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Astroturfing, 38 Degrees and MPs views of e-actions

Should we be concerned about Stephen Phillips MP writing to constituents in response to 38 Degrees last campaign to say that he will;

‘in the future not respond to campaigns run by what purports to be a, but what to is most evidently not, a non-political organisation’

Perhaps not, unless you work for 38 Degrees and even then I suspect that you’d think it’s good publicity. Although this tweet suggests that it’s not simply Philips who take this approach to 38 Degrees at the moment.

But Philips isn’t the first to complain, last summer we had another Conservative MP, Dominic Raab say;

‘there are hundreds of campaign groups like yours, and flooding MPs inboxes with pro-forma emails creates an undue administrative burden. I welcome anyone who feels strongly about AV writing to me in person – rather than copying an automated template’

While a few weeks ago Labour backbench, Steve Pound MP wrote in Tribune;

‘On any given day there will be between three and five campaigning bodies, trades unions or special interest groups encouraging their members and supporters to e-mail their MP – and woe betide the miserable Member who fails to reply by return’

Astroturfing - actions designed to give the appearance of a "grassroots" movement

It is of course easy to dismiss these MPs as a few grumpy MPs who simply need to get control of their inboxes, but are these the views of a growing majority?

If so, then I do think we need to worry as it could mean that e-actions to MP could rapidly become a blunt and ineffective campaign tool.

I’m not aware of any empirical evidence that exists about the views of MPs about e-actions, but anecdotally the MPs I’ve heard will tell you that they see e-actions as being less ‘influential’ as a handwritten letter, which itself is less ‘influential’ than a visit to a surgery (or similar).

I don’t think that this response of Philips means we should stop running e-actions to MPs, but I do wonder if as campaigners we need to work with the Speakers office and others within Parliament to help to identify a way of ensuring that those who take e-actions as a legitimate way of engaging in the democratic process aren’t ignored by MPs who simply think that these actions are a ‘nuisance’.

But it also highlights the importance of using other tools in our campaigning to demonstrate grassroots support, perhaps more interestingly is the description that Guido Fawkes used to describe 38 Degrees in his blog as a ‘left-wing astroturfing operation’.

Astroturfing being a term used in the US for a number of years to describe as ‘advocacy in support of a political, organizational, or corporate agenda, designed to give the appearance of a “grassroots” movement’.

It’s of course unfair and unfounded to because one of the other tactics that 38 Degrees selected to use to campaign on the NHS Bill was to encourage the public in Lib Dem constituencies to phone their MPs, and they’ve also spent months building local groups to get behind the campaign.

But the impression that some see many of the e-actions we’re generating as a sector are coming from organisations that don’t have any ‘grassroots’ support behind them is a concern, especially if the majority of MPs start to view them in this way.

Perhaps if there is a lesson to take from all of this, it’s that tending to and building a ‘grassroots’ is as important as building a big mailing list to generate e-actions.

Do you agree? How much longer do you think e-actions to MP will remain effective?

Comments

6 Comments

Harold Forbes

I started having meetings on climate change with my MP as part of the Big Connection campaign that was organised last year. He open by saying that he didn’t think it was much of an issue for his constituents (& by implication for him) as he didn’t get many letters on the subject.
E-actions do have a role to play but maybe it is better to focus on getting the magical 100,000 signatures on the e-petitions & urge individual constiuents to use old fashioned hand writing for individual MPs.

Emma McEwan (@Emma_McEwan)

As much as I am guilty of asking fellow campaigners to email the standard template letter to their MP in support of a campaign – I do agree that the most effective is a tailored letter detailing why the issue matters to them, but when people have little time in their day to do this surely the best way to show support is by adding your name to the pre written letter?!
E-actions definitely have a part to play in showing mass grassroots support for change and should not be described as ‘a nuisance’ by MP’s. They have a duty to respond to their constituents concerns and this is an established key tool in communication between MP and constituent that should continue.

Mark Parker

This is an issue as much about building grassroots support as about e-mail campaigns to MPs. The drive to get large numbers of emails sent to MPs often overshadows the longterm hard graft required to build a meaningful constituency of knowledgable supporters. Organising people for the long haul is a surefire way to get consistent attention from politicians of all parties. The same committed groups articulate their own views of the issue in writing and in person, ensuring real contact with policy-makers. An over-emphasis on email devalues the vital need for effective grassroots organising.

Mark Pack

In my experience, when people complain about quantity it’s often actually the quality that is the underlying problem – e.g. you feel a newsletter comes out too often because actually you find the content uninteresting.

For mass lobbying campaigns, I think there is a big problem that MPs often feel the people sending them are nominally saying “this is a really big deal” but doing so in a way (e.g. by using a pro forma word for word) that seems to them to say “I can’t be bothered to take 5 minutes over this”.

There was a great example recently from Cambridge MP Julian Huppert who complained about the number of emails he gets from people demanding that he signs EDMs … which he had in fact originally put down!

tombaker

Thanks Mark. A really good point.

I think from the comments that I’ve got on here and twitter today that we’re all saying that we need to be much more ‘smart’ in our use of this tactic, and do as much as we can to personalise and target the asks to the appropriate MP. Your example from Cambridge is far to familiar.

I also think we’re sometimes guilty of overhyping the importance of the issue and then making the ‘ask’ of our target rather small or mundane.

Jess

I think the appropriation of the term ‘astroturfing’ here is worrying. It is usually used to describe campaigning which is faking the idea that there are grassroots organisations and individuals who care about an issue, and hides the fact that there is an orchestrated campaign behind it. Even 38 degrees’ harshest critics aren’t claiming that they’re making people up, and there is certainly no effort made to hide who is involved. Lumping together criticisms of ‘too easy’ online activism with the genuinely dishonest is a pretty sneaky bit of framing… There is a world of difference between 38 degrees membership funding, strenuous efforts for transparency and genuine chances for the membership to be involved, and astroturfing, where groups are not transparent about who is really behind the campaign.


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