Holly McCall, a stay-at-home mom in the D.C. suburb of Vienna, Va., was shocked when she discovered that a 2-year-old federal regulation barred her from signing up for a credit card without her husband’s approval. She launched an online petition, quickly gathered 33,000 signatures and within weeks found herself sitting face-to-face with one of the country’s top financial regulators.
A meeting with Richard Cordray, the head of the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, would be a big get for even the most well-connected Washington, D.C., lobbyist. But for an increasingly powerful community of Internet activists, it was just the latest in a recent string of little-heralded victories, another moment in which citizen cyber- activism outperformed K Street clout.
A provision in a 2009 law overhauling rules for credit card issuers prevents companies from considering “household income” when approving an application. With no income of her own, McCall could open only a joint account with her husband, the family breadwinner. “I’m not sure I realized that I was doing anything akin to what the lobbyists do,” said McCall, who worked as a Capital One marketing manager until four years ago. “My knowledge of the inner workings of Washington is limited.” (The CFPB is considering her appeal of the strictures of the rules.)
The new ways private citizens interact with lawmakers, regulators and corporate executives are among the most striking examples of how social media has changed our political lives. In the past year, online campaigns have led to a series of policy victories, threatening to dramatically change, or even marginalize, Washington’s traditional influence industry.
People have been organizing online for nearly a decade. In 2008, a Democratic presidential candidate revolutionized online outreach and mobilization with his campaign’s website, MyBarackObama.com. Two years later, tea party activists rallied vast online networks of first-time donors to infuse key races with pre-election cash, catapulting conservative political neophytes into primary victories and Congressional seats. In a matter of months, political consultants, once integral to any kind of successful campaign, seemed a luxury. Now, techniques that proved effective on the trail are being applied to policy and product-related campaigns.
“There’s a fundamental shift taking place just over the last 12 months,” said Cyrus Krohn, who developed the Crowdverb digital mobilization tool that was recently acquired by the public relations firm Direct Impact. “How does this start to shift the landscape of a body that functions in a particular way for so long? I kind of wonder if the genie is out of the bottle.”
So, what changed? Until recently, lawmakers treated the millions of mass emails like spam, easily ginned up and easily trashed, in large part because there was no reliable way to authenticate the sender, Krohn said. But the proliferation of public profiles — on Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms — has made it easier to pair digital correspondence with a physical address and, most importantly, a unique constituent.
The SOPA Soap
No public policy debate exemplifies this transition more than the backlash this winter that derailed legislation aimed at combating online piracy. The bills — the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the House and the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA) in the Senate — had the backing of influential Members of Congress in both parties, the well-financed and politically generous entertainment industry and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, one of Washington’s most powerful lobbying forces.
But Internet companies saw the bills, which would allow the government to bring legal action against copyright infringers, as a form of censorship. It was the first time lawmakers had made a serious attempt to police the Internet — and the tech firms viewed the effort as a fundamental threat to their livelihoods. For months, lobbyists for Google and other Internet giants made their case to Congress. But Washington didn’t blink until popular websites such as Wikipedia, Reddit, Craigslist and thousands of others went dark for a day in protest. Within two days, the sponsors put their legislative efforts on indefinite hold.
“They pulled this card out that nobody thought they had and they played it as well as anybody, and it wasn’t because a storm of lobbyists came in,” Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), an opponent of the bill, said of the Silicon Valley forces. “That also had the effect of scaring leadership to death. When you can scare leadership like that, it’s pretty effective.”
It was a wake-up call for lobbyists, too, especially those at the chamber and in Hollywood, whose months-long advertising and Hill campaigns were crushed by one 24-hour protest.
Few of the websites had ever dabbled directly in politics before and none had lobbyists. Eventually Wikipedia, the most visited site in the world, temporarily brought in Jim Burger with Dow Lohnes Government Strategies but restricted him to intelligence-gathering.
“People who influence the Hill are probably going to learn how to talk to entire communities as opposed to the GR guy at a company,” Geoffrey Brigham, general counsel at the Wikimedia Foundation, which coordinated the blackout, said in discussing the evolution in government relations. “I could see a world in the future where consultants or lobbyists would actually play a very interactive role with the community.”
Cyber-activists have made their biggest strides in policy battles over consumer-oriented issues.
In the past year, petitions started on Change.org convinced the Department of Agriculture to retract a policy encouraging schools to use beef containing “pink slime” — beef scraps and connective tissue treated with ammonia hydroxide — in cafeteria lunches and forced Enterprise Rent-A-Car, the rental industry’s most powerful lobbying force and biggest political donor, to the bargaining table on legislation that would make it illegal to rent vehicles that are under a manufacturers’ recall.
Change.org, a social petition website founded in 2007, first earned attention for campaigns targeting the policies of major corporations such as Bank of America and Apple Inc., but the platform has quickly become the destination for private citizens who want to sway legislation (mostly of a liberal bent) on Capitol Hill.
The website and other social media advocacy tools rely on the political value of personal passion — a factor that even the best professional lobbyist cannot duplicate. While it’s unlikely that online activism could ever entirely displace the professional K Streeter, the tools have changed the way they do their job.
For example, Pamela Gilbert, a public interest lobbyist at Cuneo, Gilbert & LaDuca, used to hire costly pollsters to help illuminate consumer attitudes for lawmakers and regulators. But in advising the driver advocacy group Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety on the Enterprise case, she turned to Change.org. “What used to be a generalized message from a public interest advocate can now be made deeply personal from real people, and the process is cost-free,” she said. “The clincher in the end was that Internet presence.”
Cally Houck has been fighting for federal regulation of recalled rental vehicles since 2004, when her two daughters were killed after a recalled Enterprise rental caught fire from leaking power steering fluid. With the help of Gilbert and C.A.R.S., Houck persuaded Hertz Rent-a-Car to support the bill. Then the coalition turned to Enterprise, operating on the notion that industry support is essential to winning inclusion of provisions in the transportation bill.
But the petition generated so much attention — nearly 136,000 signatures in two days — that the company’s stance began to seem irrelevant to the proposal’s prospects in Congress. Even Hertz Senior Vice President Richard Broome said the petition outperformed millions of dollars spent on top Washington lobbyists. “These are people who may not have influence and can’t hire a lobbyist, but the petition shows they do have power,” he said at the time.
Countering Corporate Politicking
Online tools have not only helped private citizens battle corporate lobbyists in the halls of Congress and federal agencies, but have also helped advocacy groups persuade major corporations to rethink their political activities.
The anti-corporate-money movement that’s been gaining steam in the past two years since the Supreme Court lifted restrictions on direct corporate and union spending in campaigns has become increasingly Internet savvy. Most notable has been a grass-roots campaign to convince consumer-facing corporations to terminate their memberships with the American Legislative Exchange Council, the conservative nonprofit that has come under fire for promoting state “Stand Your Ground” laws, which allow a person to use force in self-defense without an obligation to first attempt to flee.
After months of pressure from liberal organizations — led by the Internet-based African-American advocacy Color of Change — at least 18 corporations including Walmart, the world’s No. 1 retailer, Yum Brands Inc., Amazon and Blue Cross Blue Shield, dropped the group. “We are not only giving people information, but pairing it with something to do,” said Rashad Robinson, executive director of Color of Change. “That type of theory of organizing is not new, but the power of online tools makes us so much more efficient. It’s helping us balance the playing field between small organizations like ours and powerful entities.”
As the defections mounted, ALEC was forced into action. In April it disbanded its Criminal Justice Task Force, which promoted Stand Your Ground laws and voter identification measures like those that have passed in at least eight states.
Despite its attempts to turn the increased scrutiny into an opportunity to self-promote, the future of the organization, less than a year ago considered one of the most influential public policy forces on the right, now seems in jeopardy.
In the admittedly small universe of lawmakers, agency heads and corporate executives that manage their own social media pages, direct action and public response has become easier than ever.
The major question is when and how often an expertly organized online campaign will carry an issue across the finish line. The lobbyists whose jobs could be displaced argue that a flash-mob-style demonstration may be well-suited for shooting ideas down but inadequate when it comes to legislative and regulatory sausage making.
“There’s an inside world of crafting legislation and offering amendments and fighting amendments that simply cannot be done with a series of postcards,” Gilbert said.
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., takes a selfie with his cut-out head during the Hoops for Youth 16th annual charity basketball game held at George Washington University's Smith Center, September 8, 2014. The members of Congress team beat the lobbyist team 46-40. Buy photo here.