Afghanistan, the Internet and the Antiwar Movement

Looking back at how digital organizing altered the shape and stances of America's antiwar activism. Plus, details on a new effort to clamp down on the scammers and spammers of online fundraising.

“The Internet, not the street, not the campus, is the fundamental component of today’s antiwar movement — a force for organizing, raising money and influencing politicians and the media via blogs and e-mail messages. Earlier this year, MoveOn even staged a ‘virtual march on Washington” in which participants’ phone calls to Congress were aggregated on an online map of the country. When A.A.E.I. [Americans Against Escalation in Iraq] was trying to settle on its position on Pelosi’s Iraq bill last March, it conducted an online poll of its members.

But Leslie Cagan, a political organizer since the Vietnam War who is now national coordinator of United for Peace and Justice — a group unaffiliated with A.A.E.I. that has organized large antiwar marches — wonders if all that bandwidth exacts a steep price. ‘The Internet is a mixed blessing,’ Cagan says. ‘It’s a tremendous asset in terms of getting the word out, announcing activities, everything from meetings to mass mobilization. I also think it has, in a way that history will tell when we have more distance, undermined a little the more traditional approach to organizing, where you go and knock on doors and talk to people. . . . People think, ‘Oh, well, I’ve signed a petition online so I’ve done my bit.’ So I think a lot of us as organizers have become a little sloppy. We haven’t put enough attention into talking to our neighbors, talking on the shopping line.’”

That’s an excerpt from a 2007 New York Times magazine feature on MoveOn, the big liberal-left online organization, and its efforts to mobilize opposition to then-President George W. Bush’s surge of forces into Iraq after his 2002 invasion turned into a quagmire. The writer, Michael Crowley, was mainly interested in contrasting how the modern netroots left differed in style and tactics from the older “hippie” antiwar left, a hackneyed frame if there ever was one (hence the article’s title “Can Lobbyists Stop the War?”) and went out of his way to posit the new antiwar organizers as people more comfortable with politely lobbying legislators than their scruffier and more militant generation-older counterparts. In fact, as many historians have shown, the anti-war movement of the Vietnam era included many organizers who focused on electoral politics (remember the “Clean for Gene” movement of 1968 and Allard Lowenstein, an antiwar leader who got elected to Congress?). And the more recent antiwar movement included a number of groups, like Code Pink and United for Peace and Justice that emphasized mass protests over lobbying.

I’m dredging up that excerpt for a different reason, which is to center the important question that veteran organizer Leslie Cagan asked, especially in the context of the last few weeks of media-driven agonizing over the inevitably messy end to America’s twenty-year war in Afghanistan. I think she is right that the rise of internet-enabled politics led to a tilt in activism away from face-to-face organizing in favor of online tactics. And I don’t say this to smear online petitioning as “clicktivism.” It’s not an either-or situation: people who sign online petitions often also engage more meaningfully by donating money or time to causes. It’s just that online-first organizing is cheaper, faster and easier. Of course we’re going to do more of it once lots of us are online.

I’d make a different point, which is that the rise of internet-enabled organizing in response to the Afghanistan and Iraq wars changed the locus of power in the American antiwar movement away from locally-rooted groups to highly centralized campaign entrepreneurs, and away from ideologically-rooted politicking to analytically popular messaging. And no organization better exemplified and drove this shift more than MoveOn.

It’s worth remembering that MoveOn, which got its start in 1998 with a viral petition opposing GOP efforts to impeach President Bill Clinton (titled “Censure and Move On”), got a huge boost in membership after the 9-11 attacks. That’s when it merged forces with Eli Pariser, a brilliant young activist whose own antiwar petition (9-11peace.org) had garnered 700,000 signatures. As a result MoveOn became one of the first digital organizing hubs with more than a million “members.” Today’s alphabet soup of Big Email groups on the liberal-left all trace their staff and tactics to those early days.

As probably most people reading this newsletter know, MoveOn got really good at what GWU professor David Karpf later called “analytic activism.” That is, unlike older bricks-and-mortar organizations, it used its big list as a sounding board and lens for nimble issue-oriented campaigning. Instead of investing in building a big DC staff, it stayed office-less and distributed, while bulking up with consultants and contractors hired to implement time-delimited campaigns, like the one Crowley profiled in his 2007 piece above. By then, MoveOn claimed 3.4 million members, and along with the Service Employees International Union, it had raised an impressive $12 million to run its anti-escalation-in-Iraq campaign.

But there was also a path not taken, the one indicated by antiwar veteran Cagan. And that choice wasn’t just about tactics. (I’ve written a lot before about how in early 2003, as anti-Iraq War feelings crested, MoveOn briefly tried mobilizing its members to form local groups to lobby their own Members of Congress in their own districts, and then shut that effort down because it was too hard to staff and control. So I’m not going to review that history here, other than to say lots of local groups made up of fired-up MoveOn members might have made it harder for Congress to keep writing blank checks to back Mideast wars.)

The path not taken was also about goals. Eli Pariser’s 2001 petition, which more than doubled MoveOn’s existing membership rolls, was explicitly against an invasion of Afghanistan. It instead called on President Bush and other world leaders “to use moderation and restraint in responding to the recent terrorist attacks against the United States.” And it implored “the powers that be to use, wherever possible, international judicial institutions and international human rights law to bring to justice those responsible for the attacks, rather than the instruments of war, violence or destruction.” Like U.S. House Representative Barbara Lee (D-CA), the lone vote against authorizing the use of force in Afghanistan, it was a cry to end the miserable cycle of war. Twenty years, $2 trillion, millions of refugees, tens of thousands of civilian deaths and thousands of American troops killed or maimed later, it’s worth recognizing the prescience of Pariser’s petition.

Unfortunately, MoveOn didn’t stick to its opposition to the Afghanistan war; it buried it. (See here how Pariser responded to a later controversy stirred up by Bush adviser Karl Rove, who tried to pin Pariser’s 2001 petition on the group; he denied it was ever featured on MoveOn’s website and claimed it was just his personal project.) I’m not sure why MoveOn did this, but I’ll offer two guesses. The first one is that it didn’t test well. That is, as war fever rose in America and the bombing of Afghanistan began, MoveOn’s list members didn’t respond well to test emails probing their attitudes on the issue. The second one is that MoveOn’s leaders decided on their own that, as many Democratic leaders were then saying, Afghanistan was the “good war.” We can see now how that turned out.

Did supporting war in Afghanistan make it harder or easier to oppose the war in Iraq? I think it made it harder. Once you accept the notion that we have to be in Afghanistan to fight terrorism or build democracy, how do you also argue that we shouldn’t be in Iraq too, since there was plenty of “terrorists” to be targeted there and “democracy” to be implanted too? Some of us saw through all of this, but when Bush was at 85% in the public opinion polls, we were invisible.

As a resident of New York City when 9-11 happened, I remember that in the first days and weeks afterward, many of us were not calling for war to avenge the deaths of our friends, neighbors, and coworkers. There was intense public mourning and solidarity with the first responders who gave or risked their lives, but very little war-mongering. That came from elsewhere, from a foreign policy “blob” addicted to a flawed notion of American power and credibility, a lazy and credulous class of elected officials from both parties, and the Beltway media, which loves war.

If we didn’t have internet-enabled activism displacing grassroots organizing as the primary way the liberal-left responded to Bush’s wars of choice, might history have been different? I doubt it. When Barack Obama became president, he was cowed by the Pentagon into supporting a massive “surge” of US forces into Afghanistan, which arguably extended the forever war another decade. Could a differently organized antiwar left have stopped him? Well, would he have even been president if he didn’t have the internet to organize a power base capable of beating the more traditionally based Hillary Clinton?

The harder truth, which the past two weeks have shown us, is that when it comes to war, we live in a monarchy, not a democracy. Millions of us marched in February 2003 in opposition to Bush’s encroaching invasion of Iraq in pursuit of weapons of mass destruction that didn’t exist, briefly coalescing a “second superpower” to challenge the first one. But W famously said he didn’t care about public opposition, that he wouldn’t conduct US foreign policy “on the basis of a focus group.” And we’d still be in Afghanistan now if it weren’t for President Biden deciding to buck the Pentagon and the media in choosing to put an end to that forever war. I’m genuinely thankful that he’s made this hard decision, and hopeful that most Americans will support him for doing so, even as the poor handling of the evacuation of Afghan civilians who allied themselves with America leaves a bitter taste. But somehow we have to elect more politicians who understand the waste and idiocy of war, and organize to defend them more heartily when they stand up to take that oh-so unconventional position.

-Related: Here’s a picture of something you couldn’t see for most of the last twenty years. American service members killed in action have been receiving military honors at Dover Air Force Base for as long as I can recall, but after 9-11 the Pentagon banned the press from showing them. In 2009, Obama gave us a classically Obama-esque improvement in transparency, allowing photos only if family members gave their permission in advance. Kudos to the Biden White House for letting us see what the hawks don’t want us to see, the human cost of their wanton wars.

-Possibly related: From a pre-publication release by academics Richard McAlexander, Michael Rubin and Rob Williams--“[c]ommunities that bear the greatest costs of foreign wars are most prone to high rates of right-wing radicalization. To support this claim, we present robust correlations between participation in the far-right social media website Parler and fatalities among residents who served in the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.“

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Tech and Organizing

Earlier this month, the private equity firm Apax Partners announced that it was merging three software companies—EveryAction, Social Solutions and Cybergrants—into a $2 billion behemoth made of 650,000 non-profits, half the Fortune 500, over 38 million donors and volunteers and combined net revenue of $200 million a year. What’s notable about this is how many Democratic political campaigns, liberal NGOs and advocacy groups use EveryAction for their online engagement and fundraising efforts, and how little attention the merger got. (EveryAction itself was on an acquisition spree before this, buying Salsa Labs and Mobilize.) The fact that Apax Partners is headed by Alan Patricof, a venture capitalist who long been a devoted Democrat probably explains why few feathers were ruffled by the news, at least initially.

But last week that changed. Thursday, a group of 50 veteran digital political operatives released an open letter to the combined companies’ CEOs urging them to push the digital fundraising world “in more ethical and sustainable directions,” garnering favorable coverage in places like Axios and Business Insider. Citing the New York Times’ reporting on political digital fundraising practices that target and hoodwink gullible seniors, the letter noted that EveryAction’s user base includes “prolific political spammers and some of the most egregious senders of deceptive political emails in the industry.” So they urged EveryAction to use its “market power for good” to clamp down on political spam and such tactics as misleading forms, bogus match promises, deceptive recurring donations and the like. Thus far the company’s representatives have responded by claiming they already block illegal uses of their tools and deflecting, suggesting that this is someone else’s problem to solve.

I asked Josh Nelson, who organized the open letter, if he would answer a few questions about the campaign. Our conversation follows:

Q: Why is political spam a problem? If some online fundraisers email people out of the blue, or make outlandish promises like bogus matches or mimic correspondence from government agencies or businesses, can't recipients just ignore them?

Nelson: Big picture, I think the proliferation of political spam and deceptive email practices like the ones you mentioned threaten to diminish email’s role as a viable channel for fundraising and advocacy. I want to differentiate between spam, by which I mean unsolicited bulk email, and deceptive email practices.

Spam is problematic because people hate receiving it. I have heard from countless donors who no longer donate online after doing so once or twice and having their email address sold to other campaigns. When lists of donor email addresses are passed around from campaign to campaign, we’re creating a disincentive for people to donate to campaigns online. Those who choose to send political spam are essentially polluting the commons: They’re extracting whatever money they can from donors in ways that betray donors’ trust and diminish the ability of other campaigns and organizations to raise money online.

Deceptive email practices and emails that guilt-trip people into donating push donors away as well, but they’re also ethically problematic. As The New York Times’ Shane Goldmacher has reported, senior citizens are disproportionately harmed by these kinds of deceptive emails. Whether it’s senior citizens or anyone else on the receiving end, a growing number of people in the industry have come to the conclusion that lying to people and guilt-tripping them to solicit donations is unethical. 

Q: In response to your open letter, Every Action put out a statement saying that it already is doing plenty to prevent clearly fraudulent email fundraising by its clients. Do we really want an email tool provider deciding if specific subject lines or fundraising pitches are OK?

While it would be nice if email senders would regulate their own behavior, that’s not the world we live in. And while it’s possible that policymakers or regulators will eventually step in, they haven’t done so yet and could end up doing so in a heavy-handed or unhelpful way. As a company that works with most Democratic campaigns and hundreds of thousands of nonprofits, EveryAction is the single entity that has the power, the financial incentive and the expertise necessary to establish and enforce restrictions on deceptive email fundraising practices.

Privately held companies enforce restrictions on their customers’ behavior, above and beyond the letter of the law, all the time. They typically do so to protect their other customers, their partners and other key stakeholders in the ecosystem. One good example right now is stores requiring customers to wear masks where it’s not legally required. Another is Netroots Nation requiring all in-person conference attendees to be fully vaccinated. In both cases, entities are requiring their customers to behave responsibly in order to prevent harm to their other customers. That’s what I’d like to see EveryAction do as well.

Q: It's worth noting that some of the worst political spammers on the Democratic side of the aisle, in terms of using exploitative language and tactics, are the big party fundraising committees, which are of course big clients of Every Action. Shouldn't your focus be on groups like the DCCC and agencies like Mothership, which seem to revel in those practices, rather than Every Action? [For more on Mothership, see this edition of The Connector.]

People have been calling the DCCC and Mothership Strategies out for years and it hasn’t worked yet. Ultimately, even if one or two of the most problematic entities decided to change their ways, others would likely show up to take their place. EveryAction, on the other hand, has the market share to move the entire Democratic fundraising ecosystem in a more sustainable and ethical direction by establishing and meaningfully enforcing stronger terms of service. That’s why folks are calling for them to take a leadership role in solving these problems.

Q: Finally, you run your own email agency, Juggernaut. Can you say a bit more about what it does, and how that relates to your concerns about Every Action?

The Juggernaut Project helps Democratic campaigns and progressive nonprofits grow their email communities with opt-in supporters who actually want to hear from them. We’ve been fortunate to be able to help grow email communities for some of the biggest nonprofits and most prominent Democratic political campaigns in the country.

I co-founded the company last year to help solve two related problems: 1) The proliferation of spam and deceptive email fundraising practices among Democratic campaigns. 2) The significant lack of vendor capacity in the progressive movement when it comes to providing high-quality, opt-in email supporters.

We help solve these problems by engaging in efforts like the letter to EveryAction and by striving to give campaigns and organizations a better option for growing their email communities.

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Odds and Ends

-Say hello to the brand-new U.S. Digital Corps, a new two-year fellowship that will recruit early-career technologists to contribute to high-impact efforts across the federal government. Nick Sinai has the details.

-Big Tech, led by Google, Facebook and Microsoft, is the biggest lobbying sector in Europe, ahead of pharma, fossil fuels, finance, and chemicals, according to a new report by the Corporate Europe Observatory. The report also highlights fourteen major think tanks that are quietly funded by tech companies.

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