The push for new gun-control measures following the Parkland, Florida, shooting that killed 17 people is high-profile and public: Students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School have blanketed the airwaves, spurred nationwide student walkouts, and featured in a CNN town hall meeting grilling Florida's pro-gun Senator Marco Rubio. The grass-roots effort to blunt this momentum by the National Rifle Association's lobbying arm has been much quieter—and conducted largely out of sight, through a mobile app.
As lawmakers return to Washington this week under pressure to act on guns, the NRA is directing members' activism at the audience that matters most: Congress. Republican congressional leaders have had little to say; the NRA hasn't sponsored marches or rallies. But in mid-February the mobile app of the NRA's Institute of Legislative Action urged users to send pre-written tweets that automatically route to their individual members of Congress, telling them to "Protect our constitutional right to self-defense; Defend the #2A! #DefendTheSecond."
A few days later, the NRA app, drawing on users' personal data, offered to connect them to their legislators so they could "Ask Your Lawmakers to Oppose New Gun Control." Members of Congress were quickly besieged with a coordinated message that cut against the #NeverAgain movement dominating newspapers and cable television. And after President Trump's comments in favor of gun control at a bipartisan White House meeting yesterday, the White House switchboard number, posted within the app, was also likely besieged.
As the push for gun control gains public momentum, the NRA's ability to mobilize its members is more important than ever. The same is true of other advocacy groups on both sides of the aisle. Since the 2016 presidential election and revelations of Russian interference, tech companies have come under tremendous pressure to stamp out malevolent actors and the tools they employed—such as automated bot armies and fake news—to undermine and disrupt the U.S. electoral process. In January, Facebook announced it was overhauling its popular News Feed to prioritize messages from friends and family and "show less public content, including videos and other posts from publishers or businesses." A month later, Twitter purged thousands of bot accounts used to amplify political messages and hashtags. Both developments privilege political tech that can marshal actual human beings.
Democratic technologists say the NRA's app-based lobbying campaign is the next wave of political organizing and one they're hoping to emulate. "In the past, social media strategy has mostly involved memes and hashtags," says Shola Farber, co-founder of the Tuesday Group, a startup whose Team app organizes volunteers digitally. "What the NRA is doing is different: They're scaling and organizing volunteers through an app and mobilizing them to accomplish a task." Farber, who worked as a field organizer in Michigan for Hillary Clinton in 2016, says it's noteworthy that an advocacy group such as the NRA is developing organizing tools that Clinton's presidential camp lacked and using them to influence the legislative process.
That's why Democratic organizers are so intent on keeping up. "This technology is positioned to flourish under the new rules emerging in social media, since it gives significant advantage to anyone organizing real people," says Michael Luciani, Farber's fellow Tuesday Group co-founder.
Lessons of 'wasted' youth
Thomas Peters, the founder of uCampaign, which built the NRA app, says his company designed the app to hook users by incorporating elements of video games to induce them to work toward a shared goal—in this case, stopping new gun laws. "I wasted a lot of my youth on computer games, so I understood that 'gamification'—awarding badges, points, and social recognition—drives activity," says Peters. "From the outset we've awarded users with 'action points' through the platform. These are breadcrumbs that let users follow the trail to what they're supposed to do."
Strategists in both parties say that traditional political volunteering is cumbersome and hierarchical, requiring volunteers to visit a campaign headquarters, grab a clipboard, knock on doors, and then enter information gathered into a database. It can be difficult or ineffective in rural areas and struggles to reach certain populations, such as transient younger voters. Online efforts are a cacophony of hashtags and mixed messages, rarely directed at the right targets. "We're training people how to be activists," says Peters. "I guarantee you most people—if they even know their congressman—would never go to the trouble of finding his Twitter handle and sending him a personal, heartfelt message that also happens to have the hashtags that the NRA wants to have trending."
In contrast, uCampaign's development team worked directly with Facebook and Twitter, integrating their app with Google's Civic Information API, which can match any U.S. residential address with the correct political representatives, polling locations, and candidate data, allowing for the auto-populated messages the NRA is sending to Congress. "What they've figured out," says Luciani, "is how to do digital volunteering in a way that's effective. We did the same thing in Virginia's elections last year to turn out voters. They're doing it to lobby members of Congress." Both companies are also experimenting with peer-to-peer texting as another promising avenue for digital organizing.
Peters believes that gun owners often face unpleasant social sanctions when discussing their enthusiasm in public forums like Facebook, so he designed the NRA's app to include a chatroom that functions as a kind of private equivalent, bustling with social media memes that celebrate heat-packing busty women, mock "libtards," and venerate Trump, veterans, and other pro-gun luminaries. "Center-right people don't have a lot of fun toys and safe spaces to call their own," Peters says. "If you want to talk about how you really feel about Second Amendment rights, you can talk with people who agree with you, instead of getting into a Facebook war with your aunt or your co-worker." All of this fosters loyalty among the app's users, which, in turn, makes them easier for the NRA to deploy.
"With uCampaign, with Team, you're actively directing people to do tasks that you know they're motivated to do by the cause," says Luciani.
As tech companies move to stamp out fake news and fraudulent accounts, Peters says, users of the NRA's app (and similar technology) will see their messages spread more easily across social media, since they're frequently directed at friends and family and won't have to compete with as much artificial, bot-generated content. "Facebook and Twitter love having organic content come in from other sources," he says. "That's why we built in integration. When we share stuff to those platforms, it's seen as organic shares from real people."
That's the goal of any political campaign, whether it's electing a president or lobbying against gun legislation. And Peters adds that there's one more important advantage to organizing real people over fake ones: "Bots don't vote."
-- Bloomberg News