AskThem has a strategy for re-engagement

Prompted by: NYT article on Wisconsin’s polarization and state of public dialogue.

For years, during the unstoppable rise of commercial social media such as FB, I’ve been fascinated by the question of what it takes to break the filter bubble of political information. Because, unfortunately, almost none of the (still powerful & politically meaningful) protests on social media over the past week will appear on the feeds of Trump voters (more data, as always, needed on that front, if only it could be obtained).

I am confident that I am FB friends with [prev.: zero Trump voters out of 680] one Trump voter, a family relative, out of 706. Even if Trump supporters happened to encounter compelling evidence of harm on the indefensible refugee ban, Fox News viewers are not about to be nudged by legal analysis from human rights experts. So, FB content only has a self-selected limited audience, as is known.

What “info hacks” might work for continual, gradual re-engagement with disaffected Trump voters in battleground states? We built our non-profit Q&A platform to test public dialogue programs, iterate with local media partners, and share our analytics openly. For instance, in the article linked above, we learn of a Reedsville, WI (pop. ~9k) couple who voted for Trump. We know they’re “churchgoing people”.

So the theory of change is to leverage the social capital of their church community and the reach of their local newspaper (Reedsburg Times-Press) to acknowledge the extreme degradation and flouting of democratic norms presented by the Trump/Bannon hasty, Muslim-community-targeting Executive Order. This couple isn’t seeing The Intercept in their FB feeds.

In AskThem’s digital-outreach program, not to be obvious, the way this works is by emailing our tens of thousands of Wisconsin-based members a starter question — say, to Rep. Paul Ryan (R, WI-01) for religious communities, then soliciting peer-organizer volunteers from Sauk County area. (Commercial e-petition platforms won’t follow-through on local engagement, they’re only seeking the quick hits to rack up email addresses.) Initial responses can be seeded from local elected officials and state representatives- AskThem has existing profile pages for all 4,000+ U.S. state legislators. Our free embeddable widgets can be placed on local media partners and political blogs to get popular questions over support threshold.

Sharing public responses to a question on the security and religious harms posed by the Trump Administration’s will get the ball rolling on surfacing these important democratic issues in a more-productive dialogue than FB comments. For more case studies of the scale of time, resources & organizing required for progressive wins in conservative areas, see enlightening Feb. 2015 summary of NY’s anti-fracking environmentalist campaign. Much more to type about capacity- and infrastructure-building.

But none of this public accountability for Trump & Bannon’s intentional harms happens in practice unless conservatives and liberals eschew the comfort of their Facebook family and follow the hard, frustrating work of ongoing dialogue with non-voters and disaffected voters. The evident problem here is that few of my social-justice-aligned friends & colleagues have independent wealth or bandwidth to fund a three-person AskThem team. More than a decade ago, I moved to Columbus, OH to organize for over a year, but what mid-career professional organizer / developer is really ready to move from NYC/SF/LA to Toledo?

So sharing links on FB is what even my relatively-privileged, digitally-connected community does — it’s what we do for signaling, when we surely know that it’s not as impactful as the terribly discouraging & draining work of on-the-ground, longer-term community organizing in conservative counties. But signaling is not currently helping get anti-Trump organizers in WI up to a staff capacity of twelve professional organizers over the next five years. Years-long community organizing is too unpleasant for our FB-level bandwidth.

Attending protests doesn’t cost much money. Crowdfunding appeals over the past ten years for non-profit staffing & tech needs don’t get nearly close enough to support full-time organizers (just hundreds, not even thousands of $). Earned-revenue sustainability is possible, but getting funding runway takes time & a commitment to non-profit returns-on-investment. The “civic tech” field’s recent response has been to focus on commercial startups instead of non-profit infrastructure building, a mandate to scale — but what has scale achieved so far in Reedsburg, WI? Commercial priority to scale product user base at all costs can present its own unique problems in tech for democracy.

So in the immediate, if anyone can recommend the AskThem program to any philanthropically-inclined person in their network who does have the wealth to support meaningful state-based engagement with local media partners, please have them email me: david at, or DM @ppolitics on Twttr. Individual supporters appear to be necessary towards our goal of breaking the dreaded filter bubble on social media and re-engaging with empirical reality in everyday political discourse.

And if you’ve read this far and you’re a web developer or designer, see our site-wide wish-list and free embeddable widgets (see above!).

Co-founder, investigative journalism on money in politics. Previously: OpenCongress, AskThem, Councilmatic.