemptively orders his state to stop hoisting the Confederate flag and declares, “A flag is not worth a job.” (Recall the late George Bush adviser Lee Atwater, who memorably described the GOP’s southern strategy as going from shouting “n—-r, n—-r” to more abstract stuff like “state’s rights” and cutting taxes, but with the same racist intention.) On the other hand, as Robinson points out, “We win on the Confederate flag but then we have a bunch of really bad jobs for black people in the South. So we’re working on campaigns on Walmart and the auto plants in the South.” 

To be sure, fights on economic issues are much harder than flag wars. But I can’t help but think that, like the giant snow farm still sitting in Boston’s Seaport District, the residue of last winter’s massive snowfalls, white America is melting slowly into the ground. There’s a hard core of ice up there in Boston that is still frozen solid, and it’s even got its own micro-climate that keeps refreezing some of the water coming off the top of the heap. But the mass is breaking down, and so are some of the hardest ingrained symbols of white supremacy in America.

To be honest, I never thought I’d live to see Southern states like South Carolina and Alabama move to officially discard their Confederate flags. And yet, the day is here.

Categories
movements organizing

THE UNFINISHED BUSINESS OF THE PEOPLE’S CLIMATE MARCH

THE UNFINISHED BUSINESS OF THE PEOPLE’S CLIMATE MARCH

After all of the hype, where is the People’s Climate Movement?

The People’s Climate March last fall in New York City was a monumental feat of organizing prowess. Seasoned environmentalists from big-budget nonprofits worked with grassroots activists from scrappy community-based groups to pull together the largest environmental demonstration in history. The motto “To change everything, we need everyone” was prominently displayed on the homepage of PeoplesClimate.org. To encourage inclusivity, the international environmental group 350.org hired a contractor to implement an online platform that supported decentralized network organizing. The platform was an important tool for getting people, especially those outside New York City, to the march. It made it easy for anyone to participate, even if they were not a member of a big environmental group, through a system of “hubs” that invited people to join based on geographic-, religious-, community-, or issue-based identities. However, after the march was over—after the headlines had been made—financial, technical, and administrative support for the hubs ended, in spite of declarations that the march would be “about more than just a single day.”

 

(South Bend Voice/Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0)

(South Bend Voice/Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0)

When I first wrote about the People’s Climate March last fall, Tammy Shapiro, the person contracted by 350.org to oversee organizing on the hubs platform, said she hoped that it would stay online after the march as a resource for future climate change activism. Shapiro had worked on an earlier iteration of the hubs platform called InterOccupy, and saw the critical part it had played in Occupy Sandy, even after Occupy Wall Street had allegedly “died.” Shapiro hoped that the hubs platform could be a similar springboard for climate actions post-march.

Technically, the hubs platform is still online. The hubs are still listed; at least a few are still active. However, the link to start a new hub is broken, and if hub coordinators run into a problem, technical or otherwise, there is nobody responsible for assisting them.

 

Clicking on the link to start a new hub takes you here.

Clicking on the link to start a new hub takes you here.

Phil Aroneanu, a co-founder of 350.org, and Matt Leonard, 350.org’s director of special projects, point out that march organizers, including 350.org, never intended to create a new “People’s Climate” organization; it was a temporary coalition brought together by the powerful idea of putting on the largest climate demonstration in history. The hubs were, by their account, meant to be similarly short-lived. But even if it was not 350.org’s responsibility to support the hubs indefinitely (although they are covering the costs of keeping PeoplesClimate.org online), opting out of them was a missed opportunity. If the march was really about “action, not words,” dismantling infrastructure that could support that work—by neglect at least, if not intentional disassembly—is the last thing an environmental organization trying to support a movement would want to do.

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A PLACE AT THE TABLE

To be clear, we are not talking about a particularly high-tech platform. The default hub homepage prompted coordinators to describe each hub’s mission (for example, the Skaters wanted to “roll forward with real progress on climate action”). Each hub had buttons for people to join its listserv, to RSVP to the march, to join a Facebook group, and a space for a blog. Funding for the hubs also covered MaestroConference calls. But however simple, the hubs were also highly customizable. Hub coordinators took advantage of this to varying degrees. Compare, for example, the People’s Climate Art and the Nuclear-Free Carbon-Free hubs with the more bare-bones hubs for Canadians and Workers.

 

A basic hub page for Climate Literacy.

A basic hub page for Climate Literacy.

What made the hubs unique was that they were set up to facilitate organizing free of organizational ties. In the run-up to the march, an anti-fracking group asked Shapiro to create a hub for them, but she refused and suggested they start a generic anti-fracking hub instead. There is no hub for Greenpeace or the Sierra Club, but there are hubs for Pagans, Beekeepers, Anti-Capitalists, Grad Students for Climate Justice, and the Deep South.

Christopher Wahmhoff, a hub coordinator from Kalamazoo, Michigan, believes the platform “forced large NGOs to play a hand with the small guys.” After the 2010 oil spill in the Kalamazoo River, Wahmhoff recalls that all of the big environmental organizations used the disaster to ask for donations, without coordinating with local groups. “We never really got to have a voice in our own oil spill,” he tells Civicist.

But in the run-up to the march Wahmhoff says, “We got to sit at the same table.”

In a nearly 10,000-word post-mortem on the hubs, provided to Civicist, Tammy Shapiro notes that some of the hub coordinators were members of national nonprofits that found the hub system “more inclusive, diverse, and connected than their individual organizations.”

The Maryland hub coordinator, and a Sierra Club organizer, Seth Bush, reported that, “The hubs were an opportunity to work past the traditional Sierra Club folks, and bring in more people from more diverse areas. We want a forum that is connecting all of these [regional] groups in a sustainable way that isn’t just ‘Sierra Club’s organizational motives’ but more creative and from the bottom up.”

“Hubs provided a really great front door for unaffiliated people to come into the movement and find their people, people they didn’t know previously,” says Gan Golan, an artist and activist who studies decentralized network organizing with Shapiro at the Movement Net Lab. Golan was involved in the arts mobilization for the march.

“When you start to create self-organizing on the basis of people’s self-affinity,” Golan adds, “that is a solid bedrock…people want to maintain those connections.”

 

The Faith contingent at the People’s Climate March. (Peter Bowden)

 

“NOT A PARTICULARLY MEANINGFUL INVESTMENT TO EXIST IN PERPETUITY”

“Traditionally a lot of big products from the environmental movement come from very defined coalitions,” Matt Leonard, 350.org’s product manager for the march, tells Civicist. “We very intentionally wanted to make the People’s Climate March bigger than that.” Implementing the hubs system was one of the ways 350.org and other march organizers tried to make the march more inclusive.

Leonard says that the idea of the hubs was “met with a lot of skepticism” within 350.org. “[But] the ones of us who did have a background in grassroots organizing did push for this,” he adds.

(Back during the planning period for the march, Shapiro and her colleagues at Movement Net Lab pitched the hubs to march leadership as part of a larger suite of organizing strategies and tools. Although their ideas were not incorporated in their entirety, Shapiro and her colleagues, including Golan, were hired as individuals by different parts of the march organizing body.)

As for what happened to the hubs after the march, Leonard says, “Understandably, some of them dissolved,” citing a lack of motivation to continue organizing.

However, Leonard confirmed to Civicist that it was a deliberate decision to not give centralized support to the hubs post-march.

Phil Aroneanu, a co-founder of 350.org, tells Civicist that the hubs worked because people had a common goal: “Everybody knew what their job was which was to get their people out [to the march].”

Although Aroneanu did not exactly disparage the value of the hubs, he did not lavish the platform with praise, saying, “The hubs are one of many ways that people got engaged in the climate march.”

He  adds:

One of the issues that we run into a lot, especially in digital organizing, [is]: ‘let’s just put a platform out there and see if people come to it and organize themselves.’ As a traditional organizer, I find that to be a crazy idea. People don’t join a network just to join a network.

Aroneanu says that the hubs worked well in places with little pre-existing organizing, like Syracuse, New York, but were less effective in cities like Washington, D.C., where activists had already worked together.

“Hubs are one of the ways that…certain kinds of people can get involved and feel like they have agency in the work,” Aroneanu says. At another point in our conversation he makes clear that he means “entrepreneurial” types.

But Aroneanu returns to the idea that the platform worked because everyone had something to work for, explaining that the “self-organizing space is most useful when there is a common goal across the network.”

It is “not a particularly meaningful investment to exist in perpetuity,” he tells Civicist.

However, Shapiro’s review of the hubs platform, which incorporated feedback from 42 individual hubs through a group call, a post-march survey, and one-on-one interviews, found that coordinators did want to continue using the hubs, for various reasons.

“MOBILIZE AT A HAT DROP”

Frank Regan was the hub coordinator for Western New York, in addition to being the former chair of the Rochester Sierra Club. In the process of organizing people to attend the climate march, he helped form the Rochester People’s Climate Coalition (RPCC), which was made up of more than 30 groups.

RPCC“If you know anything about Rochester,” he tells Civicist, “[that’s] really unusual.”

In the run-up to the march, Regan invited local media outlets to come to a press conference the coalition held about the importance of the People’s Climate March, but only one media outlet showed. So Regan videotaped it himself and used the hubs to post the clip and a write-up.

“I think it’s a fantastic idea to become the media because the media is doing a terrible job,” he tells Civicist. He wanted the hubs platform to be a place “to become the media” and expressed his disappointment that the hubs are “kind of petering out.”

Still, the Western New York hub is one of those that has not petered out entirely; last month Regan used it to promote the first major event held by the RPCC, Earth Week.

Of the 23 coordinators who responded to a survey Tammy Shapiro sent out after the march, Regan was one of 11 coordinators who told her that they planned on using the hub after the march; eight others said they might use it.

The anti-nuclear hub told Shapiro that they would like to continue using the hub so “when big climate or nuclear moments come up they can mobilize at a hat drop.”

This response alone makes a strong argument for maintaining the hubs. Hub coordinators put time, effort, and energy into forging connections between groups and individuals who share a community, identity, or passion. It’s not clear why a movement organization, like 350.org, would want to let those groups go fallow, only to do all that work again the next time consensus and strength in numbers is needed.

Attempting to answer this question, Gan Golan tells Civicist:

Generally speaking, political parties and campaign organizations can feel threatened by autonomous organizing and can sometimes be hesitant to encourage the base to start organizing on their own terms…part of that is a fear of crazies but also a lack of faith that there is as much intelligence in the base as in the organizations.

“SO MANY MOVING PIECES”

The hubs system was not flawless; far from it. Shapiro herself catalogues a long list of problems and places the platform fell short. Hub coordinators, once self-selected, were all-but-impossible to oust (although you could add coordinators if someone fell off the map entirely), and there was no accountability system to ensure they were doing their job well. The platform was not set up to easily share information between hubs, so it was hard for coordinators to organize solidarity efforts with other hubs; it was also hard for hub coordinators to find and contact specific individuals. Because the various tools incorporated into the hubs platform were not integrated well, coordinators had to post updates and information separately in each forum (Facebook, Google Group, blog, etc.).

 

PCM5

A partial list of hubs.

But the main problem, Shapiro tells Civicist, was a lack of organizing capacity. And hub coordinators felt it. Christopher Wahmhoff, the coordinator from Kalamazoo, told Civicist that although the hubs platform was like a “candyland of organizing,” that he felt like he “didn’t have enough energy to take advantage…[of] so many moving pieces.”

With more time (the hubs got off the ground just two months before the march) and support staff (“it was really just me,” Shapiro says), Shapiro could have worked more with coordinators to ensure that they knew how to best leverage the tools at their disposal. As it was, Shapiro could barely keep up with the requests to form hubs. They launched the platform with a backlog of requests and struggled to keep up as more flowed in.

When asked what she would have done differently with more time and resources, Shapiro says:

So many things. I would have started a lot earlier. I would have built a different system that had a front page that could pull in information from…the whole network. I would have been more intentional about finding coordinators and working more with existing coordinators. I would have integrated the hubs more with the rest of organizing.

When asked to elaborate, she says that the hubs were viewed as a someth

ing apart from other mobilizing strategies, instead of something meant to be integrated into the entire effort.

Finally, she says she would have a larger staff, saying at bare minimum you need a tech person, an administrator, and an organizer, “and we only had me and it was not good.”

MISSED OPPORTUNITIES

Shapiro says that failing to invest more in the hubs was not the only post-march failure: “There was lots of organizing and infrastructure that we created for the march that wasn’t maintained.”

Shapiro says that the point of a big event like the march is to rally supporters and like-minded people and then channel that energy into another event, another action; into a movement.

 

Screenshot of 350.org's homepage, featuring the global climate movement.

Screenshot of 350.org’s homepage, featuring the global climate movement.

She continues:

While the organizations that helped plan the march were able to build off that momentum in their own organizing, there were a lot of people who participated in the march who weren’t a part of one of those organizations and they didn’t necessarily have a way to participate after. The hubs could have been one of the answers but there were other answers as well that weren’t necessarily used.

In a follow-up email to Civicist, Phil Aroneanu explained that after the march “there was literally no more money to spend—all of the resources raised by various organizations had been used to mobilize towards the march.” The question is, if the march was about powering a movement, why didn’t the organizing parties set aside resources for sustaining that movement post-march?

What happened to the hubs platform makes clear that there is a need for tools and platforms to support and build movements that exist outside of traditional organizations, free from funding whims and windfalls or lack thereof. But it also underscores the fact that these tools will need administrators and facilitators. If there is one thing everyone I spoke to for this story could agree on, it is that you can’t just build it and expect them to come.

In a follow-up piece, Civicist will report on the work Shapiro, Golan and others are doing at Movement Net Lab studying and designing organizing strategies and other tools to support decentralized network movements, and on the Lab’s partnership with the Black Lives Matter movement.

Categories
Automation movements Social Media

Bring on the Bots

Bring on the Bots

There are lots of things that social media bots could do to enrich our online conversation, monitor those in power, shield us from hate speech, and support social movements.

  • Bots—particularly bots on social media—can’t seem to catch a break in the news lately. First, the Block Bot, a program designed to help Twitter users weed-out disliked content and people, simultaneously fell afoul of Richard Dawkins, members of the conservative press, and legal pundits. Next, an article in the MIT Technology Review outlined the ways social bots act as nefarious “fake persuaders” in online marketing and political communication. Forbes then published a lengthy profile piece on Distil Networks, a company championed by the publication as a battler of “bad” bots. Finally, a Slate piece outlined a slew of crooked, “artificially stupid” though dangerous, instances of automated software agent use.

    Over the last several years, in fact, journalists have increasingly reported on cases of politicians using bots worldwide during contested elections and security crises to pad follower listsspam and disable activists, and send out pro-government propaganda.

    That unsavory actors are using bots globally to their advantage is not in question. However, most stories on this topic fail to ask the bigger question. Namely, is it the nature of bots that makes their usage inherently problematic? Or, rather, is it the means used by the bots to achieve their ends and the intent behind them which makes them so objectionable?

    Deeper digging quickly reveals that there are beneficial bots of all kinds in operation on social media. Bots have been used to facilitate protest and have seen action in critiquing injustice. Consider Zach Whalen’s Twitter bot, @clearcongress, which works to highlight astronomically low congressional approval levels. Or @congressedits, which tweets every time someone at a congressional IP address edits a Wikipedia page. Bots can be used to keep powerful political actors in check.

    By providing automated monitoring, bots can act as a type of social prosthesis for communities of users online. Communities lacking human users to track and publicize political action can now make use of bots which—in the words of one journalist—radiate information automatically. This substitutes to some degree the role of the current events obsessed newshound typically played by humans in a community of users online. This can be important, as in the case of the congressional monitoring bots, and whimsical, as in the case of @stealthmountain, which creates a synthetic “grammar nazi” of sorts on Twitter.

    It is true that these bots may not be able to provide the deep analysis that a professional journalist would provide, but they generate awareness of issues where there previously was an information vacuum. To that end, well-deployed bots can help resolve an increasingly obvious challenge facing social media platforms: that the self-segregating nature of connections online tend to produce echo chambers that prevent people from receiving a diverse set of information. Even in cases where journalists and engaged activists exist and take part in online conversation, bots can work to support these efforts and in some cases surpass them in supplying and processing information.

    Bots and autonomous systems can also be used in reverse, to shield users against the emergent group behaviors on social media which work to dismantle productive discourse. James Poulos of the Daily Beast highlighted these sorts of programs in an article written in support of Block Bot. His argument is that this bot helps users to “see how ‘breaking down boundaries’ isn’t the panacea our creative and optimistic culture so often claims it to be.” Rather, Poulos suggests, the same software used to proliferate spam and manipulate public opinion can be used to limit people’s exposure to toxic, often hateful and abusive, speech online.

    It may become necessary to deploy these technologies. Twitter, Facebook, and others are unlikely to take aggressive and comprehensive actions to resolve issues like harassment and the emergence of echo chambers on their platforms. Despite having the most control over their respective platforms, taking action on these issues would force platforms to wade into the messy politics of playing referee in controversies. By maintaining a position of “neutrality” (some would argue negligence), the responsibility—and blame—continues to rest on users, and not on platforms.

    Moreover, as bad actors become more effective with using bots to shape social activity online, the need for “good bots” may become ever more important. Online social movements may be able to combat bots manually when they are obvious and spam messages in predictable ways. They may not be so successful when swarms of realistic looking identities may be used to conduct long term and subtle campaigns of infiltration in the future.

    It is important not to slip into the complacent cocoon of solutionism with this line of pro-bot argument. As some commentators have worried, “good bots” can look like spam and actually erode the social capital of burgeoning movements online. Automation is powerful. Like the deployment of robots in the physical world, the most effective uses will come with careful study and smart designs that are sensitive to the needs and perceptions of communities.

    Bots which declare their purpose and that they are bots, for instance, would add a layer of transparency that better sets the expectations of the communities they interact with. Bots also might be designed as a kind of community scaffolding, prodding and encouraging when a movement is small, but then deactivating gracefully as people rally to a cause to avoid introducing spam into a conversation.

    The failure of the “good bot” is a failure of design, not a failure of automation. Our discourse would be more productive if it focused on the qualities that make bots the right tool for the job from a social and ethical standpoint, rather than ceding the promise of this technology to those who would use them for ill.

    Samuel Woolley is the program manager of the “Political Bots” Project, a fellow at the Center for Media, Data and Society at Central European University, and a Ph.D. student in the Department of Communication at the University of Washington. He is based in Seattle and can be reached at samwooll@uw.edu and on Twitter @samuelwoolley.

    Tim Hwang directs Intelligence and Autonomy at Data & Society, a research initiative addressing the cross-arena challenges of policymaking around intelligent systems. He is based in San Francisco and can be reached by e-mail at tim@datasociety.net and on Twitter @timhwang.