If chatbots can help sway elections, can they help us organize too?



Resistbot in The Age of Millennial Activism

We’re growing up in a reality where Facebook, Twitter, and chatbots can be used to “allegedly” sway an entire government election. Nowadays, being young is about being able to seamlessly navigate between digital and the real world. But aside from social media, what tools do we have to help us as citizens?

Well, back when the Trump administration initially dropped the DACA debacle on us, we noticed a trend throughout our Instagrams. Among the phone numbers and resource lists, people were screenshotting their convos with Resistbot.

Resistbot is a chatbot that claims to help you reach your representatives by texting 50409, or by messaging them on Facebook. It was designed to be ridiculously easy to use, informative and has been praised since its immense growth in March.

“The goal of Resistbot was never to send as many faxes as possible or to spam Congress,” wrote Jason Putorti, a UX designer for the political chatbot, “It was to get people engaged on a regular basis. Whether writing, or another civic action. I wrote this as our initial positioning statement.”

Within the last five months the political chatbot has gained a massive following and, recently, some added functionality. It’s funded entirely by 24,000 individual donors who, so far, have given an average of $15 each. Their Medium account even has tutorials for sending out faxes, sending postal mail, and even adding your signature to the letters being sent out to your representatives.

The app’s main function is to get people’s voices heard and emphasize access. But does it count as real activism? I wanted to find out from someone with a bit more activism experience than me. I talked to Ryan Carson, an activist and regional supervisor for NYPIRG.

“I like Resistbot in theory but less so in practice.” said Carson. “As a rule, a phone call will always get you further than an email or letter. An example I hear often from legislators is that for every person motivated to make a call, one hundred others must feel just as strongly.” Carson continues to mention how setting up in office meetings are the most beneficial interactions you can have. He rarely hears about letters unless they’re attached to a physical petition. 

But what if we can benefit from a mix both digital and physical organization?

If we reach out to our legislators from every avenue we’d become much harder to ignore digitally and physically. We live in a world where our activism shouldn’t only be through our keyboards or only through physical interactions. “The thing about activism is that even though you may not have a leadership role,” Carson admits, “there is a place for everyone.”  

Our lives are busy and information moves fast. Resistbot could have a role to play by quickly giving us specific information that would take more time with a Google search. Though change.org petitions aren’t always the best way to go, at least we have another tool for creating change.

Images via Nitish Meena, Markus Spiske

Stay tuned to Milk for more automated activism.

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