In a staggeringly short amount of time, the coronavirus pandemic has upended daily life in the U.S., forcing people to quickly recalibrate how they live their lives in order to curb the spread of COVID-19, the official term for the disease caused by the virus.
Nothing is left untouched, including the organizing efforts of many activists and advocacy organizations. For activists reliant on public demonstrations, face-to-face meetings with representatives, and in-person group trainings, the coronavirus pandemic arrives at a particularly inopportune time: 2020, the almost instantaneously chaotic start to a new decade, is also an election year, meaning that activists are required to move their efforts off the streets just as in-person advocacy efforts would have been ramping up.
On top of that, for many organizations that Mashable spoke with, the societal impacts of COVID-19 are escalating the urgency of many groups' goals: Moms Demand Action, a grassroots organization within Everytown For Gun Safety, is now expanding calls for secure gun storage with more kids at home because of coronavirus-spurred school closures. Planned Parenthood, a healthcare provider that also advocates for reproductive health care access, has seen states attempt to place bans on abortion, claiming it doesn't qualify as an "essential" health care service amid a pandemic.
For Sunrise, a youth-led climate movement, recommendations against large gatherings hinders planned, in-person events for the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, in April. Meanwhile, the League of Women Voters (LWV), a group that works to empower voters and encourage informed, active civic participation, has had to quickly adjust its outreach strategies, such as get out the vote efforts, during the election cycle.
Even as advocacy groups re-organize around different deadlines and priorities, plenty of their tactics look similar: Many activist organizations have already shifted to digital communication even before the pandemic, whether they're older organizations adapting to an increasingly online world or youth-led movements composed largely of digital natives. The coronavirus, however, rapidly kicks these efforts into high gear with some organizations figuring it out as they go along.
Here’s what’s working for them right now, and what it might mean for activism down the road.
Using social media to strike
A clear, sunny day in a public place; people gathered together in common activity: It sounds like a common fantasy right now — and the crucial ingredients for a public demonstration or strike, quickly rendered unfeasible as states place stay-at-home orders and the federal government advises against gatherings of more than 10 people.
Of course, not all organizations engage in public demonstrations regularly. Some of those that do, however, have become well-known for their tactics, particularly those focused on pressuring leaders to rapidly change the course of decades of inaction on climate change, like Sunrise, which gained visibility after staging a sit-in at Nancy Pelosi’s Capitol Hill office.
To replicate mass gatherings amid COVID-19, activists are instead turning to digital strikes, in which supporters raise awareness online. One of the first signals of this shift came when climate activist Greta Thunberg encouraged those participating in the school strikes that she popularized to stay home, and conduct digital strikes. FridaysForFuture, Thunberg’s movement, then outlined some suggested hashtags and photos to post during digital strikes.
Now, youth climate organizations, including Zero Hour, US Youth Climate Strike, and Sunrise, have announced Earth Day Live, a 72 hour livestream to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. According to a representative from Future Coalition, the national network uniting the organizations for the event, the canceled in-person strikes have now fully pivoted to the livestream, which will include calls to action throughout, as well as "a primetime block of performances and conversations" on Earth Day itself. The entire livestream can be considered a digital strike, according to the representative; those tuning in will receive requests to participate through actions like sharing on social media using #EarthDayLive.
At present, it’s unclear if digital strikes will bring about the same degree of attention that in-person strikes have granted in the past, at least on their own.
Dana Fisher, a sociology professor at the University of Maryland whose research focuses on activism, told Mashable that striking exclusively through the use of a common hashtag can amount to "yelling in an echo chamber," simply because a group striking is likely only really reaching those already familiar with their message in some way.
To break through a potential echo chamber, Fisher notes that groups striking on social media need to actively try to get new people to see information about their strike, just as passerby might see protestors in a city's center. Doing so effectively could involve asking those with large social media followings (and who are supportive of a group's cause) to retweet or share information about the strike, so that new people get exposure to it. Additionally, Fisher points out that viral videos, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's video about the Green New Deal, can also reach new, wider audiences, which is something that activists might want to replicate in order to reach potential supporters.
Without actively courting new supporters, digital strikes aren't likely to have the same reach as in-person protest, Fisher explains. She points out, though, that groups are often coupling digital strikes with other actions online.
Many climate groups, for instance, are also pairing their Earth Day activities with other actions, as Stevie O’Hanlon, a spokesperson for Sunrise, notes. In addition to participating in Earth Day Live, Sunrise will also be launching social media campaigns to aimed at members of Congress and elected officials. On top of that, O'Hanlon points to the organization's efforts to encourage supporters to email or tweet at their member of Congress about the principles behind a People's Bailout, a bailout that prioritizes individuals over corporations. FridaysForFuture also includes "emailing politicians" on its recommendations for climate activism amid COVID-19.
"The goal is to create a groundswell of support," O’Hanlon said. "[Our movement has] always been built on marshaling public support and we can still do that."
Fisher points out that this kind of synchronized action will reach further than digital strikes alone.
"Young people had already starting using more of a hybrid," Fisher said, in reference to climate activists coupling in-person protests with digital tactics. "If anyone is going to figure it out within these [current] constraints, it's going to be the young people."
Lobbying politicians...over Zoom
The last few weeks have turned the sometimes disjointed sensation of talking to coworkers, classmates, friends, and family via video calls into a daily occurrence. For some organizations, a new comfort with video conferencing also extends to their interactions with an unlikely cohort: lawmakers.
That was the case for Moms Demand Action on its planned advocacy day on March 16 in which volunteers and gun violence survivors were going to urge California Governor Gavin Newsom and the state legislature to expand funding for the California Violence Intervention Program, according to Shannon Watts, the organization's founder.
Initially, 800 supporters volunteered to participate, notes Watts, but as the event approached, her team realized that it was no longer feasible or appropriate to hold the event as planned, which would have involved going to the California State Capitol.
So, Moms Demand Action did what everyone has been doing in the last few weeks: It pivoted to video call. Those involved set up Zoom conference calls that included the lawmakers who they would usually talk to on their previous advocacy days, as well as organizers from Moms Demand Action and gun violence survivors.
As with climate activists moving their strikes online, Watts felt as if one of the prime benefits of moving to virtual talks was the ability to keep the conversation going afterwards. Volunteers established hashtags for the day, such as #CALeg (California State Legislature) and #CalVIP (California Violence Intervention and Prevention), and then asked lawmakers to tweet using the same hashtags when sharing information about the call, according to Watts. With prominent retweets, like one from Watts' call with Jennifer Siebel Newsom, first partner of California Governor Gavin Newsom, Watts felt as if her team's advocacy efforts had an even wider reach than before.
"We started in the morning, and tweeted all day long," Watts said. "That's not typical."
The League of Women Voters also turned to similar tactics, according to Celina Stewart, LWV's senior director of advocacy and litigation. LWV pivoted so its usual "lobby core" of members, who go to Capitol Hill every month, instead conducted their meetings with lawmakers via Skype. Like Watts, Stewart felt that these efforts were effective in that their meetings went on undeterred, so members could still communicate their message with lawmakers.
"We haven’t seen a downtick in meetings," Stewart said.
Moms Demand Action and the LWV already had established relationships with those they spoke with, though. That shouldn't necessarily deter new groups from reaching out to lawmakers, Fisher said. Less established groups might still be able to arrange meetings.
"I think trying to reach out for opportunities [to talk to elected officials] is always a good way to go," Fisher said. "[In light of COVID-19,] elected officials are going to do everything they can to stay in touch."
In fact, Stewart thinks the move to remote meetings could actually prove advantageous for newer groups.
"You might actually be able to get a virtual meeting that you couldn’t get formally," Stewart said. "You might only get 10 minutes the first time, but then you can establish that relationship so that next time they might give 15, then 20. It’s a huge opportunity, especially because everyone has to work around this."
Deleting IRL outreach (for now)
Just like you, staring blankly into yet another screen, the managing teams at advocacy organizations have also had to move their entire existences online for the time being. For most, this meant scrambling to get their team equipped for remote work on short notice, as it did for so many other organizations around the country.
But on top of that, many of these advocacy organizations also rely on a wide network of supporters and members outside their formal operating teams. This means that communication, training sessions, and forms of outreach like voter registration efforts have also become digital on short notice.
Communicating with members and volunteers efficiently looks slightly different for each group, depending on their make-up and overall structure. Across the board, organizations are finding ways to connect with existing supporters while also trying to encourage new people to get involved. Still, Fisher points out that it's a particularly difficult time to grow a movement's base right now, due to the lack of in-person contact allowed. For now, groups are adapting to this as best they can.
Planned Parenthood, for instance, is using the app Outvote to engage in what a Planned Parenthood representative calls “relational organizing,” in which supporters can reach out to people they’re in touch with, like neighbors and friends, to ask them to take action in some way on issues pertaining to reproductive rights. The actions that people might encourage would include things like calling your representative, asking friends to check their voter registration status, or advocating for them to share a post on social media, according to a Planned Parenthood representative.
Other organizations that have grown through a particularly young base, like Sunrise, are looking at ways to engage a wider diversity of ages than they targeted before the pandemic. Sunrise launched a phone banking service for older Americans, dubbed the People’s Dialer, in which organizers provide information, resources, and companionship in light of the coronavirus to older adults who might be at higher risk, while also highlighting why Sunrise believes the current crisis underscores the need for transformative policy agendas, a cornerstone of its advocacy message.
To continue to engage with younger folks interested in learning more, Sunrise also launched Sunrise School to offer free informational and training courses to familiarize students with its platform. Those interested can sign up for individual courses on different organizing skills, which will then be held through Zoom conferences with multiple time slots, according to O'Hanlon. Similarly, a Planned Parenthood representative told Mashable over email that the organization's training team is ramping up a virtual training series to educate volunteers on how they can take action in this unique moment.
Meanwhile, organizations with some older members, like the LWV, have had rockier starts rolling out remote communication tools. Some of its members were unfamiliar with platforms like Zoom, which are currently being used to replace in-person meetings in community center and libraries, according to a LWV representative.
"They might have compromised immune systems but they want to continue working, so this is the way we do it," Stewart said. And despite their relative inexperience, she says members are learning fast out of necessity. "Necessity changes the way you have to approach these things. If this ever comes up again, we've already done it. I think this could change the way we do work, period."
The LWV also had to quickly adapt a contact-heavy form of outreach — voter registration — to fit exclusively on their already launched digital platform, VOTE411. Now, Stewart notes, information that LWV members would typically convey in person, like finding your polling place or learning about issues on the ballot, gets communicated as alerts on the site.
Of course, this has big trade-offs, Stewart notes, since the league's members might not reach the same amount of voters. Right now, though, they're doing what they can with what they have.
Sunrise has had to adapt its voter registration plans as well. At present, O'Hanlon, the Sunrise representative, told Mashable that the organization will also be moving what it can online, and that the team will be making plans "as the situation develops, and as it becomes more clear how long" current social distancing mandates will continue. On Earth Day Live, which also involves other climate groups in addition to Sunrise, a spokesperson for Future Coalition, the network behind the event, told Mashable that there will be voter registration efforts, with a set goal for voter pledges and voter registration numbers.
Like so much of the country, activists are grappling with an uncomfortable reality: This “new normal” might last for a while.
Thus far, rapidly rolled out changes have largely meant either majorly ramping up previously existent resources, like digital strikes, or doing something totally new for the organization, like Moms Demand Action's virtual advocacy.
For the most part, the groups' leaders are taking things day by day, and week by week. But there's another question emerging, too: What's life going to look like after the pandemic?
Some organizations are unsure for now, acknowledging instead that COVID-19 and the institutional problems that it has revealed make their messages all the more potent.
"This is a moment where people of all walks of life are realizing, if they haven't already, that business as usual isn't serving the needs of working people," O'Hanlon said. "We see this as a once-in-a-generation moment to rewrite the rules of our economy."
Others, like Watts, who built Moms Demand Action by connecting with other moms online, believe that this could be a watershed moment for activism as well.
"When I started, I was just one of five sitting in my kitchen," Watts said. "[We grew as we did] because so many other caring Americans connected with me on social media. We used these virtual tools to organize not just online, but also offline."
As the pandemic continues, she thinks even more digital innovations for activism will emerge — and stick around after.
"All these different ideas are going to come out of this," Watts said. "There's no putting this genie back in the bottle."