When do refugees matter? The importance of issue salience for digital advocacy organizations

Abstract

Digital advocacy organizations are permanent institutions which can rapidly mobilize people online and offline. Scholars are beginning to examine these organizations’ distinctive mode of advocacy within national contexts. However, we know relatively little about how these organizations select their campaigns, and when they successfully mobilize the public on international issues. This is important as most advocacy targets national decision-makers, rather than international institutions. This article asks: how do digital advocacy organizations select the issues they campaign on? It examines refugee campaigns across seven organizations in seven different countries (Australia, Austria, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, the UK, and the USA) between late 2015 and 2017. It draws on extensive primary research, including a dozen interviews with digital activists, journalists, and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs). It finds that digital advocacy organizations choose campaigns based on issuesalience, whereas traditional NGOs are driven by issue-expertise. Professional staff select campaigns in NGOs, whereas in digital advocacy organizations campaign decision-making is member-driven. Overall, this paper calls for International Relations (IR) and interest group scholars to examine campaign selection and decision-making in all advocacy organizations.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Avaaz, “About Us”, https://secure.avaaz.org/page/en/community/. Last Accessed 23 January 2019.

  2. 2.

    The author is not aware of any existing scholarship that compares cross-nationally digital advocacy organizations that follow the particular model of advocacy outlined here.

  3. 3.

    The OPEN network includes national digital advocacy organizations operating in: Australia, Austria, Canada, Ireland, France, Germany, Hungary, Israel, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Poland, Romania, South Africa, Sweden, Switzerland, the USA and the UK. OPEN, OPEN Network. https://www.the-open.net/network/. Last viewed 24 July 2018.

  4. 4.

    OPEN, OPEN Network. https://www.the-open.net/network/. Last viewed 24 July 2018.

  5. 5.

    Ibid.

  6. 6.

    Ibid.

  7. 7.

    Ibid.

  8. 8.

    International digital advocacy organizations include: SumOfUs, 350.org, AllOut, and Avaaz.

  9. 9.

    A prisoner of conscience is someone that has not used or advocated violence but is imprisoned because of who they are (sexual orientation, ethnic, national or social origin, language, birth, colour, sex or economic status) or what they believe (religious, political or other conscientiously held beliefs). See Amnesty International, https://www.amnesty.org/en/what-we-do/detention/. Last Accessed 2 August 2018.

  10. 10.

    Surveys may be open-ended and enable members to name the issues they care about; or they may be more directed, and members select from issues pre-determined by staff.

  11. 11.

    A/B testing involves trialing different subject headings for emails to see which is most effective at mobilizing members.

  12. 12.

    Skype Interview with Becky Jervis, OPEN, on 30 November and 7 March 2016.

  13. 13.

    They may occasionally use inside strategies, but predominantly pursue outside strategies.

  14. 14.

    This makes them similar to US interest groups who pursue outsider strategies (Kollman 1998, p. 155).

  15. 15.

    EU, Asylum Statistics. Available at http://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/statistics-explained/index.php/Asylum_statistics. Last viewed 24 May 2018.

  16. 16.

    The European barometer does not include ‘refugees’ on its list of issues: ‘immigration’ is the closet approximation. The barometer is bi-annual survey of European citizens across all European countries, including the UK.

  17. 17.

    The US Gallup poll does not include ‘refugees’ in its survey.

  18. 18.

    In Australia and New Zealand there are no surveys that examine variation in issue salience over time. Most polls focus on issue preference and ask questions such as: “What do you think of the number of immigrants accepted into Australia/New Zealand?”, rather than how important the public see immigration relative to other political issues (Colmar Brunton 2016; Markus 2011, 2017). Polls conducted in Australia in the early 2000s suggest immigration was ranked low in terms of issue salience (Markus 2011, p. 201).

  19. 19.

    These were launched through ‘distributed petition’ platforms that enable anyone to start their own petition. Move On (US) http://petitions.moveon.org/sign/syrian-refugee-resettlement-1 and in LeadNow (Canada) https://you.leadnow.ca/petitions/provide-homes-for-the-homeless-both-syrian-refugees-and-canadians.

  20. 20.

    MoveOn, Syrian Refugee Resettlement in the USA, http://petitions.moveon.org/sign/syrian-refugee-resettlement-1.

  21. 21.

    38 Degrees, “Refugees Welcome”. https://you.38degrees.org.uk/petitions/refugees-welcome-in-oxford-oxfordshire. Last viewed 24 May 2018.

  22. 22.

    Interview with Siobhán Donoghue, Uplift Executive Director, 1 July 2016.

  23. 23.

    Interview with Siobhán Donoghue, Uplift Executive Director, 1 July 2016.

  24. 24.

    Ibid.

  25. 25.

    Department of Justice and Equality. 10 September 2016, “Ireland to accept up to 4000 persons under Relocation and Resettlement programmes- Fitzgerald”, Press Release. Available at http://www.justice.ie/en/JELR/Pages/PR15000463 and Irish Refugee Protection Programme, 10 September 2016. http://www.justice.ie/en/JELR/Pages/Irish_Refugee_Protection_Programme_(IRPP).

  26. 26.

    Interview with Maria Mayrhofer, Executive Director, #aufstehn, 22 June 2016.

  27. 27.

    Ibid.

  28. 28.

    #aufstehn, “unsere gemeinde ist platz”, online petition, https://actions.aufstehn.at/unserer-gemeinde-ist-platz.

  29. 29.

    Interview with Maria Mayrhofer, Executive Director, #aufstehn, 22 June 2016.

  30. 30.

    GetUp!, Light the Dark Campaign, https://www.getup.org.au/campaigns/refugees/light-the-dark-for-aylan/light-the-dark-australia-welcomes-refugees.

  31. 31.

    They were working closely with a domestic refugee campaigning group Doing Our Bit which was focused on doubling New Zealand’s annual refugee quota. OPEN Refugee Summit, May 2016. ActionStation. http://www.actionstation.org.nz/refugees. 22 July 2016.

  32. 32.

    ActionStation, Annual Report 2015. http://www.actionstation.org.nz/annualreport2015. Last viewed 24 May 2016.

  33. 33.

    Ibid.

  34. 34.

    It was not until June 2016 that the New Zealand government announced it would increase the annual refugee quota from 750 to 1000. It did would not double the quota as advocates had demanded.

  35. 35.

    Interview with former 38 Degrees staff member, Berlin, 4 August 2016.

  36. 36.

    Interview with 38 Degrees staff member, London, 27 October 2016.

  37. 37.

    By the end of June 2016 the total number of Syrian refugees resettled was 2659, or 13% of the overall target of 20,000 by 2020. For further details see here: https://www.nao.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/The-Syrian-Vulnerable-Persons-Resettlement-programme-Summary.pdf.

  38. 38.

    On the EU Turkey deal see https://www.dw.com/en/the-eu-turkey-refugee-agreement-a-review/a-43028295.

  39. 39.

    Interview with Daniel Webb, Director of Legal Advocacy, Human Rights Law Centre, 15 July 2016.

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Acknowledgements

The author would like to thank the participants of the Stockholm workshop on Advocacy Groups in Global Governance: Global and Domestic Opportunity Structures, in particular Kirsten Lucas, Elizabeth Bloodgood, and Lisa Dellmuth. A special thanks to Rebecca John for her excellent research assistance and feedback on this article.

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Appendix

Appendix

Issue salience of immigration in Europe overall (Eurobarometer)

What do you think are the two most important issues facing the EU at the moment? (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1
figure1

Source: European Commission (2018, p. 5)

Issue salience of immigration in Europe by country (Eurobarometer)

What do you think are the two most important issues facing your country at the moment? (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2
figure2

Source: European Commission (2018, p. 9)

Issue salience of immigration in the USA

See Fig. 3.

Fig. 3
figure3

Source: Gallup poll (Newport 2018)

Table of select interview participants

Name Organization Function Country
Becky Jarvis OPEN OPEN, Start-Up Coordinator International
Siobhán O’Donoghue Uplift Executive Director Ireland
Maria Mayrhofer #aufstehn Executive Director Austria
Daniel Webb Human Rights Law Centre Director of Legal Advocacy Australia
Shen Narayanasamy GetUp! Human Rights Campaign Co-Director Australia
Edel McGinley Uplift Director of Migrant’s Rights Centre and Uplift Board Member Ireland
Natasha Blucher Darwin Asylum Seeker Support and Advocacy Network (DASSAN) Advocacy Coordinator Australia
Marianne Elliott ActionStation Former Executive Director New Zealand
Laura O’Connell Rapira ActionStation Executive Director New Zealand
Matthew Phillips GetUp! Human Rights Campaign Co-Director Australia
Nat Whalley Former-38 Degrees Former 38 Degrees Campaigner (now Executive Director Organize) UK
Anna Westerberg Skiftet Campaign Director Sweden
Robin Zachari Skiftet Executive Director Sweden

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Hall, N. When do refugees matter? The importance of issue salience for digital advocacy organizations. Int Groups Adv 8, 333–355 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41309-019-00054-z

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Keywords

  • Digital advocacy
  • Mobilizing
  • Advocacy organizations
  • NGOs
  • Refugees