The recent blowing up of the Invisible Children viral video might have some of us thinking that Malcolm Gladwell was on to something with his biting critique of online politics, the so-called "slacktivism" debate. But the attention to the shooting death of Trayvon Martin and, even more so, the connected debate over Stand Your Ground gun laws and the distancing of some of the country's biggest companies from ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, shows how online organizing actually can work. And that, reasonably, seems to be causing palpitations in the hearts of everyone from Coca-Cola to the Koch brothers.
That's why even if, as Politico reports, the gun debate isn't happening in Washington, the NRA shouldn't be unconcerned.
To itself, ALEC is an organization dedicated to the advancement of free-market and limited-government principles through a unique "public-private partnership" between state legislators and the corporate sector. To its critics, it's a shadowy back-room arrangement where corporations pay good money to get friendly legislators to introduce prepackaged bills in state houses across the country. Started in the mid-1970s, ALEC's existence has been long known but its practices, largely, have not; the group hasn't been eager to tie its bills in Wisconsin to those in Ohio to those in North Carolina.
Nine months ago, though, a website called ALEC Exposed went live, showcasing more than 800 so-called model bills contributed by, the site's creators say, a still-anonymous whistle-blower. Beyond the bills themselves, the group built out a wide-ranging, sometimes confusing wiki aimed at documenting which legislators take part in the group, which corporations support it, and where the bills go once they leave ALEC.
Lisa Graves is executive director of the Center for Media and Democracy, the group that built ALEC Exposed. She's also a former Justice Department official in both the Clinton and Bush administrations. Said Graves on a call this week, "We built out the material using Google, the Internet Archive, and the Wayback Machine, primary records that were previously on ALEC's website, old old Lexis news clips, and the tobacco library," as in the digital archive run by the University of California of San Francisco as part of the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement of the late '90s. "There was a lot of material out there that was just not widely known."
Having the bills all in one place painted a certain picture. "If it's voter ID, it's ALEC," observed Doug Clopp, deputy director of programs at Common Cause. "If it's anti-immigration bills written hand-in-glove with private prison corporations, it's ALEC. If it's working with the NRA on 'shoot to kill' laws, it's ALEC. When you start peeling back state efforts to opt out of the regional greenhouse-gas initiative, it's ALEC." Adopted first in the states, by the time these laws bubble up to the national level, they're the conventional wisdom on policy.
For years, political types had vague notions of the state-to-state connections, but it was difficult to see the whole picture. ALEC Exposed launched with a series of companion articles in The Nation, detailing not only the bills themselves but the involvement of the Koch brothers, early ALEC funders. Graves said she was eager to avoid the fate of past interest-group reports that focused on ALEC then sat on shelves, unread. "I know the only way that we could possibly tell the story of this corporate bill mill across 50 states was to use, in essence, crowdsourcing that engaged other journalists, citizens, researchers, and writers."
One group that decided to jump into the mix was ColorofChange.org. Created in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the organization is known for its mastery of online organizing. The ALEC Exposed research was eye-opening, ColorofChange.org Executive Director Rashad Robinson said. ColorofChange.org took particular offense at the spate of voter ID laws that had originated within ALEC. It focused its efforts at peeling off the corporations taking part in the group.
In early December, ColorofChange.org sent out an email to its membership list. "For years," it read, "the right wing has been trying to stop black people, other people of color, young people, and the elderly from voting for partisan gain -- and now some of America's biggest companies are helping them do it." The missive introduced how ALEC works, detailing the spread of voter ID laws through dozens of states, including Kansas, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Texas, and Wisconsin. The lengthy e-mail was footnoted, meant to be a teaching document.
ColorofChange.org came up with a strategy. It would start by meeting face-to-face with corporations to explain to them why their participation in ALEC was troublesome. Some companies made the case, said Robinson, that they were simply dedicated to making sure all viewpoints were represented in public debates. "There's no two sides to black people voting," Robinson said he and his organizers countered. But always present was the cudgel: the tremendous public attention that ColorofChange.org could bring to bear with a few clicks. The group claims a membership of some 900,000 people.
Robinson recalls one meeting with an executive from Kraft. "I told him there are a lot of ways we can elevate this issue," said Robinson, laughing. "Black people buy a lot of macaroni and cheese."
"As we got closer, we showed them the website that would go live if they didn't pull out. That helped them understand that we were escalating these conversations from, 'Let's have a conversation about ALEC because we think you should be making a different choice' to 'We're going to launch a public campaign if you don't make a different choice.'" Those not familiar with ColorofChange.org, Robinson said, could Google the group and read all about its role in getting Glenn Beck off the air.
For months, things rolled along that way. Pepsi dropped out of ALEC. ColorofChange.org used that move to try to persuade Coca-Cola.
In January, the push against ALEC got a small bump when Republican Florida state Rep. Rachel Burgin submitted a bill calling for the federal government to cut corporate tax rates. Burgin had forgotten to strip the ALEC boilerplate from its top. Whereas, it read, "it is the mission of the American Legislative Exchange Council," so on and so forth. Burgin yanked the bill back a day later, but it was too late. Common Cause researcher Nick Surgey posted about it on the organization's blog. It got picked up in social media and joked about on cable news.
Then, on Feb. 26, 17 year-old Trayvon Martin was shot.
As Matt Stempeck, a researcher at MIT's Center for Civic Media recently detailed, the work of getting attention for Martin's case has been multipronged. The Martin family attorney approached the task with savvy, bringing Al Sharpton down to Florida to talk about the lack of charges against Martin's shooter. Martin's parents became vocal advocates, pushing law enforcement to bring charges in the case. A petition also went up on Change.org, the social organizing platform. Started in 2007, Change.org has gone through many permutations, cycling through being a fundraising hub and editorial hub before landing on being a straightforward petition platform.
But, as Stempeck describes, Change.org also has a not-so-secret weapon: It has hired some (some say all) of the best progressive online organizers in the business to help would-be petitioners figure out how to craft their petitions and whom to target with them. Here, it was the Sanford chief of police, the state's attorney in Florida's 4th District, Florida's attorney general, and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. Change.org also worked on Twitter to get celebrities engaged on Martin's behalf, prompting bold-faced names like Wyclef Jean, Spike Lee, and Mia Farrow to tweet about the case. Then the police tapes came out, revealing more about the encounter between Martin and George Zimmerman, driving even more social media and generating more traction for the petition.
As it grew to some 2 million signatures, the Change.org petition gave tweeters and Facebookers what they have been proven to crave: something active to link to. That online swell gave mainstream media a hook for a story of the death of one Florida teenager that was now weeks old.
But this wasn't just about Trayvon Martin. It has proven difficult to pinpoint how, exactly, it happened, but at some point the discussion pulled back from just Martin to the "Stand Your Ground" law that seemed to have let Zimmerman go home that night. Upon examination, it turned out that this wasn't just Florida; Stand Your Ground had passed in recent years elsewhere. "There was a mystery that many people encountered," said Graves. "How did this bill become a law in so many states? How does a bill that seems to immunize a shooter from even getting before a jury end up introduced across the country?"
"As they connect the dots," she explained, "they see more and more dots." As it turned out, the traditional 'Castle doctrine' under U.S. law had been expanded in Ohio, in North Carolina, in Texas -- all in all, more than two dozen states.
"Our members started asking what else could be done," said Robinson. It quickly became clear that these new gun laws had found their start in ALEC. Because of the work ColorofChange.org had done on voter ID laws, "our members were prepared. Our members knew who ALEC was." The angle into the issue changed, but the end result was the same: The corporations backing ALEC started rethinking their support.
As so it has gone since. Recent days have seen major companies like Coca-Cola, Kraft, McDonalds, and Intuit back away from the group. The Gates Foundation has said that a contribution to ALEC targeted at education policy would be its last. The trick, says those leading the ALEC campaigns, was making what once happened behind closed doors public, one way or another. Publicity quickly changed the calculation of ALEC's value.
"Legislators don't want it to seem like there's a Geppetto to their Pinocchio," said Robinson. "And companies would much rather run great commercials that make you cry about their products than have to do ads about changing tax law or against soda taxes. When ALEC and its relationships are no longer secret and private, is it still the vehicle that's most beneficial?"
Or, as Common Cause's Clopp put it, "For 40 years you couldn't get the kind of accountability we're seeing know because ALEC, its members, its legislators, its bills were secret."
ALEC, of course, says its critics are missing the whole point; it's just a forum for the discussion of free-market principles dear to the private sector and to many elected officials. It's democracy in action. But nearly inarguable is that the recent attention on the group has pushed it to adapt. ALEC didn't respond to a request to talk for this piece, other than to pass along a statement. The simple fact, though, that the group is now making public statements is a sign that ALEC has been forced into rethinking the way it does business.
ALEC argues that all this recent attention is nothing but a "campaign launched by a coalition of extreme liberal activists committed to silencing anyone who disagrees with their agenda." The statement goes on, "Now more than ever, America needs organizations like ALEC to foster the discussion and debate of policy differences in an open, transparent way and not fall back on bullying, intimidation, and threats." And yet, the campaign continues, say ALEC's foes. Next up: persuading State Farm and Johnson & Johnson to cut ties with the group. Then they'll go to work on the legislators.
Common Cause's Clopp imagines a future where bills are digitized and put up online as soon as they're introduced in state legislatures, making it easier to scan for "ALEC DNA" -- or the boilerplate of any group, for that matter -- even before bills become law.
That sort of vision has prompted its own political innovation. The Sunlight Foundation, a group at the forefront of making legislation digital and public, recently rolled out from their labs a tool called Superfastmatch. The software lets you do textual analysis of multiple bills, using the comparisons to track the replication of bills from state house to state house. It's version control of legislation that makes it possible to figure out where bills are coming from, even if their sponsors remember to strip off the header language on them.
For Clopp's part, the lesson learned from the last nine months is that matching the might of a group like ALEC takes a critical mass. "You learn to do ego disarmament and say, 'Huh, we're going to need a bigger army, or this is going to be a 30-year war.'" The coalitions created aren't always your traditional ones. ColorofChange.org's Robinson credited ALEC Exposed as a tremendous resource. Graves is quick to praise Robinson's group's work. But the pair had never met in person before a march outside ALEC's D.C. headquarters two weeks ago.
That it's a dispersed but networked coalition is meaningful.
Professional Democrats in Washington and in the states have long cowered in the face of the NRA. But there are millions of other people who aren't afraid of the gun lobby's fundraising might or ability to target elections -- especially when they're just normal folks, participating in online politics as part of their routine lives, even if it's only with a tweet or a signature on an online petition.
"Part of the Internet age," Robinson of ColorofChange.org said, "is that people want a chance to be activists on issues. They're not joiners in the same way of, 'OK, I'm a card-carrying member of this organization and I'm going to be with it forever.' " People are looking for the vehicle to get done what they want done, no matter who's presenting them with the opportunity.
The story of ALEC's role in U.S. politics and government is a complicated one, making the response perhaps uniquely suited to online organizing. Research and story-telling, once done, can hang around online until needed. Databases stay at the ready. Dots are connected as more dots appear. Attention can get channeled and captured. It's hard, complex work. But it's the hard, complex work that online organizers have spent the last few years figuring out. That might not have a group like ALEC, designed to work on its own and on its own terms, scared yet. But it probably should.