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350.org: A Case of Online-to-Offline Activism


Luis E. Hestres


Climate change is arguably the most complex challenge humanity faces today. It has been linked to heat waves, droughts, floods, extreme weather, and other phenomena that can affect entire ecosystems, as well as human health and well-being (Stocker and Oin 2013). The growing threat of climate change has prompted significant levels of activism around the world, much of which has taken advantage of civic media to engage supporters and mobilize political action.

350.org, a relatively new advocacy organization established in 2007, has been one of the most successful climate campaigns to date. Co-founded by environment writer Bill McKibben and students from Middlebury College, its main goal is to build “a global grassroots movement to solve the climate crisis.” By mobilizing citizens deeply concerned about climate change, 350.org seeks to generate enough grassroots pressure on decision-makers to compel them to address the problem (Hestres 2014). The group has gained notoriety for leading a civil disobedience campaign against the Keystone XL pipeline, which would transport oil from Canada to the Gulf Coast. 

350.org is also an example of a new type of political organization made possible by the Internet’s growth as a communication platform. 

These Internet-mediated advocacy organizations display a hybrid advocacy model most commonly associated with MoveOn.org. They tend to have smaller staffs, operate in hybrid, networked environments that mix face-to-face and virtual interactions, and rely on different fundraising models than their older predecessors (Karpf 2012). While such groups tend to embrace multi-issue policy agendas, single-issue variants like 350.org are becoming more common.

Here are some examples of how 350.org has successfully deployed civic media tools:


Online Tools For Offline Action

Most U.S. organizations active in climate advocacy rely on a “armchair” or “checkbook” activism model, fundraising from supporters to pay for professional political operations and policy or scientific expertise (Skocpol 2003). By contrast, 350.org has emphasized offline grassroots actions and used online tools to facilitate them. The group has deployed multiple variations of event management tools, usually tied to national or global days of action that make it easy for activists to join local events, or organize their own. Figure 1 shows an event management tool deployed for a protest in Washington, DC. Combined with mass email appeals, 350.org uses these tools to empower its supporters to join or organize actions that feel commensurate to the scale of the problem (Hestres 2014).

 


Hestres Keystone


Movement Power Displays Though Social Media


Social movements often try to generate what are called “WUNC (Worthiness, Unity, Numbers, and Commitment) displays” to showcase their power (Tilly and Wood 2009). 350.org consistently uses social media to generate such displays. Its mass email appeals for event participation usually include requests for images from events, which they collect and disseminate via email and social media. Students in Maracaibo, Venezuela, produced figure 2 during the 2009 International Day of Climate Action.  For this global event, 350.org asked supporters to take pictures depicting the number ‘350’ and post them on Flickr. Many more images from this and other events are available at 350.org’s Flickr account. 

Hestres 350-venezuela-2009


Legacy and New Media Synergy


Bill McKibben is one of 350.org’s most potent assets. By pairing his long track record of compelling environmental writing with savvy civic media use, 350.org has successfully leveraged McKibben’s role as a prominent spokesperson to mobilize its target audience. McKibben and 350.org have taken advantage of new media dynamics that make it easier for politically motivated users to consume and share content that reflects their views.  

For example, when McKibben’s 2012 Rolling Stone article, titled “Global Warming's Terrifying New Math,” was published online, 350.org disseminated it widely through its social networks and email list, and encouraged supporters to do likewise.  Figure 3 shows a web page promoting McKibben’s article.  350.org’s aggressive dissemination of McKibben’s piece generated more than 140,000 Facebook likes, more than 15,400 tweets, nearly 4,000 Google Plus +1s, and nearly 13,000 comments on the Rolling Stone website.

Hestres - Rolling Stone

Conclusion


350.org has used various kinds of civic media successfully to mobilize citizens who are deeply concerned about climate change, particularly in the United States. By using these tools to organize online and offline action, document and display grassroots support, and maximize traditional media coverage, 350.org has led the climate movement to unexpected victories and imbued it with fresh enthusiasm. Its success reflects the growing influence of Internet-mediated advocacy organizations, and provides a model for maximizing synergies between civic media tools that other advocacy campaigns can emulate.


References

350.org. "350 Maracaibo, Venezuela."  https://www.flickr.com/photos/350org/4040623068/.
———. "Hi-Res Oct 24th, 2009 Action Photos."  https://www.flickr.com/photos/350org/sets/72157622536986761/.
———. "Read & Share Bill Mckibben's Rolling Stone Article."  http://act.350.org/signup/reckoning/.
———. "Our Mission."  http://www.350.org/mission.

Aufderheide, P., and Jessica Clark "Public Media 2.0: Dynamic, Engaged Publics."  http://www.centerforsocialmedia.org/sites/default/files/whitepaper.pdf.

Hestres, Luis E. 2014. "Preaching to the Choir: Internet-Mediated Advocacy, Issue Public Mobilization, and Climate Change." New Media & Society 16 (2) : 323-39. doi: 10.1177/1461444813480361

Karpf, David. 2012. The MoveOn Effect: The Unexpected Transformation of American Political Advocacy. Kindle ed.  New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Nisbet, M. C. 2013. "Nature’s Prophet: Bill Mckibben as Journalist, Activist and Public Intellectual." Discussion Paper Series, Shorenstein Center for Press, Politics and Public Policy, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University.

Skocpol, Theda. 2003. Diminished Democracy: From Membership to Management in American Civic Life. The Julian J Rothbaum Distinguished Lecture Series.  Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Stocker, Thomas F., and Dahe Qin. 2013. "Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis." In Working Group I contribution to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

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