Activism

Published on March 25th, 2018 | by Terra Goodnight

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Under The Radar, A Blue Wave Is Building

There’s a powerful new below-the-radar tool for progressive organizing and you probably already have it on your phone. It’s called a secret Facebook group. These member-only private forums are flipping elections, driving legislative action and their power has only begun to be tested.

The power of these closed communities is in their invisibility to other Facebook users. Members don’t have to worry that their long-lost friends, coworkers and distant relations can see all their private business. That allows for some very truthful and productive conversations to happen, away from the eyes of those who would want to question or undermine it, and in some cases it’s led to some powerful organized action that few realize is even happening.

Because secret groups are secret for a reason, we won’t reveal the full names of groups or their organizers. Using a semi-public forum like Facebook where people’s identities are difficult to verify always poses the risk of infiltration. We’ll talk more about that later.

A Nation of Pantsuits

One of the most well-known examples of secret progressive Facebook groups is “Pantsuit Nation,” a forum where 3+ million Clinton supporters enjoyed a respite from hostile Bernie- and Trump-loving friends and relatives, where they could share memes and jokes and vent frustrations without pushback.

“secret FB groups are a godsend. Without these I don’t know what I’d have done after the election. I first joined PSN (pantsuit nation) and it was such a relief to see-for the first time since moving to Ohio-so many like-minded people! It was a revelation. Up to this point, no one I knew ever talked about politics but I knew I was to the left of pretty much everyone I knew. Once I joined the secret group, it was like therapy 🤣. So many people I would never have guessed (that I had known) had also been progressives.” – “C”, Ohio Activist

After 2016, thousands of similar groups were launched as devastated progressives banded together, typically organized into local forums, vowing to resist the Trump agenda and hold elected official accountable. Groups perfected tactics for coordinating their phone calls and visits to Congressional offices, drafted and shared calls to action, and planned in-person protests and meetings.

Groups Grow Up

In some instances, these collaborations are helping to elect progressives and drive change at Statehouses. The first (which I’ll refer to here as “Blue Alabama”–not its real name) literally changed the way I thought about how grassroots organizing can win elections. Over 4,000 activists from groups across the country joined a private group aimed at electing Doug Jones in the Alabama special election, anxious to help in any way they could. And that they did.

FB group allowed members across US to meet emerging needs immediately

Secret FB group allowed members across US to meet emerging needs immediately

“Blue Alabama” members from out of state were connected with groups working on the ground to register voters, restore voting rights to the formerly incarcerated and help securing photo ID. On-the-ground members advised where help–either money or volunteer labor–was most urgently needed. Closer to election day, out-of-state members wrote postcards, texted and called voters, while in-state members self-deployed to parts of the state experiencing volunteer shortages.

Volunteers from across Alabama were steered where needs were greatest.

Volunteers from across Alabama were steered where needs were greatest.

Because participants had connections to county parties, nonprofits and activist groups, the group offered a broader perspective than one would get signing up with their party or the campaign. It was the absolute dedication by group members to meet any and every conceivable need of organizers on the ground that made it obvious to me that a victory was at hand. While TV pundits and observers relied on public polling and official campaign spokespeople, some of us knew that so much more was happening behind the scenes and out of sight. We knew we had this thing in the bag before a single poll closed.

postcards from Oberlin, Ohio

Over 100,000 Alabama voters received handwritten postcards from around the US, including Ohio

The group’s independence from the Doug Jones campaign and the Democratic party is what made it so powerful. Whatever members dreamt up, they pulled together to make happen. Nobody waited to be asked and nobody asked for permission.

Groups Targeting Statehouses

Secret groups aren’t just impacting elections, they’re also driving change in statehouses and at workplaces. The recent West Virginia teachers strike, a wildcat action not authorized by the state’s education unions, was made possible in large part by a secret Facebook group where teachers planned coordinated actions, designed to maximize the impact on lawmakers who controlled education spending.

The first rumblings began late last year, when a group of teachers formed a secret Facebook page and started planning a “lobby day” at the state capital on Martin Luther King Day, when they knew the legislature would be in session. Word spread, and soon the West Virginia Education Association, the state’s NEA affiliate, was planning an official rally.

By the time the union announced it had reached a deal for a pay increase, the Facebook group was so big and powerful that it became clear members wanted to hold out for more.

“Comer [a teacher and group administrator] said people had been going through “the proper channels,” like attending committee meetings and town halls. She said people contacted their legislators, who responded in ways that suggested they didn’t care. O’Neal [another group organizer] said people would post lawmakers’ responses.

“And then we all saw collectively that those proper channels were getting us nowhere,” Comer said.

Teachers in Arizona, Kentucky and Oklahoma are now plotting away in secret groups of their own for coordinated labor actions expected later this spring. A Facebook group created by Oklahoma educators “grew to over 40,000 in the first weekend, and the group currently has over 69,000 members,” while another in Arizona attracted 34,000 members.

Even in Ohio, secret Facebook groups are working to stop dangerous legislation. In one example, a diverse array of public education advocates and homeschoolers have come together in a quiet campaign to overturn GOP legislation to diminish the role of the elected State Board of Education. Members report back to the group about conversations they’ve had with individual lawmakers, tracking how they will vote on the bill and discussing tactics and strategies for pressuring those on the fence. In Summit County, a private Facebook groups for moms became a hub for coordinating a citizen-led referendum of a proposed local natural gas pipeline.

In 2018, The Blue Wave Will Not Be Publicized

I’m so encouraged to see the Blue Alabama model is being replicated in nearly every other state as group alumni adapt what they’ve learned to elections taking place in their own states. Ohio’s version already has nearly 1,300 members.

“after a year of belonging to several resistance groups, I got tired of resisting. My calls and emails to my MOC were clearly falling on deaf ears and I wanted to DO something. That’s when I got involved with Blue Alabama and fell in love with the model. Not resisting but supporting candidates. Action!” – C.

But Isn’t Facebook Terrible?

It’s undeniably true that news about secret groups isn’t all good. They can harbor toxic behavior and reinforce groupthink. Group administrators must think through rules of behavior and how to screen new applicants when they are invited by another member to join (the only way one can join a secret group). C, our activist friend in Ohio, says that in addition to a set of membership guidelines, she checks out prospective members’ public profiles. If that still leaves questions, “I check the profile of the person who submitted the request and also check in with them to confirm that the friend they submitted would be a good fit. Given the group’s activist mission,” if someone doesn’t meet this rigorous screen, C says they’re “probably a better fit for the more traditional resistance groups.” She may add a panel of screening questions for prospective members in the future.

And, in 2018, Facebook is highly controversial and many group members and leaders say they wish there were an alternative. I’ve been part of many successful (and even more unsuccessful) efforts to use Slack to organize similar efforts. Any new tool presents challenges, especially for older members.

But, if a progressive technology firm can deploy a secure and robust alternative to Facebook groups, we predict it would be wildly successful. Whatever tool you use, do not sleep on the power of secret groups to create change.

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About the Author

Terra Goodnight does Policy Research and Digital Organizing for Innovation Ohio, a progressive-leaning research and advocacy nonprofit in Columbus. She also runs a few Twitter accounts and had earlier careers in state and local government and private sector technology consulting.



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