Here Come the Usual Suspects!

by Henry on July 10, 2008

Matt Yglesias “gets political spam from Airtran”:http://matthewyglesias.theatlantic.com/archives/2008/07/paging_paul_krugman.php

AirTran got ahold of my email address somehow or other over the years and sends me occasional doses of spam. Normally, it’s to promote some deal or something. But now they’re giving me rants against the evils of oil speculators

But it turns out that this is part of a much larger campaign. Cue “Zephyr Teachout:”:http://www.techpresident.com/blog/entry/27220/united_delta_american_southwest_the_airlines_move_in_on_moveon

I got an email this morning from United, asking me to go to a petition site, which asks me to enter my zip code and send a note to my MOC to “Stop Oil Speculation” and lower energy costs. Tracy Russo reports she got the same email from Northwest. The entire coalition list is at the bottom of this post, and includes the Petroleum Marketers Association of America and Agricultural Retailers association, as well as Delta, Continental, US Air, American, Airtran…

I don’t think this is big news in the good way, mind you–its important because it signals that corporations are willing to use their massive databases to try to leverage political will in Washington. I’m sure this isn’t the first of its kind, but its the first of such a scale that its caught my attention (I’m happy to be rebutted in the comments). We’re talking tens of millions of emails (possibly nearing a hundred million? Jose Antonio Vargas, can you find out?) if all the airlines’ lists are involved. This is clearly just the beginning, and its a crude one–a few years from now you’ll see more organizing, including international organizing, to leverage corporate databases to influence policies that help corporate wealth.

This is an interesting challenge to Clay’s account of how the politics of group formation is changing (all the more so as one of his “key examples of group empowerment”:http://whimsley.typepad.com/whimsley/2008/04/here-comes-ever.html is airline customers who are annoyed at their treatment. I think that Clay’s fundamental claim – that the transaction costs that have hitherto often blocked group formation have been lowered dramatically – is both important and indisputably correct. But this doesn’t necessarily have a levelling effect on power relations, as Clay sometimes seems to suggest when he talks about mobilized consumer groups, protesters etc.

My impression is that we still don’t have good concepts for figuring out the consequences of lowered transaction costs of group formation and communication, partly because we are fighting a set of tired arguments between techno-evangelists (Glenn Reynolds’ dreadful _An Army of Davids_ standing in for multitudes here), and techno pessimists (Andrew Keen, Sven Birkets and other guardians of traditional hierarchies) about whether the Internet is a generally empowering or disempowering phenomenon. It’s neither, of course, and it’s in the detail of which _particular_ groups get empowered and disempowered, and under which circumstances, that the interesting questions lie. I’d be very interested in Clay’s views about how to move forward in this direction (or in another, of course, if he thinks I’m wrong)

{ 13 comments }

1

matt 07.10.08 at 8:40 pm

I can’t offer any insight into the mechanics of group formation but I got the same email today, ostensibly from Delta but signed by all the CEOs. I used their link to write my own message saying that I thought their program was bunk and should be ignored. I don’t know if it will make it through, though.

2

Clay Shirky 07.10.08 at 9:25 pm

Well here’s the thing–I do in fact think the internet is empowering in the following way: if we look at two groups, one a small, tightly coordinated and co-located group (tomato growers, say) and another large, geographically dispersed group (tomato eaters), the power imbalance between the two is shifting towards the large group, so that the growers may have a harder time enacting tariffs that tax the eaters.

This is simply repeating the basic thesis that a fall in transaction costs helps large, distributed groups more than it helps groups organized around previous methods of managing transaction costs.

What is interesting about this bit of lobbying is that rather than whipping up astroturf support and pretending it’s real (as MSFT did during the monopoly trial with the Freedom To Innovate organization), they are now trying to design linkbait that will involve useful idiots in real grassroots lobbying, at no expense, on behalf of beliefs they may actually not hold (or even understand.)

So what I see here is a tacit realization that Congress can be reached with money or votes, and that wrangling voters may just be a matter of harnessing a matter of real concern (a sudden rise in gas prices) but re-directing it to corporate goals previously addressed on K Street.

It’s disgusting behavior, of course, but the big question is whether this form of ricochet lobbying will be general purpose or not, and whether there are any good defenses against it.

3

Seth Finkelstein 07.10.08 at 9:55 pm

“This is simply repeating the basic thesis that a fall in transaction costs helps large, distributed groups more than it helps groups organized around previous methods of managing transaction costs.”

I believe that thesis, while perhaps strictly true in the most narrow sense, leads to some appalling nonsense when people try to read implications from it. The obvious next step is to have groups organized around methods of manipulation and deception, of DIFFERENT transaction costs.

It’s sort of like how video changed the way war was run. It didn’t end war – but it did change the propaganda techniques used in managing it.

4

Slocum 07.10.08 at 9:55 pm

I don’t think this is big news in the good way, mind you—its important because it signals that corporations are willing to use their massive databases to try to leverage political will in Washington.

I suspect this effect will be limited. If corporations use their databases to promote partisan political causes, they risk alienating half their customers. This silly anti-speculation letter is political, but not partisan. I’m not sure there are really that many political-but-not-partisan issues to engender this kind of effort.

5

John Quiggin 07.10.08 at 10:05 pm

I’m with Clay on this one, and would also mention this post, and those it links to, as an example of the process. When this kind of thing was done by direct mail, there was no easy way for individual recipients to publicise the fact that they were being spammed, let alone to compare notes and discover that the spam was part of a co-ordinated effort (this wasn’t exactly concealed, but it’s more evident in the blog reaction than at the bottom of an email).

You don’t have to be a dewy-eyed optimist to see that possession of a big mailing list, and the capacity to spam it, is nothing like the asset it used to be.

6

Seth Finkelstein 07.10.08 at 10:25 pm

John Quiggin: The problem is you’re assuming there won’t be a counter-move. Like say having a few tame A-listers to spread the word to their audience that those individuals complaining about being spammed are a bunch of whiners and perhaps it would be a good idea for us good people to give them a taste of their own complaining medicine – go, my bloggies, go.

Don’t think that if I don’t get the counter-move right, of the top of my head, that there’s no counter-move possible.

7

John Quiggin 07.10.08 at 10:53 pm

I’m not ruling out a counter-move, Seth, and, after all, I imagine there are plenty of A-listers who are happy to push the speculation line for one reason or another.

But still, having to get bloggers to shill for you is a much weaker position than controlling your own campaign. And there is a price to being a recognised shill, as witness the decline in stature of some of the early A-listers who became clearly identified as Repug mouthpieces over time.

8

Seth Finkelstein 07.10.08 at 11:26 pm

I’d say the comparison of “controlling your own campaign” is overstating what’s always been a problematic issue of how to do PR. Basically, the mode of reasoning which starts out “there was no easy way for individual recipients …” is only looking at half the story – because the other half is “there is now a new easy way for big companies to …” And that part of the story isn’t examined nearly as much, because there’s not nearly as much support to talk about it.

This relates back to what Henry has in the post “partly because we are fighting a set of tired arguments between techno-evangelists … and techno pessimists”. That says something recursively about “lowered transaction costs of group formation and communication” – why those two poles? Because that’s where the power is, so those are the interests which matter, which get heard.

9

Matthew Kuzma 07.11.08 at 12:04 am

It’s neither, of course

I don’t think that’s exactly right. It’s certainly neither an egalitarian nor heirarchical phenomenon, but it is necessarily empowering in some fundamental sense. Like any type of infrastructure, or more generally any tool, the internet allows its users to do things that were not possible before or to do other things more easily. There’s no question that the internet is an asset, a tool, and therefore empowering to someone. The question is merely how that power gets distributed.

10

nnyhav 07.11.08 at 1:26 am

its a crude one

Heh. Indeed.

11

vivian 07.11.08 at 3:00 am

(4) If corporations use their databases to promote partisan political causes, they risk alienating half their customers. This silly anti-speculation letter is political, but not partisan.
Wrong way to think about it. Corporations ‘care’ about their bottom line interests. They care much less which party provides the assistance, and in fact they donate to both. So there are a lot of issues that are political-not-partisan.

I also don’t see what the fuss is – before email was popular, they’d have held a big press conference looking for publicity. They’d get fewer letters to congress out of that, but congress would have estimated the viewing audience and reacted accordingly, without letters. Smart people use new tools for existing purposes. Some smart people do it for their employer. Clay can find exciting details, Seth can mutter about the same old big picture, neither one wrong.

12

Kenny Easwaran 07.11.08 at 12:17 pm

I know a few years ago United was actively lobbying their customers to lobby their MOCs to grant United permission to fly direct from Dulles to Beijing. Southwest also did the same thing to get customers to lobby an overturn of the Wright Amendment (so that southwest could fly from Dallas to other states). I suppose in each case that was only one company, rather than a consortium, so I guess there’s something new here.

13

ed walker 07.14.08 at 8:47 pm

Interesting discussion here.

I’ve been doing some work on this topic for a little while now, showing that at least historically, the rise of this sort of activity followed from the expansion of interest groups and mobilization of business. Strong partisanship also had a significant influence.

My take is that “grassroots” campaigns like this are, as you might expect, effective in gaining attention; on the other hand, legislators are obviously aware of the orchestration of such campaigns and therefore become less receptive over time. The internet seems to make this form of participation that much easier to carry out, but also that much easier to ignore.

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