If the name Maasai Godwin sounds familiar, you probably engaged with the artist’s viral prewritten email template directed at Minnesota officials. Over the last few weeks, Instagram users like Godwin have added a new level of ease and efficiency to contacting representatives through what some are calling “swipe-up activism.”
Here’s how it works: Instagram users create a shareable link with the recipients of the email (the targeted elected officials), a subject line, and the body of the email filled out. Once the link is generated, they place it in either their Instagram Stories (if they have the swipe-up feature) or their Instagram bio. When a user swipes up on the creator’s Instagram Stories, the link opens the prewritten message in their email app. The user then takes less than a minute to fill in their name and city, and presses send to share their demands with the elected officials.
Currently, Instagram only offers this swipe-up feature to users with over 10,000 followers. However, there is a Change.org petition with almost 6,000 signatures demanding Adam Mosseri, the Head of Instagram, grant every user the ability to share swipe-up links to their Instagram stories. While we await this change from the top, organizers and everyday Instagram users are making workarounds more accessible. For example, Mel Tran launched the website Email For Justice, which allows people to create a custom link that will take supporters to a pre-written email template, with email addresses already populated. The site has existing templates to demand justice for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, James Scurlock, and Tony McDade. DemLabs launched a similar tool called Movement.Digital to help grassroots groups easily launch petitions that automatically populate the recipient’s email address.
While some critics may say that this tactic fuels slacktivism, I argue that it is the perfect conduit through which to harness the outrage of this moment. People are looking for a way to get involved, especially those who aren’t comfortable protesting IRL during a pandemic, and while sending off a pre-written email to representatives is indeed a low-bar action it is still a way to engage those eager to join the movement.
Small actions can build up into larger actions or, at the very least, into radical shifts in individuals’ perspectives. Social psychology research shows that taking a small action like adding your name to an email can commit you to a cause because of what many scholars call the consistency principle. As Dr. Robert Cialdini explains in his book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, the principle of consistency states that “Once people make a decision, take a stand or perform an action, they will face an interpersonal pressure to behave in a consistent manner with what they have said or done previously.” This means having supporters take the first small action of sending a pre-written email will make them more likely to take future actions because they now see themself as the type of person who takes a stand on this cause.
More recently, creators and promoters of these links have started asking supporters to customize the email by adding their own personal message to the template. This not only helps prevent these emails from being flagged as spam, but also reinforces the consistency principle by eliciting a deeper connection and commitment to the cause.
In addition to the idea that this tactic contributes to slacktivism, another criticism stems from the fact that activists and political insiders across the board agree phone calls are the most impactful way to put pressure on elected officials. As former congressional staffer Emily Ellsworth explained in a New York Times article, phone calls “bring a legislative issue right to the top of the mind of a member,” and phones ringing off the hook make it “impossible to ignore for the whole staff [because you] don’t get a whole lot else done.” Indivisible’s 2018 midterm guide also breaks down the bias towards email by explaining, “The closer you can get to an MoC, the more effective that tactic will be. A visit to an MoC’s district office is more effective than a call; a call is more effective than a letter; a letter is more effective than a tweet or a Facebook post.”
However, with physical proximity to elected officials not being a safe option right now, email should be seen as an appropriate alternative, especially because this tactic has already proven effective. Just a few days after the TinyURL link to Godwin’s Justice for George email went viral, supporters began receiving bounce-back emails because the Minneapolis Police Department’s servers were inundated with these pre-written messages. A link directed at New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer garnered 70,000 clicks. While it is difficult to link each victory directly to these emails, it is fair to say they played a role in pressuring Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti to redirect $250 million from the city’s budget towards services for Black and brown communities, and in pushing the Minneapolis City Council to pledge to dismantle the Police Department.
The appeal of this “swipe-up activism” is speed and convenience. However, with the pandemic requiring many people to slow down, organizers may advise we take advantage of this moment by training people in more time-intensive and higher-barrier digital organizing, such as deep canvassing or calling their representatives. So, do we take advantage of the masses of people awakening and provide them with a one-click invitation to the movement, or should we use this unique moment to break the paradigm that activism should be convenient? After all, this reckoning is showing that comfortability and convenience are the reasons the broken status quo has prevailed for so long.
It’s a question I’m still mulling over, but today I believe it’s not an either/or situation. It’s a “both, and…” situation. Hard, uncomfortable work is completely necessary in activism, but there can be a place for convenient activism as well. It is our job as organizers to move those people who have only taken the convenient actions, like swiping up to send an email, up the ladder to become fully engaged activists.
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