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Can the US gun lobby be made to misfire through social media?

March 8, 2014

By Stuart Dredge, Guardian News

Three campaigning groups tell SXSW how they’re using social media to take on the NRA and others

“We are going to continue this. We are only 15 months old, and we have had major wins. But obviously there is a lot more work to do.”

– Shannon Watts, Founder
Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America

c5e3a52a-3762-4d5e-be1e-08c8a0632453-460x276Gun control campaigners are making greater use of social media to organise their supporters across the US, in an effort to digitally disrupt better-funded pro-gun lobbying groups like the NRA.

Three groups – Mayors Against Illegal Guns, Americans for Responsible Solutions, and Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America – came together at the SXSW conference in Austin to discuss their digital strategies.

The first two of those groups may have well-known figureheads – politicians Michael Bloomberg and Gabrielle Giffords respectively – but they are also working hard to spark grassroots online campaigns for supporters to press for changes to state and federal gun laws.

“The problem here is that there are more guns in the United States than there are people. That’s not necessarily a problem in itself, but our laws are letting far too many of those guns fall into the wrong hands,” said Glaze, setting the scene for the groups’ digital efforts.

Glaze pointed to the twin powers of lobbying organisation the NRA and the gun industry itself as reasons why “the politics are fundamentally screwed up” around gun control in the US. “You can’t get an issue that is a 90:10 issue resolved in the right way,” he said.

One of MAIG’s key demands is for background checks to become standard for anyone buying a gun in the US, wherever they buy it from – including closing loopholes that are enabling people to buy firearms privately or online with no checks.

“The percentage of people who don’t think you should get a background check is the same percentage of people who think Elvis is still alive,” added Glaze.

He added that when MAIG started, it discovered there was no grassroots organisation around campaigning for gun control, in stark comparison to the tens of millions of members of the NRA throughout the country.

“I think we’re getting there, because there is now a grassroots on the issue that is being run by various smart people doing this in cutting-edge ways,” he said.

Ambler started working for congresswoman Giffords five days before she was shot in the head in a surprise attack at a political event, but it was the mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut in 2012 that spurred the creation of Americans for Responsible Solutions (ARS).

“The first thing that we did was we put an op-ed in USA Today announcing what we were going to do, and we sent an email on some cheap digital letterhead to Gabby’s campaign list of 20,000 people,” he said. “We had no idea how integral the digital space was going to be to our efforts.”

Ambler said ARS is using digital technology in four ways to disrupt the NRA and other elements of the gun lobby. First, with funding: it has raised more than $18.1m to date from more than 218,000 contributions, with more than half of it coming from people donating online in amounts of less than $200.

Second, ARS is excited about measuring online interactions: analytics. Ambler cited elections in Virginia where the body carefully targeted its spending.

“Increasingly we’re able to figure out who the most receptive people in the electorate are, and target them based on a gun violence message,” he said. “We’re disrupting this idea that’s been perpetrated by the gun lobby and the media for far too long that you support gun violence legislation at your own political peril.”

Third, ARS uses digital to show that groups traditionally thought of as strongly pro-gun – veterans, for example – are not so monolithic in their views. Again, targeting and analytics have been important, as has been signing up 6,000 people for its Veterans for Responsible Solutions movemebt.

And fourth, ARS uses social media to give supporters an insight into the daily lives of its founders Giffords and her husband Mark Kelly: a direct communication channel rather than having to rely just on traditional media outlets.

Watts talked about how Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America (MDAGSA) uses digital technology and social media to build its movement.

“When you talk about digital organising, who better to do that than moms? We are a major social media presence,” she said. “For us, email, Twitter, Facebook has become a major way to organise.”

MDAGSA’s first digital campaign pitted the organisation against Starbucks, pushing the company to change its policy against guns being allowed in its stores.

The campaign included Skip Starbucks Saturdays, encouraging mothers to make coffee at home then take photos of themselves drinking it outside Starbucks outlets, sharing them on social media. They were also asked to share photos of people carrying guns in Starbucks.

“This was happening, and we made that public. It really just took three months, and Starbucks changed their policies, saying guns were no longer welcome in their stores,” she said.

A month ago, MDAGSA started a new campaign asking Facebook and Instagram to crack down on people using the social networks to promote their willingness to sell guns or help people evade the law.

The campaign included spoofing Facebook’s “Look Back” videos to highlight groups on the social network advertising guns for sale, as well as personal status updates boasting about not requiring background checks. The video has been watched more than 400,000 times, and it sparked action quickly.

“Last week, Facebook and Instagram announced nine new policies that they were putting in place in response to our campaign,” she said. “We are going to continue this. We are only 15 months old, and we have had major wins. But obviously there is a lot more work to do.”

She suggested that the traditional NRA strategy of stimulating fear among its members that their guns will be taken away by the government can be matched by mothers’ fear that their children will be taken away – i.e. killed in shootings.

“At the end of the day that emotion is what will enable us to go toe-to-toe with he gun lobby, and achieve change quickly,” she said. Social media will continue to be a key way MDAGSA’s members express this emotion.

Glaze said that MAIG now has a grassroots membership of 1.5m people across the US, and is now working with like-minded organisations to make the best use of it, and continue growing.

Ambler returned to the theme of digital’s capacity to target and measure, and then raise money, citing the example of a gun control bill that failed after a filibuster in the US Senate. “In just the 30 minutes after the filibuster occurred and the bill went down, we raised $100,000 from 2,822 people,” he said.

“48 hours after, as more people learned about what happened, and learned that the Senate had continue to be in the gun lobby’s pocket, we raised nearly $1m from 22,000 people. For the large part what we raised was online, from people getting angry, going online and pitching in a couple of bucks.”

Watts said that MDAGSA is less focused on funding, and more about keeping its members active. “It’s not just about Liking on Facebook,” she said. It has focused on creating a social media network where members will get involved in email and Twitter campaigns regularly, as well as calling their members of Congress.

“If we need people to turn out at a state house, we can get them to do that. If we need them to testify, we can get them to do that. If we need them to bombard with emails and calls, we can do that,” she said. “Moms do social media more than anybody else, and it’s a logical place to get people to activate online. But it doesn’t mean much if you can’t get them to also activate offline.”

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