The cycle of mistrust

This is the release of the first chunk of the report analysing digital campaigning and the lived experience. If this is the first you’ve heard of the Lost Voices project (if so, where have you been?!), take a read of the introduction to the project here

Digital campaigning, consisting predominantly of petitions and email-to-target actions, is extolled by many charities as the ‘first step on the road to democratic participation.’ However, on interviewing many charities and petition providers, it became clear that there is an underlying motive to asking people to add their signatures.  As campaigner Caroline Criado Perez said at ORGCon this year, “petitions are about data capture”.

While this is a perfectly understandable method of inviting people to campaign, the lack of transparency has led to much of the public feeling uneasy about handing over their support in the form of an email. This can be felt strongly in the words of Clay Johnson, former strategist for Barack Obama who stated back in 2010: “Nearly every organization…is focused on one thing–inventing new and interesting ways to get your email address. And they want your email address so that they can ask you for money”. You only need to type into google “clicktivism” to understand the movement fighting against e-campaigning.

For years this rumble of mistrust between charities and the public has been churning.

Meanwhile, MPs, who are the target of many of these campaigns, have been developing a mistrust towards charities and, by extension, to the public who campaign through them. One MP I spoke to explained that organisations become a barrier between her and her constituents: “charities do digital lobbying because they want to tell their members they’re doing things. There’s no causal link. It’s dangerous because you’re giving people a feeling that they can influence when they can’t. They do it to keep their supporters happy.”

This isn’t an uncommon feeling to be had in parliament. In 2016 Esther Foreman gave evidence in the 1922 committee on the subject of digital campaigning. She states: “Most MPs present  believed that charity petitions and emails contained a large part of emails generated by robots. And they’re responding accordingly, with email filter systems and automated responses. Soon, we’ll be in a situation where it’s robots talking to robots”.  

The mistrust occurs across all key players in the sector. Charities, while they are mistrusted by the public and by MPs, also mistrust MPs and the public. One representative from a charity  interviewed for the project suggested we take what MP say with “a pinch of salt”. Similarly, many charities interviewed spoke to admitted the difficulty they face in trusting their beneficiaries to take ownership of campaigns.

This mistrust has a deep impact on those with lived experience. Those who do put their trust in charity digital campaigns are given a bad experience as a result of the mistrust between charities and MPs. Those who don’t trust charities but trust that their MPs will respond are also negatively impacted as MPs see all emails as campaigning emails deserving only an automated response. And, ultimately, those with lived experience are left with no recourse to speak truth to power.

On 7 December we’ll be working on untangling these layers of mistrust and start the difficult work of rebuilding it. To book your place at the hackathon, click here.

Want to find out more? Stay tuned next week to read the next section of the report.