Online Organising – Harnessing People Power

Anyone who occasionally glances at a computer or even a news report these days will no doubt have come into contact with the phenomenon called “online organising”.  The term is a relatively crude one which encapsulates everything from a facebook petition campaign started by a 13 year old to see their favourite band play in their town to an efficiently organised multi-national advocacy campaign targeting the United Nations by international groups such as ‘Avaaz’.  Like it or not ‘online organising’ is fast becoming a vital piece of democratic infrastructure for the 21st century.    A new wave of organisations has emerged in over last decade in an attempt to harness and co-ordinate this power for real change offered by new technology.  However, the community behind such movements are their real source of power and the more such organisations can do to engage communities, the more effective they are in achieving their goals.

The fact that there is a proliferation of such online organisation worldwide really indicates a strong desire among citizens to increase their engagement with traditional democratic structures.  We find ourselves in 2012 in a moment of political turmoil, across the world citizens have challenged entrenched power, inequality and the erosion of their standards of living. These events have inspired a hunger for more meaningful opportunities for citizen engagement and a thirst for open, dynamic, and truly progressive politics in 2012.  Effective online organising has helped Barak Obama to the US presidency in 2008 and assisted with the organisation of the Arab Spring and the Occupy movements in 2011.  The widespread sympathy to the many online movements around the world indicates that there is at present a serious disconnection between the will of the masses and the actions of the Government and corporations.   Such a disconnection suggests an endemic lack of citizen involvement in decision making which effects us – a key tenet of the concept of democracy as originally conceived.

We as responsible citizens of democratic nations must use all the tools available to us to ensure that our collective voice is heard and this connection between our desires and the actions of our leaders is re-established. The traditional tools with which progressive individuals and movements have attempted to impact society in the past have been political parties, trade unions and NGOs.  However, political parties’ are losing members and relevance at alarming rates – for example in Australia online organisation claims over 500’000 members which makes it a larger political force than either of the major political parties while Avaaz with over 10 million members is the largest NGO in the world.  Trade Unions in Western nations have been in crisis for years after the affects of globalisation and competitiveness have to weakened labour laws and decreased their power.  Most traditional NGO’s are issue specific and generally use a large chunk of their budget (often sourced from Government or corporations) on maintaining the organisation and justifying its relevance.  Some notable exceptions are emerging with Greenpeace and effectively using online organising tools to mobilise the masses and source funding for actions in their areas of interest.

In contrast to most traditional organisations tools, the key aspects of the new generation of online organisations are that they are multi-issue based, nimble, flexible, people powered and most importantly independent.   These organisations allow activists and ordinary people to come together and share knowledge and to assist to directly decide and fund the operations of the organisation.  The best online organisations and movements are essentially acting as a rallying point for citizens who aspire to a society which values social justice, economic fairness and environmental sustainability. They are Independent and democratic, and co-ordinate both ‘online’ and ‘offline’ action to hold governments and business to account. The fact that such organisations are decentralised and independent of Government and political funding means that they are highly independent and responsive to their members’ collective voices rather than those of external funders or governments.

These organisations effectively enable tens or hundreds of of thousands of citizens to pool their efforts to create progressive change in politics, business and society by providing honest information and strategic leadership.  The underlying assumption is that the majority of citizens wish to be more engaged in democracy, but face three major constraints: With busy work and family lives, they don’t have much time to give, with so many problems, they don’t know where to begin, with so many different interest groups and points of view, they don’t know who to trust.  The benefits of online organizing is that is can provide citizens with a way to effect change that will require only a small time commitment, focus energy by targeting the worst problems in the with effective ways to impact them at moments of great opportunity and can earn the trust of its members by not being manipulative or only presenting one side of the story.

Successful online organisations

Arguably, the most successful organisations so far have been those following the ‘New Organizing model’ which started in 1998 with MoveOn in the USA and soon spread to Australia with GetUp! Launching in 2005.  In 2006 the first truly Global online organisation ‘Avaaz’ launched  internationally and now has over 10 million members.  In 2009 38 Degrees launched in the UK    and there are currently well advanced plans underway for launching such organisations in NZ, India, Canada, France and Ireland.


Since its founding in 1998, MoveOn has mobilised more than 12 million people to affect political change. Over 10 years MoveOn volunteers have organised more than 100,000 local events and contributed over US$200,000,000 to fund various progressive campaigns. In 2008, MoveOn members endorsed Barack Obama in the Democratic Primary, raised over $58,000,000 for his campaign, recruited over 933,000 volunteers, and registered over 225,000 voters to help secure his historic nomination and ultimate victory.


In 2005, the MoveOn model spread to Australia. GetUp launched at a time when the conservative party of Prime Minister John Howard had gained control of both houses of Parliament for the first time in decades. Within two years, GetUp had grown to over 230,000 members. It ran the largest independent electoral campaign in Australian history, helping return balance to the Senate and sweeping a progressive government into power in Canberra for the first time in a generation. Since the 2007 elections, GetUp members have successfully pushed Australia’s largest bank to drop financing for an environmentally disastrous new pulp mill, put serious reconciliation with the indigenous population at the centre of national debate, and developed a ‘People’s Agenda’ to hold the government accountable to progressive priorities.


38 Degrees launched in the UK in 2009 and now has over 800,000 members working together for change. 38 Degrees members use a variety of different tactics to bring about change, like signing petitions, emailing and phoning MPs and donating to fund newspaper ads about campaigns. Among other achievements, 38 Degrees has helped to stop the government’s plans to privatise ancient national forests, and encouraged the government to sign up to the EU Directive on Human Trafficking


Avaaz launched in 2006 with the aim of using the new online model to empower people across the world as global citizens. Since launching, Avaaz has grown by an average of over 20,000 new members a week, with over 10 million members now spanning all 192 countries. When the Burmese Junta launched a brutal crackdown on pro-democracy monks protesting in Rangoon, Avaaz members leapt into action. Massive global pressure squeezed the Junta’s few viable international relationships and forced them to scale back the violence. Avaaz raised over $2.4 million online to help Burma rebuild the democracy movement, and to support monk-led aid efforts to help victims of the cyclone that devastated the Irrawaddy Delta.


Online orgainsing have not been immune to criticism with many commentators simply writing them off as promoting ‘clictivism’ or ‘slacktivism’, meaning that they do not really engage people but simply detract from real action.  In its simplest form this is true, as simple online petitions as run on facebook and many online petition sites arguable have very little effect outside of awareness raising.  Such approaches are more of an online communications tool than real organising tool.  In his article Engagement Ladders: Building Supporter Power, Steve Andersen describes this core difference between online communications and online organising as moving a supporter toward bigger goals and ideally toward unlocking their greater potential.

Probably the most coherent criticism of online organising has come from Malcolm Gladwell in the article Small Change – Why the revolution will not be tweeted which poses interesting questions for the future direction of such organising.  In examining the grassroots tactics that have historically triggered major political change, Gladwell concludes that online organizing has no role in facilitating comparable activism today. He argues, all Internet-enabled activism only “makes it easier for activists to express themselves, and harder for that expression to have any impact.”

However Ben Brandzel of Citizen Engagement Lab (CEL), offers an excellent deconstruction of Gladwell’s arguments in the article “What Malcolm Gladwell Missed About Online Organizing and Creating Big Change”  Brandzel points out that Gladwell suffers a serious misunderstanding of how people actually use online tools and confusion about the theory of change behind the historical tactics as well as their modern equivalents. According to Brandzel this article misses the facts that social media tools allow people to communicate and collaborate with entire networks of close friends much faster than ever before.  He also states that by making it possible for just about anyone to receive and broadcast information about personal choices, social media makes our personal networks a far more focused and powerful source of power and courage than ever before.

The future of online Organising

Brandzel does agree that the phenomenon Gladwell and Anderson describe is a real, growing and serious problem and that while the Internet is great at enabling action through information-sharing, it is quite poor at pushing people to do anything they do not want to do.  Brandzel states that a ‘service’ oriented approach to such organising, can greatly increase member buy-in and enable leaders to engage in far more ambitious planning than would otherwise be possible.  In this approach, campaign guidance emerges from membership through carefully measured response metrics and formal input channels.  Taj James and Marilen Manilov also state in their article Movement Building and Deep Change: A Call to Mobilize Strong and Weak Ties that while social media platforms offer new ways of engaging and sharing organisational, national or global stories, they are no substitute for face-to-face engagement and community building.

A growing number of motivated organisations and individuals are starting to treat engagement as a science and really getting serious about finding ways to engage citizens both online and offline. For example groups like the New Organizing Institute (NOI) and Citizen Engagement Laboratory (CEL) now offer a range of excellent trainings, evolving curricula and project incubation resources. NOI, for instance, convenes an annual “Roots Camp” where practitioners honestly share results and refine strategy.

People all over the world are realising that the democratic systems we have inherited are not necessarily built to solve our problems and that change will have to come from either a dramatic reform of this system or from outside the system altogether.  The reason these fundamental flaws in our democratic systems are unlikely to be corrected in the short term is that our elected officials are reluctant to legislate to essentially limit their control and relevance in the modern political sphere.  By decentralising power over everyday decision making, we as citizens would gain more democracy but the traditional political complex would lose all relevance and is naturally doing everything in its power to prevent such decentralisation.  However, withstanding a complete global technological meltdown or serious limitation of online freedoms, online organizing appears to be set to play a huge part in the re-growth of citizen involvement in politics and society.  The key matter to be kept in mind as we move forward is that the technology enabling such movements is simply a tool or a means to an end and that the real power behind such movements is the people themselves.

Further reading on online organising available here:


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