Not everyone who works for a campaign is a door knocker, phone banker, or fundraiser. More political campaigns are being pursued through online means. For this week, we thought we would talk with Emily Harrison, who works for a major party as their online digital organizer. The conversation below was edited only for grammar and context.
Question 1. Tell us a little about yourself.
I’m the oldest of four kids from Ramsey, MN. I’m an alum of Anoka High School (Go Tornadoes!) and a recent gaduate of the George Washington University, in Washington, DC. While out in DC, I interned at worked at a variety of places, including EMILY’s List, the Office of former Senator Al Franken, and Mothership Strategies. These roles helped me develop my digital and communicaiton skills, as well as my passion for progressive politics. After graduation, I moved back home to Ramsey and began as a Digital Organizer with the Minnesota DFL Coordinated Campaign, specifically focusing on our email program.
Question 2. How did you get involved in politics and online organizing? (What motivated you?)
I was never involved or interested in politics when I was younger. I actually wanted to go to medical school for a long time. However, many of my friends became interested in politics in high school, so the summer after our junior year of high school we attended the American Legion Auxilary Minnesota Girls’ State. Quite honestly, Girls State completely changed my view of politics, especially on the local level, which in turn changed my life. From there, I was hooked on Minnesota politics. This changed my plans from majoring in Pre-Med at the U to majoring in Political Communication at GWU. Being in DC for four years allowed me to study the digitization of campaigns and organizing while being in the city where it all happens. As I developed my own issue stances and political beliefs, that motivate me to stay involved.
Question 3: Ever since Obama’s 2008 campaign (and if we want to go even further back, Howard Dean’s 2004 Dem Primary run), campaigns have been organized more around an online presence. What advantages does online organizing offer over the old doorknock/phone bank approach? Do you see any disadvantages?
I believe in online and digital organizing because it allows us to easily meet people where they’re at — both literally and figuratively — in an efficient manner. To me, the best online organizers take field organizing into the digital world. We know that a majority of Minnesotans are online in some capacity, with younger generations spending hours online a day. So why wouldn’t campaigns be online? When I’ve been leading text banks for candidate persuasion or GOTV efforts, I always ask my volunteers if they answer calls from numbers they don’t recognize. Few, if any, actually do. The same goes with answering the door from a stranger with a clipboard on a Saturday afternoon. However, they all read every text they get, whether they respond or not. We know that close to 90% of texts are opened in the first 3 minutes of them being sent. And we know that an average volunteer can easily handle sending 500 texts in an hour. So now we know that for each volunteer sending texts, around 450 people are seeing the information we want to spread to them. Those numbers can’t be met on the doors or on the phones. The same goes for online ads, or email programs, or social media — it’s so easy to reach a high volume of people in a short amount of time. It’s unbeatable.
The downsides are similar to the downsides of any organzing, but in the digital realm. Negative responses are more extreme when folks can send it through a text rather than say it to a volunteer’s face. We get some pretty nasty messages from people who think we’re just robots, rather than real people sending these texts or emails. It’s also expensive, and if you don’t have money, it’s really hard to run effective digital organizing, which immediately makes it a less inclusive form of work.
Question 4: What candidates or groups do you feel do a good job of online organizing?
I think the digital organizing program the DFL has built up this year has been really strong, but I’m also biased. I think Dean Phillips in CD3 has a very strong video and email program. I heard Ilhan Omar in CD5 had a massive texting program that really helped turn out the vote for her. Outside of Minnesota, I believe EMILY’s List really does a great job with their email program and Let America Vote has a strong peer-to-peer texting program.
Question 5. What is the best thing about the job? What is the worst thing?
The best thing about the job is being able to have so many one-on-one conversations with people in such a short amount of time. Although most young people view it as a faux pas, many people actually respond to our bulk emails with genuine questions or comments. The ability to respond to all of these people in a matter of minutes and watch their support for our candidates grow is really inspiring. The same goes with texting — I have had amazing conversations with people that I wouldn’t have been able to have on the doors, simply because sending multiple texts to multiple people is a lot faster than walking around a neighborhood.
The worst part abut the job goes back to what I referenced earlier, about a disadvantage of online organizing. It’s a lot easier for people to be negative, extreme, or just plain mean when they can send a text or email rather than saying that to someone face-to-face. So we do get a lot of rude messages that I don’t believe (most) people would say to a door-knocker or phone-banker.
Question 6. Technology moves fast. What do you see your job as like 10 years from now?
Technology does move fast and that makes it hard to plan what’s next. When the iPhone came out, it skipped generations from the normal progression of technology. So it is really hard to plan what could come next. We can think about the average progression of tech and try to plan, but if we have another iPhone that skips generations, we can’t plan for that. So, I think in the next 10 years my job will be applying the same techniques I am now, of meeting people where they’re at.
Question 7. There can be a lot of negativity in online platforms; trolling on twitter, bots spamming sites, etc. What is the best way to stay above the fray?
As I’ve mentioned, we do get a lot of negative messages in the online sphere. I think the best way to stay above it is to never, ever engage with a troll or bot, unless you are trying to positively disengage (sending a “Have a nice day!” message in response to a mean text). After that, I think it’s important to always take a step back and remember that blind hate is probably not a direct attack on you.
Question 8. Five years ago, Facebook was big, then it was Twitter and Instagram. What do you perceive as the next big networking platform? What would you like to see?
I would like to see a platform that actively works to remove bots and hate speech, so that folks can have honest, person-to-pesron conversations. Basically, I want Twitter with an edit option and admin that work harder to remove hate speech and bots. As far as online organizing goes, I do think Snapchat will see a rise in popularity for GOTV efforts and advertisements. I think we learned of its powers in the 2016 election, and we just need more candidates and campaigns to tap into that potential.
Question 9. Any advice for those who would want to get involved in online political organizing someday?
You can so easily get involved in political digital organizing in a casual sense, try it out and see what works for you and your audiences, so you have some insight to offer a campaign or candidate. The best way to try this out on your own is to find a candidate/cause/issue you care about, and practice relational digital organizing. Text your friends and family, make Facebook posts, write emails to old coworkers and acquaintances. See what type of messaging seems to work, see how people respond to you and what you’re trying to convey. Then you have some experience to offer to future campaigns.
Question 10. Parting thoughts– anything else you would like to offer to those reading out there?
When I tell most people that I’m a Digital Organizer, people assume my job is to post on Facebook and Twitter all day. But digital encompasses a lot of things people don’t think about: peer-to-peer texting, opt-in texting, online advertisements, social media, email programs, video and photo editing, general content creation. Have fun with it!
Thanks Emily, this was wonderful. If you know someone who you would like us to showcase in an upcoming post, please feel free to contact us through teampurplemn.com!