The Dawn of Social Lobbying

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Editor’s note: TechCrunch contributor Semil Shah is an entrepreneur interested in digital media, consumer Internet, and social networks. Shah currently works at Votizen and is based in Palo Alto; you can follow him on twitter @semil

The word “lobbyist” surely doesn’t have the best connotation in the world. Depending on your reading of the definition, it generally signifies an attempt to influence government decisions, traditionally by targeting legislators or regulators. What isn’t often taken into consideration, however, is that while there are lobbyists in dark suits roaming the halls of Congress funded by entities such as big oil and pharmaceutical companies, “lobbying” is also conducted by nonprofit groups funded by different kinds of special interests. We think of efforts, however, as “activism,” but at the end of the day, they’re just another form of lobbying.

Now, a new form of “lobbying” has emerged, but instead corporate checks or individuals donations, the currency has shifted from cash to social connections, where financial power will be trumped by network power: “social lobbying.”

To understand why lobbyists get such a bad rap, look no further than Jack Abramoff, one America’s most notorious “suits” who served over three years for all forms of corruption up and down Washington D.C.

To briefly oversimplify his intricate web of deception, clients would hire Abramoff for handsome fees to lobby on their behalf and push or protect special interests, typically by working with Congressional staffers to shape, trim, bend, and massage the language contained in official bills of law too dense for any normal human to read. Abramoff’s trick was to “buy” the loyalties of current Congressional staffers with the carrot of potentially hiring them on his dole for two to three times their current salaries. That incentive alone was enough to buy Abramoff (and by proxy, his clients) choice phrases inserted into bills that eventually became law. (I’d recommend watching this recent 60 Minutes interview with Abramoff, who explains his system in greater detail.)

These “suits,” funded by private, corporate dollars gave rise to “activists” who — in another oversimplification — rallied around causes to combat special interests. These entities typically form as nonprofit or nongovernmental organizations and raise money through foundation grants (which are often funded by wealthy families/individuals or corporations) and individual donations, typically from individuals wealthy enough to let go of the disposable income yet savvy enough to understand the implications of the corresponding tax write-offs. Activist-funded lobbying exerts its influence in different ways, and depending on where you sit, embody just as much of a dark art as their “suit” counterparts.

Two sides of the same coin, right? Probably. But now a new form of lobbying is emerging, one where lobbyists aren’t necessarily hired for money, but rather organized and recruited through the social graph of connections we’ve mapped out while we’re busy sharing and liking pictures and honoring our friends’ requests to retweet this or that piece of content. And, instead of lobbying that’s fueled entirely by cash (yes, cash is still involved), the new form of currency is tied closely to social networks.

While recent events have demonstrated, at least in one case, the advantage of networks over cash in a lobbying sense, it still remains to be seen whether this new form of lobbying — social lobbying — will deliver results across a broader range issues that cut into the mainstream or reside out on the long-tail of retail politics. It’s impossible to predict where and when this kind of lobbying will pop up again, but this much is sure — whatever issues social lobbying sets its targets on, there’s a greater chance that those interests could theoretically advance positions that benefit a greater majority of people relative to those who could be affected: not a perfect democracy, but inching closer, if ever so slightly, and given recent abysmal U.S. Congressional approval ratings, perhaps a small step in the right direction.

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