Matthew McGregor (Blue State Digital) at UEA

Live-blog. Excuse errors, lack of links, etc. Now complete, but will be revised and corrected at a later stage. Note that this should be read as summary/paraphrase not verbatim, not checked with speaker or recording, etc

Nick Anstead (lecturer at the School of Political, Social & International Studies) introduces the guest. He mentions interviewing McGregor during his PhD research, and his discovery that Jon Cruddas’ campaign was McGregor’s handiwork, and also the very current work with the Man. United supporters. We start with questions and answers.

Q: what are the differences between old and new style campaigning?

A: there isn’t a big difference. ‘Election campaigns are won by people speaking to their neighbours’. It’s how you use your email lists / followers – building of relationship, turning it into action (which is as a whole, offline). These tools are means to an end, e.g. talking to people at a door about reasons to vote for a candidate.

Q: indeed, this isn’t a completely revolutionary break. So if I was a potential customer and asked what is the BSD method, how would you pitch that?

A: first, a caveat: you can have the best technology, campaign and strategy in the world, but if your product isn’t good, that’s still a problem. McCain wouldn’t be president if he had Obama’s tools – he had the wrong vision for America. So: using online communities is a principle that can be applied – trade union, individual, not just in the US – but there are still differences between tactics. That said, you must operate with transparency and authenticity. (1) During the Obama campaign, David Plouff recorded short videos on his Mac explaining (in a reasonably open way) what was going on. People want to see openness if they are investing time in an organisation – treating with respect.

An example is email, 3 questions before you send – why am I on this list, what do you want from me right now, what comes next. Email is the most important tool right now – not Twitter or Digg! It’s about starting a conversation (like door-knocking), while a website is more like a street stall.

At the RNC, Sarah Palin said ‘do we really think that being a community organiser is a qualification for being President’ – attempt to put Obama down, but also directed at those campaigning for him. 10 minutes later, email by Obama campaign in response, sent to 10 million users. More money raised from this than any other email during the campaign.

Q: can you talk about Hope not Hate, a British example with some success?

A: 150k on the email list – up from 6k. Shows example of email – ‘not a newsletter’. One thing is the focus. Key information is in first 2 lines. One action requested – click on link and type in name (in this case, co-signing letter to local newspaper). Also provokes to tell friends – press a button, forward/tweet/share/etc. On average, every time someone takes an action, tells three others. This builds up the total number. This can mean quick and powerful responses, e.g. over 10k emails to head of ClearChannel protesting at BNP advertising. Time is important – e.g. email sent out after midnight when BNP candidates were elected with a bigger task – 7,500 uploaded ‘not in our name’ photos – ultimately turned into video. This is a good way of talking about social media, which can work to amplify (e.g. video and petition), which again brings more people in. For Facebook, though, you don’t control the data and it’s not your site – ‘they are more like embassies’, a tourist strategy. Also: you don’t persuade people not to vote for the BNP by sending emails to your friends – you need an offline strategy. For HNH this was flooding areas with campaigns, getting people on the ground. The email etc drives people to take offline action. Barriers to joining in are lowered, e.g. no need to demonstrate passion to ‘join’, search by postcode rather than specific contact details, etc. For HNH, ended up delivering more leaflets than the 2 major parties during the European campaign, over 3m, much more than planned.

Now to talk about donations. Obama raised half a million dollars from activists including through social media. You can indeed raise funds through the same type of emotional connection that drives campaigning – this is different to traditional charitable approach where donors don’t get ‘involved’. Presents the ‘ladder of participation’ – breaking down the email list, from ‘freeloaders’ (don’t read or read infrequently), then affiliates (read but little response), responders, volunteers, participants, donors, evangelists, superstars. For HNH again, offered training on how to do more at one of 12 venues – now has 550 people across the country, without previous political involvement, now active in communities. This is more inspiring than a large email list.

Audience questions:

Scott Wright: Is campaigning itself being democratised? Is this ‘revolutionary’ – e.g. would Obama have succeeded without new media? Also, is there a difference due to the cynical voters of the UK? Third sector more successful than political parties in the UK?

A: Both Tories and Labour say they haven’t been able to utilise tools because Obama was a ‘start-up’, it’s like turning around a tanker. This only goes so far – and tools don’t change fundamental human relationships. HNH was around and working, but new media amplified it. You could also ask if Kennedy wouldn’t have been President without TV. In the coming election, independent non-party groups will make a major impact, and social media will make an impact on the reporting, in particular the leaders’ debate.

John Street: do you worry about the populist (or negative) aspects?

A: I don’t think so: the interactions are much deeper than soundbites, politicians are incentivised to get involved in longer conversations. Like all tools, can be used for good or evil. Two examples from Obama: (1) Obama voted to absolve telcos for wiretapping, which supporters didn’t like, using tools on Obama website to organise against this – this wouldn’t have happened in the UK, but in this case it stayed, Obama responded on the group, 3-hour webchat, was explained to press as a different style of campaign. (2) during the transition, people could leave policy ideas on the website, legalise cannabis was top of the poll, slightly awkward but lots of ideas are circulated and this is positive. Mentions here too Power 2010 campaign in the UK, with 3,500 detailed reform proposals often on constitutional details, broken down to 30, then to 5 for campaign (100,000 votes). By opening things up, you find people interested in the future of the country, and maybe we aren’t as cynical as is thought.

Rupert Read: how much do you charge?

HNH – 3 members of staff; Labour – 4 working on new media; Obama – 110 on new media by end of campaign. To do the type of work that is expected, especially breaking down to categories, it can take a lot of time (e.g. HNH emails are broken down to around 10 targeted mails). There isn’t a menu of prices, but it’s substantial and a lot of organisations cannot afford. But alongside this, a small list of friends or a major managed list, the same principles apply.

Q (?): Is political activism through new media possibly capable of being based on rational arguments or just calls to action?

A: Referring to the HNH email discussed earlier, it involves rational arguments but also strong emotional appeal in a short email. The same link is used in a number of different places.

Q: does new media organised grassroots or astroturf?
Q: is Blue State Digital as a name a statement about politics (Democrat support?)

A: taking 2nd question first – yes, we are a Democratic-supporting firm (blue states on electoral map), we are on the left – trade union, social democrat, won’t work for companies that act in negative or damaging ways. On 1st question, new media can be used for either. We’ve been here before, e.g. use of radio. Yes, can be used to ‘fake’ activism, but on the whole people may see through this.

One single comment

  1. Notably, McGregor evades the question of whether Hope Not Hate represents democratisation–it doesn’t. It is an unaccountable top-down front for the Searchlight organisation, and far more concerned about getting the vote out for New Labour than defeating fascism. Certainly, Obama supporters were galvanised by on-line techniques: but the absemce of any fundamental ongoing mobilisation of those voters to challenge power structures since his election has been evident. I have written in some detail about Hope Not Hate/Blue State Digitial in the latest Notes From the Borderland magazine. BSD are certainly an effective business model–for themselves–but a better way of ‘doing’ politics? No way…

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