The State of the Union of Political Tech 2019
Resistance and Innovation: 2018 Year In Review
2018 was a year of sustained progressive resistance against Trump’s toxic agenda, culminating in a midterm election with record turnout that ended GOP control of the House. This resistance was fueled by the energy and attention of millions of Americans who personally felt the threat of the Trump administration. Technology channeled this energy into action and impact.
At MoveOn, 2018 was the year of peer to peer textbanking — we sent 50MM texts in 2018 with our open source system Spoke. 2018 was the year we used social media at scale to lift up the voices of regular people talking about their values and why they are voting to add hundreds of thousands of votes to Democrats’ margins, making MoveOn the highest spender on political Facebook ads the week before the election. It was the year of tech-powered grassroots mobilization. It was also the year we rolled out a new brand and website.
2018 was a year of massive grassroots resistance. The day after the midterm elections, MoveOn and the No One Is Above The Law coalition launched nationwide protests in response to Trump crossing a red line by pushing out Jeff Sessions. The protest hub site was built on ActionKit’s event management system, plus frontend customization of the event search page, and backend logistics management tools. On Nov 8, 1000 protest events nationwide had been registered on this site, with 500,000 event RSVPs. The call to action went viral, the site received 3MM views in 12 hours, and hundreds of thousands of protestors took to the streets.
2018 was the year of new political tech startups, including new product companies like Voter Circle, Mobilize America and new incubators like Higher Ground Labs. 2018 was the year of new nonprofit tech coalitions, like The Movement Cooperative. 2018 was the year that organizations born in the wake of the nation’s fury over the 2016 presidential election showed up as major, powerful players, like Indivisible, Women’s March, March On, Swing Left, and Vote.org. 2017 was the year the tech industry woke up to politics and the threat of the Trump administration, and 2018 was the year the tech industry showed up.
All of our 2018 midterm election work was powered by data, and the tools needed to wield data effectively at scale. All national scale organizing work relies on some combination of tech and data tools, because reaching and mobilizing millions of people who aren’t all in the same place requires significant coordination and logistics management. 2019 will be the year we channel the surge of grassroots energy into tech-enabled systems of sustained progressive power.
Where are we going?
In 2019 we face a new and unique set of challenges. 2019 will be the year progressive organizations evolve from historically email-centric engagement to truly multi-channel communication and mobilization platforms. The big tech platforms will have incredible power to impact, amplify, or minimize our multi-channel work. The tech industry has shown up and is flooding political tech with money, people, new startups, new ideas — some excellent, and some problematic. New progressive and progressive tech coalition models will enable scrappy nonprofits to do more with limited resources.
To effectively mobilize, you need to really listen to the Americans who share your values, and meet them where they are on the platforms they use. Historically, progressive organizing’s digital toolset has been email-centric: if a group wanted to communicate, mobilize, or fundraise, this has meant communicating mostly in words, and mostly over email. A progressive organization’s fundraising and engagement power had historically been a function of the size of its email list.
In 2019, Americans engage via many different platforms, and messaging is as much about images and video as it is about words. At MoveOn, 60% of members engaging with any of our tools now engage from mobile devices. Different demographic groups disproportionately engage on different platforms. Email engagement skews older, Facebook skews middle aged, Twitter and Instagram and Snapchat skew younger. Most people actively use more than one platform, and new, viable platforms are emerging. Video itself is a platform, and video producers have several video distribution options that present changing tradeoffs, and reward platform loyalty. For example, Facebook prioritizes “native” video in news feeds — video uploaded directly to Facebook versus video shared from another source, like YouTube. Should your video engagement strategy be optimized for one particular platform or go for broad reach?
Some organizing groups choose to create and maintain their own native apps, or distribute content through action aggregator apps. I consider a native app to be yet another communication platform, and an app-based content strategy to be an additional channel to engage with. Launching or bootstrapping an app audience forces you to solve both the problem of content distribution in yet another place, and the problem of building and keeping an audience anchored in your app. For most groups, the potential added reach doesn’t justify the development and maintenance cost, especially when your audience is already straddling so many platforms.
Video game live streaming communities are engageable audiences now, as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez proved when she stopped by a Twitch stream to raise money for transgender kids. She raised $200K in 12 hours, and $340K in 57 hours.
In the US, SMS is the dominant messaging mechanism, but in the rest of the world, WhatsApp is dominant. Usage and growth of SMS engagement in the US has been controlled not just by consumer demand but also by telecom carrier pricing plans, and data vs cellular network availability and reliability. A long tail of chat platforms are trying to gain chat market share, with unclear winners. Users are actively navigating tradeoffs between messaging systems owned by for-profit companies with data privacy issues, and less funded and often harder to use but secure, encrypted chat apps like Signal.
Engagement is all about meeting people where they are, with message content and style optimized for each platform. This presents a scaling problem for progressive organizing groups who have grown up using one primary communication platform, because it means changing the content development and delivery process, and evolving what was once a single communication strategy into many parallel strategies. It costs more time and money to show up meaningfully on many platforms.
Multi-channel engagement makes organizing processes like inviting people to events near them or sending event reminders and post-event followup messages a more subtle and complex process. Do you send all reminder messages to all people on all platforms? Do you segment users into preferred engagement channels? Are particular messages better suited for particular channels? While there has been some testing here in the past few years, this space is ripe for optimization.
Demographic skews on different platforms also make the choice of which channels to communicate on implicitly a strategic choice about which groups of people to actively listen to and engage with. Sticking with a tried and true email-based strategy for example means disproportionately listening and responding to an older, whiter audience. All progressive organizing groups need a demographic engagement strategy to be able to wield multi-channel communication effectively.
Credibility Across Channels
Showing up meaningfully on many platforms presents the challenges of creating more content, and keeping content consistent across the different channels. Multi-channel messaging should be recognizable and credible.
A key part of keeping messaging recognizable across channels is keeping branding consistent. A key part of showing up with credibility across channels is prioritizing user experience.
Prioritizing user experience means looking at your data to figure out what platforms members are using, optimizing your websites and tools for these platforms, and focusing your development and design resources on solving the right problems. According to MoveOn Product Manager for Growth and UX Tillie McInnis, “Through data you can learn the ‘what’, but to learn the ‘why’ you have to understand user behavior. The majority of the time, organizations are solving for the wrong problem — UX is key to pulling organizations’ out of their own assumptions, empathizing with the end user’s needs, and identifying how to tackle problems.”
Historically, progressive organizing has been underfunded and desperately scrappy, and progressive tech built on limited budgets with tight timelines failed to even consider user experience. As a result, users of progressive tech typically had to struggle through confusing tools and awkward layouts to find the information they needed. In 2019, we can’t get away with this anymore — user experience is critical to the efficacy of our work. Organizations can’t afford to waste time solving the wrong problems, or diminish grassroots energy with tools that get in the way of action. UX leadership will also be key to making multi-channel engagement work. According to MoveOn Web Designer Vickie Fontaine, “Design solutions and usage stories can take into account many demographics of users and many platforms, in outcome and process. The design helps deliver the message. Who were are listening to drives the design decisions.”
Good UX = credibility and impact. Bad UX can have serious consequences, and can even be used as a tool of voter suppression.
Tech Platforms Force Big Tradeoffs
Throughout the course of the tech industry’s history, we’ve seen a pattern where every 2–5 years the core building blocks of a particular type of infrastructure jump up a meta level in power and functionality, and the key problems everyone previously had to solve became libraries or tools that then became the new building blocks for the next wave of innovation.
We’re seeing the same arc with communication platforms. 30 years ago there was email, 25 years ago we had a few blog platforms and a few chat platforms. After the late 90s DotCom-era bubble burst, a handful of surviving companies left us with a few new social media and sharing models that were just starting to gain traction: MySpace, LinkedIn, Photobucket, Flickr. Social media as an industry exploded in the mid aughts: Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Spotify, Foursquare, Pinterest, YouTube. Gmail emerged in the aughts as a dominant email platform. By the late aughts Twitter and Facebook became sustainable, profitable social media companies. Amazon became the everything company for e-commerce, and Google became the everything company for information.
Now in 2019, Twitter, Facebook, Google are not just successful providers of communication tools, they are dominant communication platforms. Web developers have systematically delegated identity management to Google, Facebook, Twitter to save time and attempt to be more secure. Growth of social media and email ad markets, with their ability to micro-target based on demographic characteristics and user behavior steadily drew advertising away from traditional ad markets, mirroring the search industry’s ad market growth in the early aughts.
In 2019, the “tech platforms” are the places where communication and engagement happen. They are the owners of most identity data, of the social graphs that connect users, and of behavior data that track what people care about and what people do.
What does all this mean for political tech? Since we need to meaningfully show up on multiple communication channels to engage people where they are, we need to show up in ecosystems the big tech platforms own and control. All of them have a profit motive, and all of them have more money and power than any nonprofit is likely to ever have. This means the platforms become the arbiters of legitimacy of content, and can shut your program down without warning, explanation, or remedy. Or they can compete with your advocacy tactics. They can potentially turn over you and your members’ personal data in corporate or government subpoenas. Every time organizing groups engage with members, we generate engagement data that the tech platforms own. This data makes the ad markets smarter and more precise. The old aphorism holds true: if you are not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold.
The challenge for political nonprofits is not whether we can or should use the big tech platforms — we have to use them to engage with and mobilize Americans. The challenge is not whether we should live in a surveillance economy where all our interaction data is collected and metabolized into ad market refinements — this is the drastically connected, monetized world we now live in. As Zeynep Tufekci put it, “We’re building this infrastructure of surveillance authoritarianism merely to get people to click on ads.” The challenge of nonprofits running campaigns on the big tech platforms is figuring out how to operate safely and effectively in a fundamentally unsafe and biased digital environment.
This is the digital analog to a public protest. When running a protest, you need to know the rules of the place where the protest will be so you can carefully and safely bring media focus on the issues you are trying to amplify. In some cities this means getting permits, in others it means sticking to the town square, in others it means carefully coordinating with other local groups, in others it means hiring security.
In both the physical and digital worlds, progressive organizers need to openly and honestly assess risks, and constantly reassess the best ways to push our message while not endangering the people who are carrying the message. Sometimes this means working within the constraints of the platform rules, sometimes this means using advocacy tactics to change the rules. To quote Zeynep Tufekci: “The same algorithms set loose upon us to make us more pliable for ads are also organizing our political, personal, and social information flows. ”
The Tech Industry Showed Up
Trump’s election in 2016 surprised and scared millions of Americans, including the previously ambivalent tech industry. In 2017 and 2018 this renewed interest in politics led to a steady surge of tech money, resources, vendors, and industry veterans into the political tech space. The tech industry loves to chase big ambitious problems, and a democracy under threat is a really big, interesting problem to solve. The big question is whether the tech industry will adjust quickly enough to the constraints of the political tech world to have a lasting impact.
Many venture capital firms invest on 10-year timelines, create competition by intentionally funding many competing companies racing into the same market, accept a high failure rate for most investments, and try to bet on that one company that becomes the world changing, industry creating, economy sustaining unicorn. This model probably won’t work for political tech. Political tech is inherently bound to 2 and 4 year timelines, must navigate around nonnegotiable bureaucracy, and serves a part of our economy designed to hold the private sector accountable, not compete with it.
The political tech marketplace needs the growth the tech industry can provide. Ten years ago, the political tech ecosystem was a handful of vendors that together provided a baseline of political CRM, fundraising, mobilization, and engagement tools. Campaigns rebuilt and sunset tech, solving similar problems every 2 years. Five years ago, despite some ecosystem growth, the still small market cap of political tech and the boom-and-bust fundraising cycle had kept many for-profit vendors out. The lack of organic competition created a wide range of political tech product quality, accidental monopolies, and wildly variable pricing.
The tech industry showing up is a huge opportunity, and can bring more competition, more product offerings, more innovation. The challenge for the tech industry is to adapt quickly enough to the real constraints of the political tech world, survive the boom and bust election-related fundraising cycles, and intentionally grow one-off tools into sustainable platforms.
What this means for political nonprofits
With a surge of new tech product offerings, 2019 could be the year when nonprofits and campaigns can finally make real build vs buy decisions on key tools and platforms. This will be mostly good for nonprofits and campaigns, but will come with a set of tradeoffs to carefully navigate.
Know the platform switching cost before experimenting. Political CRMs like ActionKit or Action Network will probably have the highest switching costs, while self-contained platform-specific engagement tools like a new Facebook messenger bot will have the lowest switching costs. It’s safer and cheaper to experiment with tools that have a lower switching cost. The benefit should justify the cost when experimenting with new platform tools that require a months or years long migration.
Beware the boom and bust cycle. There will be many new tech and data vendors this year and next, and many will not survive a democratic presidential win. A democratic win in 2020 is the goal, but with a win comes temporary complacency and a drop in donations. A temporary surge of venture capital money will likely create more competition among vendors than the ecosystem can organically support, which will lead to long-term vendor instability.
Have a plan for integrating multiple systems. In a multi-channel world with many vendors, it’s important to think carefully about how you’ll synchronize and organize your data between systems. To avoid what the distributed systems world calls the “split brain” problem, standardize on one system as a “system of record” for incoming updates related to key tables like users, donations, events. Account for the development cost of integrating additional systems into the system of record, and make sure these integrations actually work. When possible, negotiate with vendors to push the task of creating data syncing mechanisms onto the vendor.
Beware tech industry hubris. The tech industry has a cultural tendency to believe it can safely invent the future without first understanding the past. In American politics every decision has an important historical context, and the political tool ecosystem encodes a history of economic and structural decisions and constraints. Beware the friendly tech industry veterans who claim they can reimagine or reinvent politics and advocacy without first doing their homework. The rich tech industry is able to support the high cost of broad experimentation, and does its experimentation mostly in consumer markets. The cost of being wrong about building a new website that sells eyeglasses for example is relatively low. The cost of being wrong about how to counteract voter suppression or hold a corrupt administration account is very high.
New progressive and progressive tech coalition models
Progressive nonprofits will always have limited resources, but new coalition and collaboration models can help nonprofits pool resources, find economies of scale, and make us stronger together. In 2019 we’ll see tech coops, tech volunteer communities, and tech-powered coalitions pool resources to do more powerful work together.
In 2018 we saw the emergence of The Movement Cooperative, a coop focused on collective bargaining for data and technology resources. This group provides the clear and immediate benefit of driving down the cost of tech tools and data to all its member organizations, and in 2019 will take the collaboration model further, experimenting with ways to pool together shared libraries and create standards for data modeling and data integration. Partner organizations will have a significant advantage heading into 2020 powered by a broader toolset than each member organization could have previously individually afforded.
In the wake of the 2016 elections, several technology volunteer communities have evolved into formal sustainable organizations. The Progressive Coders Network is a community of activists building open-source tools to empower the grassroots and reduce the influence of big money in politics. PCN is now a 501(c)(4) nonprofit structure, with an active, moderated slack community of thousands of members creating, supporting, and launching open source collaborations. Ragtag is another volunteer-based organization, with a core staff to support the volunteers and manage projects on behalf of non-profits, activist groups, and campaigns. “Our work is focused on making sure that tech volunteers take the time to listen to the needs and constraints of the folks we work with — organizations with unique knowledge of the social and political issues they seek to address. A single software project can only get us so far,” said Ragtag founder Brady Kriss. “We make sure that the people we built it for can successfully use it, and that it’s maintained and supported in and out of election cycles.” Ragtag’s volunteers support their partners to use tech more effectively, helping organizations with build-or-buy decisions, building integrations, and creating open-source tools.
Every election, tech volunteers coalesce into project-focused groups, some sanctioned by campaigns, some independent. The remarkable thing we saw in 2018 and will continue to see in 2019 is that several tech volunteer groups are still harnessing sustained energy in an election “off year.”
There are several software engineering challenges these groups need to solve:
- How to evolve one-off projects into platforms that can actually be used by campaigns?
- How to effectively harness the energy of many tech volunteers with only a few spare hours a week? Context switching between software projects in for-profit jobs is a known hard problem. Can volunteer coalitions come up with better onboarding and task management processes to be able to make real use of sporadic volunteer time?
- How do volunteer networks do not just effective technical work, but also effective product management work, to ensure we’re collectively solving the right problems at the right times?
Progressive nonprofits have successfully used coalitions for decades to amplify campaigns across organizations. In 2018 we saw a refinement of the coalition resource model, anchoring coalitions around shared tech and data tools. The dozens of partners in the No One Is Above The Law coalition for example shared MoveOn’s tech tools and website, collaborated on message and hub site amplification, and negotiated data sharing practices within the coalition that worked for the individual partners. This site accumulated 1000 protest events nationwide, and 500,000 event RSVPs. If there had been many websites instead of just one, the events would have been split between many sites, and the significance and breadth of the national energy would have been harder to measure and describe. We owe it to our members to effectively tell the story of their collective organizing power.
In 2019 we face significant opportunity: more tech tools, energy, vendors, money, real choices on tech platforms and systems. We have more viable communication platforms, and more ways to meet members where they are on the platforms they use.
Political advocacy groups face important tech strategy decisions for 2019:
- Who are we trying to reach, and on which platforms?
- How can we scale messaging across platforms with limited resources?
- How can we engage safely and with accountability on the big “tech platforms”?
- When and how should we experiment with new tools?
- How can we efficiently integrate multiple systems together?
And when we hit on an innovative new tactic or tool, the next big question is: how to scale?
The most important thing for progressive tech folks to remember when experimenting in 2019 is to listen to organizers and listen to members. The breakout tech tools of 2020 won’t be isolated inventions from tech industry veterans, they’ll come from low-ego technology and data people willing to embed with organizers and really listen to both organizers and passionate progressive Americans. Progressive political tech should be an amplification engine for the grassroots energy that is already there. Winning in 2020 is not a tech or data problem, it’s an organizing problem.
To quote former MoveOn Director of Analytics Milan de Vries, “Wielding political power requires tough compromises and sometimes impossible choices. Wielding grassroots power requires clear, aspirational principles that members can articulate. Listen to members and be as bold as their dreams are.”