The Unique Power of Digital Organizing

A woman and a man with dark skin sit in front of a computer monitor that displays lists and emails. The woman leans in to point to a specific spot on screen and the man focuses thoughtfully on her point.

As someone who deals with chronic pain and chronic illness, many versions of “boots on the ground” activism have not been very accessible to me, and unfortunately, I have intense anxiety around making phone calls, so volunteering for things like phone banking or calling representatives were also out, for me. I also know I am not the only person dedicated to social justice work that is in this same boat. Which is why I’m so grateful that the genre of digital organizing enables remote forms of activism through mediums like text messages, social media, and email campaigns. Ingrid Cruz is here to break down this collection of strategies for us. 

CN: general discussion of past elections and the pandemic.

In college, a classmate of mine invited me to a labor organizing meeting to help on-campus groundskeeping workers who had no health insurance or other benefits because our university hired them through a subcontractor.  At the time I didn’t understand that people could get together with concerned individuals and allies in order to improve things that affect them directly or seek redress for injustice. Attending this meeting taught me that community organizing aims to do exactly that.

What Is Community Organizing?

In their paper Community Organizing: Power for People in the Grassroots, Dave Beckwith and Cristina Lopez with the Center for Community Change offer the following definition:

“Community organizing is the process of building power through involving a constituency in identifying problems they share and the solutions to those problems that they desire; identifying the people and structures that can make those solutions possible; enlisting those targets in the effort through negotiation and using confrontation and pressure when needed; and building an institution that is democratically controlled by that constituency that can develop the capacity to take on further problems and that embodies the will and the power of that constituency.”

The paper identifies four key principles important to community organizing, according to Beckwith and Lopez:

  • Remember that people are moved by self-interest but you can help them feel hope through organizing that can then help them connect with people who have similar interests. There is power in knowing there are others who want to solve similar issues and share hopes that they can do so. 
  • The process of community organizing is dynamic. People have different ways they like to work. While some may prefer to stay hyperlocal or commit to smaller projects, others will be interested in a broader scope. Organizations must learn what works best for the group and be open to changing or revising their goals and strategies.
  • Organizers must learn to confront people with true power. In situations involving injustice or a need for redress, someone can lose, and that someone may be the group involved in organizing efforts. Even well-organized groups can have a solid campaign and training, only to come up against factors largely outside of their control that can have a grave impact on their current goals. Large industries dependent on undocumented immigrants for migrant labor have a huge incentive to go up against any efforts to create a legal path to citizenship for immigrants, for example. It’s important to define your values, find strength, and develop a core understanding of what you are fighting for so as not to cave under pressure when negotiating with powers that be. 
  • Organizations must clearly define an issue. Organizations must weigh a variety of factors to determine what the actual issue is. What harm will come to a community if they don’t organize? What are the best ways to get them involved? Do they have any form of recourse? This also means analyzing the other side—the person or issue negatively affecting a group of people. Who is this person? How do they benefit from certain practices? How would things change if we solve the problem?     


A banner ad for Kella's Etsy shop demonstrating social justice themed products: A brown apron covered in little baking illustrations and the words "Bake the world a better place," a sticker with five colorful intersecting circles and the words "The future is intersectional", a pink mug with a pair of ice cream cones making the shape of a heart and the text "you could never be ice cream you're too hot and a person."

You can organize regardless of your class or socioeconomic status, but community organizing is most often associated in popular culture with working-class and marginalized people

Organizers often credit Saul Alinsky with having invented the methods we still use to empower groups of people who have been oppressed, but many cultures have collective decision-making processes that can enhance or inform their respective base. 

In Latin America, many community organizers also use popular education and traditional indigenous decision-making models, such as consensus-building. Some common organizing methods you might have seen include:

  • Canvassing, also called door-knocking
  • House meetings
  • Town halls
  • One on one meetings

Digital Organizing Arises

Technology has allowed community organizers to connect with people online. The 2008 elections cycle was one of the first I saw that relied on digital organizing at a mass scale in order to reach voters. Text, social media, and email campaigns were used to keep voters excited about candidates, and the Obama campaign was adept at mobilizing the youth vote, in part because it was one of the first to use social media, texting, and powerful well-designed iconography. I saw many nonprofits, grassroots activists, and advocacy groups use and adapt digital organizing to their needs as well.

A row of people all looking at their smart phones, the row starting just in front of the camera and ending straight ahead, but only a few of the phones are in focus and no faces are visible.

For years there was a generational divide about whether or not digital organizing was even effective, but the COVID19 pandemic necessitated engagement that eliminated or greatly reduced in-person contact so as to comply with social distancing and public health guidelines.

This year people are changing how we get to know and interact with others. To get a better idea of what digital organizing can do for social justice movements and political candidates, I spoke to Cassie Kifer who works with Resistance Labs to get progressive candidates elected across the country. Kifer was also an organizer with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

She explains that she began her involvement with digital organizing through texting campaigns in red and purple districts during the 2016 elections cycle. Later, Kifer worked to ensure that people turn out to events such as the Women’s March, town halls, elections, and advocacy events by employing some of the same technologies she used to get out the vote in 2016  

“Digital organizing is using any digital platform or communication tool to communicate with whoever we’re trying to organize,” says Kifer. Email, social media outreach, and texting campaigns are some of the best-known digital organizing tools. You may have already seen the effect of these tools in your own life if you’ve ever signed up for an email listserv by an organization working on something that is important to you, seen a sponsored social media ad from an organization or cause that you care about but are not involved in, or gotten a general text from local candidates who are running for office.

Digital campaigns can also work by using people’s real-life networks. This is called relational organizing and can include receiving an email forward from a friend, an invitation to “like” a Facebook page from someone in your social media network, getting a call from a friend or relative, or getting a text from someone you know about a cause you both resonate with. “At its root relational organizing is just talking to the people that are in your real-life social network. There are a lot of digital tools that have been built recently to help facilitate that kind of communication.” Indeed, sending a text or email to a friend is frequently more efficient if you’re pressed for time and can’t visit someone to talk about a problem you both want to solve.

Pros and Cons of Digital Organizing

There are advantages and disadvantages to using digital organizing instead of in-person or phone-based organizing. According to Kifer, some of the pros are, “[Digital organizing is] easy and it’s something you can do remotely.”  

Many parts of the country have been experiencing heatwaves, which, even without the pandemic, can make it harder for people to canvass neighborhoods and entice volunteers to participate in advocacy efforts. 

“[Digital organizing] can allow you to have conversations with people that you wouldn’t be able to reach in any other way,” says Kifer. “There is a segment of people that are never going to answer their door and that are never going to pick up the phone when you call them. But they may answer a text message or respond to a message request from a friend when using one of the relational organizing tools.” The response you get as you use technology to organize depends on your tactics.

A light skinned person types "I <3 you" in the chat box on a tablet, a list of frequently messaged friends appearing down the side of the screen.

Today’s technology helps organizations save time as they connect with new people and find innovative ways to sustain these relationships. Organizing in some parts of the country requires volunteers to commute, possibly sit in traffic, deal with public transportation schedules, or do extensive driving, for example. Digital tools enable people to reach out to their communities at home or even on the go.  

Criticisms of digital organizing aren’t unfounded. One of the cons, per my conversation with Kifer, is that digital organizing isn’t face to face. “Having a face to face conversation is the deepest way to connect with somebody. There are some questions around the commitment a person has when they talk to you over the phone, by text, or on some kind of messaging app. It has a different strength than when you talk to them in person.”

The digital divide between generations and lack of access to certain tools means that not everyone can participate in digital organizing. Census Counts mentions that up to 20% of adults depended on smartphones for internet use in 2018. Data limits in certain phone plans, lack of signal, and other limitations still make it harder to reach someone who only uses a phone and has no access to a computer. In 2019, the Pew Research Center reported that up to 10% of United States residents don’t use the internet. Socioeconomic status, age, and location can affect access to the internet. 

Using technology to engage people isn’t cheap. “Depending on the technology there could be different financial costs.” Texting is a great example of a useful but often expensive tool available to both electoral candidates and advocacy groups. As an example, a political campaign can pay up to 8 cents (USD) per message, along with a $100 setup fee with providers such as ThruText.

Social justice movements and organizations may also get too excited and send out too many emails or texts, thus overwhelming some of their base. Keeping up with injustices can also get overwhelming. 

A close-up of a email program, the cursor hovering over the red inbox link, which shows 6,763 unread emails.

To avoid this pitfall, Kifer suggests planning social events so that people aren’t inundated with requests to donate, volunteer, collect items, sign petitions, and do any number of things to bring about social justice or get involved in the community. In these times, nonprofits and grassroots organizations can perhaps participate in masked outdoor walks or bike rides, Zoom happy hours or open mics, book clubs, pen pal programs, or even assigning a “buddy” to call just for the sake of connection. This lets potential volunteers know that your organization cares about the people that make their work successful and doesn’t just see relationships as transactional. 

The Landscape of Digital Organizing Continues to Evolve

Of course, there are many ways digital organizing is changing, and we’ve already seen some creative uses of digital organizing thus far. K-pop fans have surprised the world with their hashtag and Tik Tok activism during the height of the Black Lives Matter movements by ensuring that #BlackLivesMatter continued trending when it seemed people weren’t paying as much attention. Buzzfeed recently wrote an article about how children with conservative parents are using TikTok to critique their parents’ beliefs, and some have been candid about the serious rifts in their relationships as a result. According to the article, one user, Olek, not only vented about having become homeless recently because she doesn’t believe in the same things as her parents, users also donated funds so she could take care of her situation. After receiving her donations, she, in turn, donated $600 to Black Lives Matter. In this instance, Olek was able to make a personal connection and turn a moment of kindness into a way to give back to a movement she cares about.     

As we continue to grapple with important issues that deserve our attention, we’re going to observe new ways young people use technology in order to force conversations and incite change. Presidential hopeful Joe Biden has had an online-only campaign since April.

For those of us with the access and privilege to keep the momentum going on issues we care about, digital organizing is a great way to get involved for the time being. It’s accessible for many, allows people to continue making personal connections, and continues to change as technological innovations allow.

A woman with warm beige skin, thick black glasses, long dark hair, and bright red lipstick, cocks her head to the side with a look of confidence at the camera.

About the guest blogger:

Ingrid Cruz is a freelance writer and independent filmmaker.

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