From online to offline: lessons from Netroots UK

An in-depth break-down of several events at the conference for online activists, Netroots UK. Includes commentary on the debates held and useful summaries of practical workshops, including information on how to make an FOI request, ways to get journalists interested in campaigns, and how best to utilise a variety of specialist websites.
Helen Lambert
10 January 2011

This Saturday, we (the two arms of the blog Police State UK) attended the first Netroots UK conference, a day of workshops and networking to inspire and inform progressive online activists. If nothing else, the number of people who were prepared to get up early on a Saturday to attend was inspiring - when we arrived at 9:15am there was already a queue snaking down the street, and the main hall was filled with several hundred activists.

Right-wing critics (listening in via Twitter, ironically) condemned the event as a pointless circle-jerk, but in fact we both got a lot out of the day. The workshops in particular had a strong practical emphasis on strategies for effective campaigning which was inspiring and productive - we would have preferred to have had more workshops instead of the two plenary sessions. It was only a pity that each delegate was able to attend just two workshops out of the eighteen on offer.

However, thanks to the miracles of online communication, Netroots attendees have been able to share what they learned through blogs and video, as well as on twitter throughout the day, distributing new knowledge and pooling our collective resources. In the communal spirit of this post-event data sharing, we'd both like to pass on what we got out of the sessions we attended.

Plenary session: Strategy for campaigning against the cuts

Helen: I found TUC campaign leader Nigel Stanley's presentation in which he proposed a strategic focus for the campaign informative and useful - particularly his identification of the respective weaknesses of the anti-cuts campaign (we don't yet speak for a majority; we're in danger of endlessly mobilising a minority; coalition narratives are strong) and of the government (we are manifestly not "all in this together"; they haven't got an electoral mandate for big cuts; time will tell whether the cuts actually work or not, particularly with regard to measurable factors such as unemployment). One good strategic suggestion was to apply local pressure to Tory and Lib Dem MPs; if constituents who voted for them all turned up to surgeries with concerns about the cuts, that would likely find its way into Parliament.

Sunder Katwala's talk was rather more vague, although his blogged analysis of how the government lost the "fairness" argument ties into Nigel Stanley's talk, and is worth a read. One useful point was that geography is hugely important to the issue of the cuts. The coalition strongly represents constituencies in the south, but the cuts will affect people in the North and across Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. I think the next Netroots event, Netrootsnorth, will be crucial to the development of the campaign, more so perhaps than this initial day.

Clifford Singer of False Economy's talk was engaging and inspiring. He highlighted UKUncut's mobilisation of numerous, autonomous offline actions through social media as proof that online activism is not necessarily 'clicktivism'. He praised the satirical and immediately visual theme of many of the actions, and called attention to the extent to which social media can affect mainstream media - citing the unexpected positive coverage of the campaign in the Daily Mail as an example.

Like many in the audience, I felt that Polly Toynbee's contribution missed the point. Sunny promised us beforehand that:

We are not going to preach to the converted and I hope you won't either. In other words, what you won't hear from us is: "these cuts are terrible, we must do something about them".

Unfortunately Toynbee did exactly this, at great length. What started out as a word-picture demonstrating that the cuts would affect traditional Tory-voting middle class familes quickly faded into a seemingly endless litany of consequences with little direction and no discussion of strategy or solutions. I don't think I was the only audience member to zone out after a while.

Sunny Hundal took the floor to highlight the importance of pluralism to the campaign, which should include different motivations and perspectives. He then breathed new life into the questions session by crowd-sourcing answers from the audience - and won my approval by actively encouraging women to take the mic. The Q & A represented a diverse spread of views and some debate on the role of Trade Unions and the Labour Party in the campaign, but the key point I took away from it was the need to work with multiple different groups, each of which has different strengths and can help us reach different demographics. The more diversity we have across class boundaries, geography and the political spectrum, the more accessible we can be. Although I did enjoy the NUJ leader who invited those dissatisfied with trade unions to join them and take them over.

Nick Anstead has posted a full summary of this session.

MORNING: Theory of change: Planning your campaign

Denny: This looked at the phases of building a political campaign, and how you need to have a coherent strategy to take you from end to end of that process. A few different ways of breaking things down were presented by the speakers, but my favourite was '1. Conscience; 2. Coordination; 3. Conflict; 4. Compromise.'

This was explained as follows:

  1. You find an issue you're unhappy about - your conscience is engaged.
  2. You get together with others to build an organisation of people who care about the issue.
  3. You go into battle! This is where letter-writing campaigns, street protests, direct actions etc take place.
  4. You negotiate some sort of settlement with the powers-that-be regarding the changes you want.

Unless you did incredibly well at stages 2 and 3, then you're unlikely to get everything you want at stage 4, but if you make any improvement then you've had some sort of success.

I was surprised that this talk didn't cover where the Internet can help with each of these stages - I think some useful points could have been made along those lines.

MORNING: Investigative journalism for bloggers

Helen: This session was all about the details, focussing on tips and practical examples. The first two speakers looked at how activists can discover the true scale of the cuts and their impact at a local level. Richard Blogger's suggestions for online tools were pointlessly obvious (setting up Google Alerts on topics of interest; following local officials on twitter) but he was better on offline tactics, such as attending public sector board meetings (those of NHS trust hospitals are, for instance, open to the public), and reading up on relevant acronyms and jargon so as to question authority.

Chaminda Jayanetti of False Economy followed this with an info-packed presentation on how to make successful FoI requests which I found really helpful:

  • The organisation has a month to reply (those in the room who had submitted requests to the Metropolitan Police gave a hollow laugh at this). Under section 16 of the Freedom of Information Act public bodies have a duty to assist you in your request. Ask with confidence - you have a right to know.
  • FoI requests must be made in writing. Get the right contact details - some orgs have a specific address for FoI requests. Pre-empt confusion by stating the format you'd like your reply in. Call the organisation first and ask what format the data is in, so you can ask for it specifically.
  • Make your request as detailed and specific as possible to reduce the opportunity for loopholes allowing the answer to have an unjustified positive bias.
  • FoI has several exemptions, including information supplied by or relating to national security bodies; international relations; criminal investigations; civil service and parliamentary policy formulation; information which could compromise the 'effective conduct of public affairs' (shockingly broad!); and data pertaining to private individuals, as covered by the Data Protection Act.
  • Many organisations will misuse these exemptions to get out of answering your request honestly. The Information Commissioner has published clear guidance on how the exemptions should be applied, and you should feel free to cite this if you need to appeal against their misuse.
  • Some data will already have been published under the Publication Scheme, and organisations may avoid answering the request by redirecting you to this - however, it may be inaccessible and in a format too impractical or time-consuming to use. Call first and ask if the data has already been published; if so, ask for clear instructions on exactly how to find the information you are looking for

David Hencke spoke next on how publically available information can be used to discredit advocates of the cuts. David Cameron said he wanted "everybody to be an armchair auditor" - presumably he meant of public spending, but we can turn the same scrutiny on public figures. Hencke advised that most public figures don't realise how vulnerable they are to information provided on public websites, even if they're involved in something dodgy; but he warned us away from using information about an individual's private life or sexuality against them. Using his 'Armchair audit' of Brian Coleman, Britain's highest paid councillor as an example, he showed us how to expose hypocrisy by researching the claimed expenses, company directorships, and assets of public figures supporting the cuts, using online tools such as:

@adamramsay asked about how to target corporations rather than public figures. Suggestions included looking up company reports and minutes of board meetings, researching court cases against the company to find out weak points, and looking out for companies which hoover up public money by taking on a lot of public sector contracts.

Claire French has more details on Left Food Forward.

LUNCHTIME FRINGE: The student fightback - a new type of networked movement?

Denny: This was being facilitated by two of the more high-profile students from the recent UCL Occupation (Guy Aitchison and Aaron Peters). The talk ranged around a bit, but spent a while going over the pros and cons of consensus organisation, and how that can be applied to the movement going forward, now that it's no longer based around a close-knit group in one geographic location.

LUNCHTIME FRINGE: Internet security for beginners: A guide for non-technical activists

Helen: This accessible and engaging session by Chris Coltrane covered the basics of covering your tracks online, from browser plugins such as HTTPS everywhere to how to disguise your IP address using IPredator, a VPN (Virtual Private Network) run by the Pirate Bay, which redirects all your traffic through their IP address, effectively anonymising it (for a small fee), or the TOR project, which has the advantage of being globally distributed and totally free, but the disadvantage of making browsing frustratingly slow.

The session on passwords sparked a lot of interest, and the audience suggested a variety of tips, tricks and tools such as:

  • Last Pass - a password manager which generates random secure passwords for you, and saves them in a browser plugin protected by a master password
  • Keepass - another password safe
  • Bug Me Not- share and use other people's logins for websites that require you to register in order to view content - free as well as anonymous!

Finally Chris recommended, which offers a range of secure online communication tools specifically tailored to the needs of activists.

AFTERNOON: Beyond Twitter & blogging: 10 tools you need to know and planning the next 10

Denny: The first half of this was really interesting - a fast look at a range of tools which attempt to make government more accessible to people, some of which I had seen before but others I hadn't. I can't remember everything, but it included Google Alerts (a massively underutilised tool),,,, OpenlyLocal, OpenCorporates and more.

The potential for hooking some of them up to each other is amazing - for instance, WhosLobbying tells you which companies are spending a lot of time meeting with certain government departments or officials, and OpenlyLocal tells you which companies are getting lucrative government contracts - a few non-techie people in the room immediately saw the appeal of such a combination for finding out information about private companies which run public facilities they were campaigning about, such as local leisure centres. OpenCorporates tells you what tax-haven subsidiaries a particular company has, which could be of particular interest if (when combined with OpenlyLocal) it revealed that a company is taking government money for contract work, but then not paying their fair share of taxes back to that government. There's still a lot of scope for more work to be done linking up all these information resources to make them increasingly valuable, particularly to non-technical users who don't know enough to seek them out individually.

The second half (proposing and doing a first-draft design of new tools which we'd like to see built) seemed to lose momentum badly, although possibly I'm just sulking because nobody else seemed interested in my idea! (Since you ask; I'd like to see an online tool to track pledges made by politicians - particularly before elections! - and how many of them they actually follow through.).

AFTERNOON: How to make sure the media delivers for us

Helen: This was a practical, useful intro to media and PR for campaigns, with particularly useful tips from Samira Shackle of the New Statesman. Tactics for getting media attention broke down into three categories:

- Create attention-grabbing actions which will inspire journalists to cover the story.

Johann Hari of the Independent advised us to learn from UKUncut; the old model of linear march followed by speeches is no longer media bait. Take your action to an unexpected location, and do something unexpected. Satire, humour, dramatisation and visual immediacy are key. Express your story in terms of how it affects the lives of human beings, rather than focusing on numbers and statistics - but have facts and figures to hand in case you're asked. Keep your message clear, concise and simple - pretend you're explaining the issue to a not-very-bright 11-year-old. Any story the news can tell in 30 seconds is more likely to be picked up.

- Write a piece yourself covering the campaign or issue you care about.

Gain a bigger audience by writing a guest blog for publication on an online newspaper or magazine. Pick the right one for your topic by choosing one which has covered similar issues before. The Staggers on the New Statesman and Comment is Free on the Guardian both welcome opinion pieces. Establish relationships with individual journalists and publications; your email is more likely to be read if they have a face to put to the name. Pick a journalist sympathetic to your cause and send them your three best pieces, and ask if they'd like to have a coffee. If writing a piece yourself, make sure your point of view adds something which the journalist could not contribute themselves, such as first-hand experience. Don't publish the piece to your blog first as most news outlets are not interested in re-publications - you can always put it up later if your pitch is unsuccessful.

Journalists are inundated by email so don't be afraid to phone, but no amount of persistence will help if your piece isn't timely, exciting and current. Online news moves fast so you need to keep up - a piece which was fresh in the morning might be out-of-date by the afternoon.

- Ask an established journalist to write a piece covering your campaign

Activists' suspicion of journalists in general may be justified, but don't alienate writers who are on your side. Pitch an article topic to a sympathetic journalist who is interested in the issues you care about, but do the legwork for them. Present clear, easily digestible information on your topic - bullet points are good, as are contact details/brief bios of people they can interview. Be concise; initial emails longer than a paragraph are unlikely to be read. Provide attractive, relevant photography or video if possible - The Staggers is particularly interested in featuring viral campaigns early in their lifespan.

Johann Hari closed with some inspiring remarks about the power of direct action. He cited the Vietnam protest movement as an example of a campaign which it was later revealed had dissuaded Nixon from starting nuclear war as he believed it would incite significant civil unrest - even though at the time they thought they'd failed.The most powerful form of pressure you can put on politicians is to dramatise and mobilise public opinion.

Even if all the coverage of your campaign is negative (like the gay rights movement until the eighties) that's still worth something; it broadens people's sense of the possible and gets your ideas into public discourse. You can't tell what ripple effect your actions might have in the future, what unnoticed passerby might hear your message and act on it later, what conversations your campaign will spark in your absence. The only thing you can guarantee will have no effect is to do nothing.


We were among those disappointed to find KitKats in the provided packed lunches (is the Nestlé boycott no longer supported by the majority of progressive campaigners? Shame!)

Both big plenary sessions would have been improved by a live twitterfall of the #netrootsuk hashtag projected onto the big screen between use. Some people are concerned about the hashtag being hijacked, but our experience suggests that in fact this would just motivate people to drown out trolls with on-message tweets. It would have the advantage of moving twitterer's eyelines from their device up to the stage, detracting less attention from the speakers than if everyone is looking into their laps. The real-time commentary unites offline and online in an immediate way, and the opportunity to have your name on the big screen encourages contributions. It adds another dimension to the conversation and enables real-time interaction and feedback. Plus, parallel processing is the way of the future. It's good practice for the day when we have the internet in our brains and can superimpose virtual hypertext on the world in front of our eyes.

I missed the final plenary, although many attendees spoke well of Stella Creasy MP's passionate and engaging talk on the importance of face-to-face engagement and local action. Nonetheless I left feeling inspired and better-equipped to further progressive campaigns online and offline. At only £5 per ticket the event was astoundingly good value for money. I'm glad it happened, and I'm glad I was there.

This piece was originally published here, on Police State UK. 


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