How the Tea Party Utilized Digital Media to Gain Power

This piece, which I wanted to call “The Digitally Driven Rise of the Tea Party,” was originally about how the right was using new media to oppose climate protection regulations. The idea for the piece grew out of earlier conversations I’d had with climate activists about what made their organizations different from right wing groups. But when I handed it in, my editor asked me to chop it down by taking out the climate angle.

I’m happy with the end result. My boss was invited onto New Hampshire Public Radio to talk about my reporting and the rest of PoliticalShift 2010, the series of stories about politics and social media we published in the run up to the midterm elections.

The biggest story of the U.S. midterm election has been the growing influence of the Tea Party movement. Since their first rallies in early 2009, these vocal, visible conservatives have succeeded in shifting the center of American political discourse to the right. This election cycle, Tea Partiers have gone a step further, successfully backing primary challengers against moderate Republicans like Delaware’s Mike Castle. So how has this confederation of online, conservative activists used new media to build their growing political base?

Think locally, organize nationally

First and foremost, the Tea Party movement has succeeded by connecting local groups to the national conversation.

“I didn’t really start using Facebook and Twitter until I got involved with the Tea Party movement,” said Ana Puig, the 38-year-old leader of Pennsylvania’s Kitchen Table Patriots (KTP).

Puig said much of KTP’s online organizing would not have been possible without the help of two prominent, national conservative organizations: FreedomWorks and American Majority. These well-financed operations provide local Tea Party groups with the new media training and focus group-tested political messaging needed to get results.

Using what she learned from these national organizations, Puig and co-founder Anastasia Przybylski set up the KTP’s rudimentary website, which has proved effective in establishing the group’s digital presence and in attracting new members. Puig said KTP has an email list of a couple thousand people and has attracted over 400 fans to its Facebook page since she created it a month ago.

These personalized digital resources have enabled KTP to stage dozens of rallies since it was founded in February 2009. They’ve also organized an online boycott of Dawn after it advertised during a MSNBC Tea Party documentary and are currently running get-out-the-vote operations for conservative candidates across the state.

Digital tools

Brendan Steinhauser, FreedomWorks’ director for federal and state campaigns, hinted at another way the Tea Party has grown its online political clout: By sharing digital tools.

“We see our new model at FreedomWorks as a service center for the grassroots,” he explains.

This approach is based in part on the success Steinhauser had using Yahoo Groups and viral videos to revive the University of Texas chapter of the state’s Young Conservatives organization in the years before YouTube was launched or Facebook became an open network. After his graduation in 2005, Steinhauser used the same tools to help found the Young Conservatives of California. He also published a book about his campus organizing experiences, The Conservative Revolution, and launched a blog with the same name.

Steinhauser was one of a handful of FreedomWorks staffers who have shown Puig, and many others like her, the digital ropes.

“A lot of it is training,” Steinhauser explained. “Most of these people are new to politics.”

In addition to seminars on the background and basics of political campaigning — from the tactics of the American civil rights movement to tips on how to stage an interesting meeting — FreedomWorks has sessions on social media.

“It’s very basic stuff, but it goes a long way toward making an impact” with the older members of the Tea Party movement, he said.

FreedomWorks also offers more sophisticated digital resources to its network of 650,000 online conservative activists. Puig initially contacted the organization to have one of the KTP’s rallies listed on a national Google Map that FreedomWorks created to share information about local Tea Party events. Steinhauser’s group also helped fire-charge the Congressional town halls in summer of 2009 by featuring on their website an “August Recess Action Kit” to aid supporters in exposing “the real intentions and the economic ramifications of the of the Cap and Tax and health care reform legislation on the table,” as Mother Jones reported at the time.

Click here to read more about FreedomWorks’ digital arsenal and the “guerrilla tactics” of American Majority’s online activist training sessions or to comment on the PBS MediaShift story.

Photo credit: (Astro)Turf Wars

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