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This Oakland Startup Is Turning Slacktivism into a Political Powerhouse

A new texting app is letting Bay Area liberals take the fight to battleground districts—without ever knocking on a door.

 

What’s a fired-up Bay Area progressive with a heart full of resistance but no disputed primaries to vote in to do? A new Oakland-based nonprofit has an answer: Text. A lot.

Rapid Resist, the brainchild of longtime political organizer Yoni Landau, works by exporting blue-state people power to red states and districts, at least digitally. Mass texting—also called text canvassing or text banking—was popularized by Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign and has since become a go-to instrument in the political organizer’s tool belt.

Hillary Clinton’s campaign followed Sanders’s lead in 2016 and built its own mass-texting platform in-house. Since then, the concept has continued to grow, as several other mass-texting platforms have sprung up—among them Resistbot, a service that allows constituents to compose and send fax messages to members of Congress via text message; and Daily Action, which prompts subscribers to take one civic action a day via text. Boots-on-the-ground efforts like #KnockEveryDoor recruit potential canvassers via text message, too.

With Rapid Resist, volunteers in Temescal and the Haight can fire off thousands of pre-scripted texts urging voters in conservative districts to take to the streets, call their representatives, or sign a petition. (Those phone numbers are pulled from volunteer lists, nonprofits, and public voter files, among other sources.) The messages, handled through a San Francisco–based app called Hustle, direct voters to local organizing efforts or contain links to Facebook event pages. Using Hustle, the typical Rapid Resist volunteer can send out an average of 300 texts in 10 minutes. To date, Rapid Resist has partnered with 135 grassroots organizers across the country, including 39 local chapters of Indivisible, the progressive organizing movement.

It’s that IRL call to action that elevates Rapid Resist above the ranks of other forms of so-called slacktivism, says Mike Moschella, the director of analytics for public relations firm DKC and former vice president of Nation Builder, a software company that helps progressive organizations increase engagement. 

Texting represents the next frontier of “strategic digital activism,” Moschella says. “The goal is to generate an actual real-life action where digital is the starting point. There’s a very clear desire to communicate over SMS versus other formats.” For cash-strapped grassroots groups that don’t have the capacity to run major call-to-action campaigns, Moschella calls Rapid Resist a “very effective” new organizing tool.

One of Rapid Resist’s earliest successes came in March at a fund­raiser held by Senator Dean Heller of Nevada. In partnership with the Working Families Party of Nevada and Organizing for Action, Rapid Resist texted 2,000 progressives in the area to pressure Heller to rescind his support of the Affordable Care Act repeal. A hundred showed up—the majority of them directed there by Rapid Resist. The next day, Heller vowed not to support the ACA repeal.

Of course, in technology, as in politics, cause and effect can be hard to measure. “You never know why a legislator changes their mind,” Landau concedes. Indeed, even with a new suite of strategic digital tools at their disposal, Democrats have swung and missed on five hotly contested special elections since Trump took office.

Nevertheless, Rapid Resist figures to gain steam as 2018 draws nearer. By mid-2017, Rapid Resist volunteers had sent 1,033,191 total texts. Landau has set a new goal for November 2018: to recruit 60,000 new activists.

It’s a goal that seems within reach. One Castro Valley–area texter, who asked that his name not be used (texters are identified only by their first name), has sent nearly 19,000 messages since he began volunteering this May. “Let’s say in one day I send 1,000 texts in Colorado and get a bunch of nasty comments back,” he says. “But if I get 15 people to call their senator at the end of that day, that’s a really satisfying experience.”  


Originally published in the August issue of
San Francisco 

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