Culture

In the Digital Weeds: An Analysis of Modern Grassroots Movements

In an age of overwhelming performative activism, grassroots organizations remain a consistent, effective, and accessible way of inspiring change. In the aftermath of COVID, its importance in society has only grown. Applicable to a range of issues —most notably environmentalism, civil rights, political campaigning, and, most recently, women’s reproductive health— grassroots methodology lends itself to a wide variety of viewpoints. I’d like to propose a brief explanation for the technique’s success and a possible look into its future.

First, a working definition of grassroots organization is necessary. Grassroots movements rely almost entirely on community engagement, with a special focus on education. This can consist of several forms: lobbyists educate politicians, and members educate the general public through awareness-raising and events. The ultimate goal, as stated in the name, is to create change from the ground up. Grassroots organizations aim to be a platform where progressive ideas can begin and grow. Often, there is no official leadership and the goal is to move as a unified collective, with volunteers taking on different responsibilities within the group. Especially prevalent on college campuses, there is usually an emphasis on diversity and broad participation. The only membership requirement is passion for the cause. The existence of grassroots movements is often celebrated as a success of participatory democracy, anti-elitism, and advocacy for the First Amendment.

The phrase “grassroots” as we know it today, is thought to have first been coined in 1912 by Senator Albert Jeremiah Beveridge in a speech for the Bull Moose Party. He claimed, “this party has come from the grass roots. It has grown from the soil of people’s hard necessities.” The core principles of grassroots movements have remained very much the same since Beveridge’s speech, and so have some of its most effective strategies. Members are known for their attempts to educate the public through petitions, posters, and information tables. They also encourage contacting representatives through a variety of media, including email and phone campaigns. Perhaps most famously, grassroots movements hold large rallies or gatherings to protest for change.

However, in a post-pandemic world, many of these strategies are no longer practical or even feasible. With the high risk of transmission, groups have largely turned to internet platforms or social media pages to engage with their communities and beyond. Benefits include a more efficient and widespread form of activism. With a single post, advocates are able to share information and media in support of their cause. Directly contacting representatives has certainly become more convenient; anyone with an Instagram or Twitter account can reach a member of a congressperson’s team in seconds. But perhaps most popular is the mass participation in Zoom rallies or meetings where volunteers are able to participate from anywhere in the world. Some have even taken on the form of message boards or Facebook groups. Engagement tailored towards convenience has created a massive uptick in grassroots movements in the 21st century.

Despite digital changes, grassroots methodology persists as a powerful political force. Both conservative and liberal activists have attempted to harness its power in tackling divisive social issues. For example, the Black Lives Matter organization has spoken out on the fight against police brutality. After the murder of George Floyd, local chapters organized protests and counter-protests across the country, defining the crisis for many. Similarly, environmental action groups have lobbied extensively at the national level, hoping to draft legislation on reducing carbon emissions in light of reports on global temperature. Both sides have lobbied extensively at the national level. Even women’s health groups, divided on the issue of pro-life vs. pro-choice, have held large rallies and extensive fund-raising campaigns in response to Governor Abbott’s Texas Heartbeat Bill. 

Though grassroots organizing can be adopted by both left and right causes, progressive movements have most recently used it to the greatest effect. Through protests and lobbying, Black Lives Matter has successfully introduced legislation to defund the police in more than 20 major cities, including Austin. The Austin Climate Equity Plan is also a result of environmental activists and their efforts to educate the public on the dangers of global warming. The enormous crowds that recently gathered in front of the Texas Capitol to protest against the Heartbeat Bill were successfully coordinated by the grassroots organization Women’s March ATX. Participants far outnumbered the small number of evangelical counter-protestors. The pro-life movement has often relied on its network of Christian members to generate support for their conservative political goals. Yet, these built-in communities frequently have trouble expanding membership beyond their own religious affiliation. By looking at these broad examples of recent social activism, it would appear that calls for change and progress galvanize more members than the maintenance of the status quo. Yet, regardless of ideology, change was won through a mixture of online and in-person advocacy. The success of these causes proves that a productive balance between physical and digital is achievable. However, it will have to come at the cost of major structural changes.

It is equally important to consider the disadvantages of online activism. Does civic engagement on social media make the same statements as in-person rallies or door-to-door petitioning? Convenience makes half-hearted advocacy possible. If volunteers can become activists from their beds, is their message any less powerful? It is possible, but more difficult to communicate shared enthusiasm and genuinely connect with like-minded people online. A movement suddenly flooded with new members and messages can also make organization more difficult, even at its most basic level. Recently, it’s become more widespread for a few powerful corporate or political sponsors to make movements appear as if they originated from grassroots movements, a practice known as astroturfing. The play on words implies only the illusion of change. On social media and internet platforms, algorithms can create thousands of fake profiles in support of a cause. While a decent and effective substitute for face-to-face organizing, online movements allow space for issues like these. We cannot allow them to become permanent.

To create significant and meaningful change, groups must first find a way to identify and regulate astroturf and troll accounts on their online platforms. This will reduce confusion and help channel the movement’s resources in a more organized fashion. Next, instead of spreading information in an attempt to grow viral, organizations should share the most important parts of their argument to a more moderate audience that will be most receptive. This specificity and brevity will help attract new members. Both of these strategies have been successfully used by online chat rooms and social media corporations recently to filter their platforms. There is no reason why grassroots movements cannot apply the same strategy on a smaller scale. Additionally, a more firmly established means of organization will be necessary to coordinate between physical and digital channels. Elected leaders will help any cause become more efficient and consequently more effective. This will sustain the movement through COVID protocol changes while also expanding its outreach beyond online platforms into more meaningful, face-to-face advocacy. With these adaptations, bottom to top grassroots methodology will find a place in digital culture.

Grassroots movements must seize on the good of modern technology while weeding out the bad. Organizations should aim to shorten the gap between old ideas and new methods. This adaptation will ensure their survival. We must not allow grassroots’ core principles of democracy, education, and community to fade away.

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