Lessons from Tea Party Tweets

13 06 2011

What I learned from spending 5 minutes looking at a Tea Party twitter feed.

cross-posted from Beyond the Choir

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the activist filter bubble, the reverberating echo-chamber of insular social media and political networks that keeps progressives marginal and talking to ourselves. Recently, I’ve had several different Tea Party twitter accounts follow me (at least four this week alone) and began talking to friends about whether or not this means they are 1) building lists of progressive activists for potential future smear-campaigns; 2) following their opposition so they can Retweet things out of context to scare/outrage their base; or 3) genuinely interested in hearing perspectives outside their own echo-chamber. Whatever their purposes, it reminded me that we can learn a lot from the way our opposition presents itself through social media forums (of course there is a lot of deception and other missteps that we don't  want to emulate, but there are some transferrable best practices mixed  in too – here’s some of both).

A few minutes ago I got an email notice that @TheTeaParty_net is following me.

1) Their twitter profile (which I see in the notification email) succinctly states the values they profess to hold: “Limited federal government • Individual freedoms • Personal responsibility • Free markets • Returning political power to the states and the people”

I already know what they stand for and I haven’t even looked at their twitter feed yet. In fact, their statement of values is likely the thing that will make me choose to look or not look.

And here’s what I notice from literally 5 minutes of browsing their twitter feed:

2) Constant creation of an “us vs. them” narrative, inviting people to identify as part of their group (“us”) and asking people to take a small action (retweeting) to signal their insiderness. A kinestetic action simple as pressing a button helps solidify the choice that was made by the tweeter. It asks them to take a stand, pick a side, and then reinforces that choice with a physical action that their peers can see. They ask their tweeps to do this on a regular basis.

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VIDEO: our opposition

30 11 2010

I’ve spent most of my life learning to organize with the following premise: social movements are won not by beating and overpowering your opposition, but by shifting the support out from under them. This involves providing action-opportunities to help “passive” allies become “active” ones, and media-strategies to help transform “fence-sitters” into passive allies.

Depending on the campaign, we often must confront our opposition, but this usually means targeting power-holders; for example, when fighting to end Mountaintop Removal, we need to deal with Massey Energy and other coal companies directly. That’s not exactly the same thing as being over-consumed by focusing on our ideological-opposition – the loudmouths who happen to have a different world-view than we do.

But with the rise of the “populist” Right wing backlash that has gotten so much attention in the last year, I have been more and more drawn to studying some of our most vocal (and often ideologically fanatic) opponents. They’re effective at fear-mongering for sure, but their rhetoric is powerful – even when wildly inaccurate – because they have a well-organized base that is rooted in institutional relationships. Talking points aren’t just repeated on Fox News and the message-disciplined Right Wing noise machine, but also every week in churches across our country and other institutions that offer meaning to people’s lives in a holistic way.

It is in that context that I want to share this video, which is being viewed across our country by churches who are reinforcing its anti-poor, anti-environmental, anti-earth message. Its a short clip of a 12 part DVD series.

Their website says: “One of the greatest threats to society and the church today is the multifaceted environmentalist movement,” says Cornwall Alliance founder and national spokesman Dr. E. Calvin Beisner. “There isn’t an aspect of life that it doesn’t seek to force into its own mold.” Whew!

As Dangerous Minds noted, this is so ridiculous that it may be the “Reefer Madness” of our generation…but I wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss it. As long as the Environmental movement fails to speak to the concerns of faith-based people, poor and working people, and the needs of communities hurting, dominant narratives like this will continue to compel people.

There has been much hand-wringing about the dramatic poll drop in the U.S. public’s belief in climate change, and how “environmentalists” are losing the battle of the story on climate science. A lot of this shift, I think, is not exactly that we’re losing this specific battle of public opinion. It’s that climate denial is just a small part of a broader “populist-Right” platform that has swept the country; people who used to default on the side of real climate science, are now defaulting on the side of the denial-fantasy because its built into a larger world view that makes meaning in their lives. In that context, it makes sense that now we are seeing a much stronger issue-based conspiracy-theory oriented push from our opposition on climate, because their ideas fit in with a broader orientation of the Tea Party platform.

Its clear by now that policy progress won’t happen on a national level until climate is just one element of a broader progressive platform that gains momentum (led primarily by other concerns, like the economy and health care). So where are the national spokespeople articulating such a platform in a compelling way? Until climate advocates are unafraid to speak boldly and directly to other progressive issues, we will be stuck in issue-based silos that the progressive movement desperately wants to move beyond, but is still struggling to figure out how to do it. That “how” has to go beyond media-saavy messaging and must be rooted in organizing the institutions that people belong to that give our lives meaning – church groups, unions, schools, base-building political organizations, etc.

This video is one example of how people aren’t compelled by facts, but by meaning. On the Left we still seem to think that because what we’re saying is true, that it will automatically be meaningful. The Christian Right proves that the opposite tends to be the case: if something is meaningful to people, they believe it to be true. The old axiom of the “truth will set you free” is only one part of the story. Meaningful stories set us free, if they happen to also be true. That’s our task.