When MoveOn Went Missing in Action

A closer look at how MoveOn has tried to finesse its contradictory stances on the Afghanstan war. Plus more on EveryAction and political spam, and why the invention of the "like" made us angrier.

A footnote to last week’s examination here of how the US antiwar movement, most notably the giant e-organization MoveOn.org, navigated the challenges of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. Last Wednesday, the executive director of MoveOn, Rahna Epting, put out a statement on behalf of the group praising President Biden’s decision to leave Afghanistan. She included these words: “Since our founding, MoveOn members have called for the United States to use diplomacy instead of war, violence and destruction, prioritize human rights and lives, and invest the trillions of dollars spent on war-making in essential services like schools, health care, and child care. Over the last two decades, millions of MoveOn members have taken to the streets, lobbied members of Congress, held town halls and peace vigils, signed petitions, and more to call for peace and an end to U.S.-led forever wars.”

It’s a nice sentiment. If only it were true. I noted last week how Eli Pariser, the group’s executive director throughout the aughts, told the Washington Post in 2005 that his post 9-11 anti-Afghan war, pro-diplomacy petition was a “personal” project, not a stance that the group took. (This, even though MoveOn absorbed the 700,000 names and email addresses of the people who signed Pariser’s petition and claimed them as members). I had forgotten another telling incident. In 2008, Hillary Clinton, who was then running for president, was caught on tape by the Huffington Post in a private meeting with donors, claiming that the reason she was losing to Barack Obama was because, in part, of his support from groups like MoveOn. Clinton described MoveOn as the “activist base” of the Democratic party and said, “MoveOn didn't even want us to go into Afghanistan. I mean, that's what we're dealing with.” In a statement to the Huffington Post, Pariser responded, “Senator Clinton has her facts wrong again. MoveOn never opposed the war in Afghanistan, and we set the record straight years ago when Karl Rove made the same claim.”

In 2009, when President Obama decided to escalate the US involvement in Afghanistan, the group’s then-executive director Justin Ruben told Ari Melber, then a reporter for The Nation, that he had not pushed President Obama about Afghanistan during a meeting at the White House that February, nor would they be opposing Obama’s $94 billion war supplemental request. Why? MoveOn members “differ on what ought to be done about it,” Melber quoted Ruben as saying. (MoveOn later claimed that Melber misunderstood Ruben, but in fact the group did not mobilize against Obama’s surge until nearly a year later.) In March of that year, MoveOn’s silence on Obama’s buildup earned it an attack from veteran peace activist Tom Hayden in Mother Jones. Hayden pointed out that ending the war in Afghanistan wasn’t even included in the regular surveys MoveOn sent its members to get feedback on the group’s priorities.

Hayden wrote, “This is no small matter. MoveOn has collected a privately-held list of five million names, most of them strong peace advocates. The organization’s membership contributed an unprecedented $180 million for the federal election cycle in 2004-2006. Those resources, now squelched or sequestered, mean that the most vital organization in the American peace movement is missing in action….Silence sends a message. The de facto MoveOn support for the $94 billion war supplemental reverberates up the ladder of power. Feeling no pressure, the Congressional leadership has abdicated its critical oversight function over the expanding wars, not even allowing members to vote for a December report on possible exit strategies.”

Obviously, public sentiment about Afghanistan has shifted a lot of the last two decades. Lots of liberals voted to give President Bush the authority to invade Afghanistan. Unfortunately for peace activists, opposing unnecessary wars is often a very lonely thing to do.

But the messy facts about MoveOn’s actual positioning on the Afghan war expose a real problem with digital organizing via the “analytic activism” model practiced by MoveOn. If political organizations are to mean anything to their members, they need to have consistent identities as well as clear processes for making changes in those identities. Many organizations do this by having governing boards that oversee policy; a few, like the Sierra Club, have federated structures that involve members in voting on the group’s policies. For 20+ years, MoveOn has charted a new model, a small self-perpetuating group of leader/managers with a massive email list (now upwards of 8 million) who use digital listening tools like A/B testing and regular list polling to try to glean the priorities of their list and then convert those amorphous feelings into meaningful campaigns and action. When those amorphous feelings are clear, no problem. An 18% open rate and a 2% click-through rate can mean hundreds of thousands of people donating millions of dollars in an evening, or hundreds of local vigils organized in a matter of days. But when they are not, you get the contortions of expediency.

Of course, since MoveOn’s “members” mostly have very weak feelings of membership in the organization, none of this may matter to them. But that only means that more power has been vested in MoveOn’s leadership by its digital structure. Alas, if that leadership chooses to whitewash the past, there’s really no one there at the membership level to call them on it. Because MoveOn hasn’t really made anything of its members, it’s just harvested their money and attention for the causes of its professional leaders.

Today, the progressive political ecosystem is a lot more varied than in the aughts, when a group like MoveOn was a rarity in its size and reach. Dozens of e-groups now can claim lists bigger than a million names. More importantly, there’s a new breed of nimble organizing networks that are far less centralized, like Black Lives Matter, the Sunrise Movement, and 350.org. Their strength, unlike MoveOn, is that they are centered on local collections of organizers who work in concert with each other. In some cases, like Sunrise, they have been deliberately incubated by organizers who have learned from earlier models of movement building, designed to scale small groups or teams of activists up to hundreds or thousands, autonomous yet working in tandem. It remains to be seen which model—MoveOn top-down one or the distributed network—will be most productive for the organizing of the 2020s.  

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More on EveryAction

My item in last week’s Connector about the open letter from a group of Democratic strategists urging EveryAction’s leaders to take a more assertive approach toward fighting political spam, now that the platform is part of a much larger conglomerate rolled up by Apax, a private equity firm, is in need of a correction and some clarification. First, the correction: Longtime Democratic donor Alan Patricof, who helped founded Apax, is now running Greycroft Partners and appears to be no longer affiliated with Apax. All the more reason to ask why this deal isn’t getting more scrutiny.

In addition, Mike Liddell of NGP/VAN (an EveryAction product) writes to say my interview with Josh Nelson, the lead organizer of the open letter, “definitely implied that the DCCC [Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee] uses NGP VAN for email – that’s actually not the case. The DCCC uses a platform called Acoustic for email – they used to be owned by IBM but were spun off a couple years back.” Liddell adds, “In fact, only 1 of the big 5 Dem committees use NGP VAN for email. The DCCC and DGA [Democratic Governors Association] both use Acoustic, the DNC [Democratic National Committee] and DLCC [Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee] both use Action Network. Obviously that sort of thing kind of undercuts Josh’s belief that NGP VAN could ‘move the entire fundraising ecosystem’ so I’m not surprise he didn’t point that out, but figured it was worth flagging for you.”

In response, Nelson told me, “Whether the DCCC uses [EveryAction’s] software to send emails is beside the point. The fact is, EveryAction has massive market share among both Democratic campaigns and progressive non-profits. In Apax Partners' press release announcing the recent acquisition it even called the company a ‘landscape-defining social good software platform.’ What people are hoping to see now is for EveryAction to use its market power to help define the landscape in ways that will benefit an overwhelming majority of its client base.”

What’s confusing about all this (and perhaps feels like a tempest in a teapot, except for the fact that we’re talking about some of the most critical pieces in the Democratic party’s infrastructure) is that Liddell himself refers to the DCCC as well as “DSCC, DCCC, DGA, EMILY’s List and many others” as “our long-time partners.” So as Nelson says, the issue is less which specific software tool organizations use, and more whether the industry steps up to police itself better. And a reminder: we’re talking about organizations that purport to be in favor of things like a more fair and just economy, and dealing how many of them keep using deceptive and abusing tactics to trick gullible Americans, especially senior citizens, into helping them hit their fundraising targets.

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Odds and Ends

-“Some people learn to express more outrage over time because they are rewarded by the basic design of social media,” Yale post-doc William Brady has found in a new study. By analyzing 12.7 millions from more than 7,000 Twitter users, he and his collaborator Molly Crocket found that users who received more “likes” and “retweets” when they expressed outrage in a tweet were more likely to express outrage in later posts. I for one am outraged by this, and not just because hanging out online has taught me to be more outraged. When you combine this finding with the effect of “in-group homogeneity”—helping people form groups around like-minded interests also increases their tendency to target outsiders who don’t conform to their group’s values—suddenly a lot of what has gotten worse in the last decade or two becomes clearer. To oversimplify: Facebook’s invention of the “like” button and its fostering of group formation have torqued already conflict-filled mass societies up a notch in how we cluster into self-affirming groups and how outraged we feel toward others. Welcome to the angry present.

-Bonus link: Here’s another recent study by Steve Rathje et al, published in PNAS, that extends my point further. “Posts about political opponents are substantially more likely to be shared on social media … this out-group effect is much stronger than other established predictors of social media sharing, such as emotional language.” (Three years ago, when researchers inside Facebook started digging into these problems, their work was shut down by company executives, the Wall Street Journal reported. Never forget that inside Facebook, the notion that the platform itself might be contributing to increased political polarization or extremism was deemed “crazy” by Mark Zuckerberg after Trump’s election in 2016 and brushed off by Sheryl Sandberg after the January 6th insurrection.)

-It’s 2021, and Facebook’s vaunted artificial intelligence algorithm is labeling videos featuring Black men as “videos about Primates,” Ryan Mac reports for The New York Times.

-Lyft and Uber have both said they will pay driver’s legal fees if they are sued under the new Texas anti-abortion law. Lyft didn’t mince words, either, defending women’s right to access health care in a statement it released last Friday. It also donated $1 million to Planned Parenthood.

-Say hello to Mina Hsiang, the new head of the U.S. Digital Service. She’s filling the shoes of former Googler Matt Cutts, who left in April. Nancy Scola has more details on how the USDS relates to the new U.S. Digital Corps.

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