The Secret Life of Digital Lobbying

Reports over the last few years have shown lobbying efforts in the United States steadily declining. The Center of Responsive Politics, an independent non-profit organization that tracks money in U.S. politics, recently released an analysis showing that in the first quarter of 2013, total lobbying expenditures at the federal level reached $796.2 million, a drop of 3.5 percent from the last quarter of 2012 and a drop of 8 percent from the spending during the comparable quarter last year. It was a 16.7 percent drop from the first quarter of 2010.

However, despite these numbers, many have been quick to point out that the drop in spending is a misrepresentation of reality; that administration policies aimed at putting space between lobbyists and the Obama administration, as well as legislation riddled with loopholes, have motivated lobbyists to move themselves and their work underground. In a recent New York Times article, Thomas Edsall writes that loopholes and arcane interpretations of existing laws have given lobbyist a way around reporting many of their lobbying efforts. “For example,” Edsall explains, “constricted definitions of lobbying contained in Congressional regulations have been construed to exempt from disclosure money spent on grass roots mobilization; on television, digital and social media campaigns; and on public relations efforts to build support among voters and key elites.” But today, so much of campaigning, on the part of politicians and no doubt on the part of lobbyists, is done via digital and social media that exempting such actions from lobbyist disclosure requirements leads to data that paints an inaccurate view of the truth.

Another consequence of not disclosing such numbers is that it protects the actions from public scrutiny. Due to the fact that most of the money spent on online lobbying efforts is not being reported, the only way to amass this type of information would be via academic or journalistic research. However, neither of those communities have dug into this issue. The lack of research and reporting on online lobbying is astonishing, especially since there is no question that top lobbying firms organize strategic online campaigns for their client. Barbour, Griffith & Rogers, a Washington D.C.-based lobbying firm ranked the second most powerful lobbying firm in America in 1998 by Fortune magazine, claims on its website that they are “exactly the kinds of experts clients need to deal with crises, to advance policy goals, to conduct issue campaigns and to disseminate key messages widely and in the world’s most prestigious publications – on air, in print and online.” It also lays out its digital and social media practices, writing that “Reputations can be made and lost in seconds online” which is why they help clients “craft online messages that resonate with key audiences.” 

The Podesta Group, whose Chairman, Tony Podesta, was ranked the third most influential lobbyist in Washington in 2007, has been nominated for two 2013 Holmes Report SABRE Awards For Digital and Public Affairs Campaign Work, and employsdigital media specialists with expertise in “digital media campaigns,” “high-profile digital strategies,” and “online community building” which enable them “to deliver client messages to targeted audiences while advising clients on how to strategically expand those audiences.”

Online lobbying is the logical progression of an industry that has existed as long as politics. In order to stay relevant, lobbyists must use the most current technology to keep apace with a rapidly-changing world. As Barbour, Griffith & Rogers write on their website, “The web has forever changed the rules of communication. Content-rich websites, blogs, YouTube videos, e-books and other online media are necessary tools in the modern age. No communications effort is complete without an online component.” And while few would decry lobbying firms for taking advantage of digital lobbying on behalf of their clients, we can insist they be held to the legal obligations intended by the 1995 Lobbying Disclosure Act and more recent 2007 Honest Leadership and Open Government Act. Without such disclosures, and with the clandestine nature of lobbying now impacting our digital world, a space already shaded in layers of secrecy, the American public becomes more and more unaware of how lobbying efforts are encroaching on their daily intake of information.

Not being able to tell whether an auto-generated recommendation posed to you by Amazon or Facebook is based on your digital profile or is recommended to you because lobbyists have strategically placed it there for your viewing, is part of the current digital-rights debate - a debate which may never fully be resolved. But having accurate data on how much money lobbyists are spending to strategically place information into your social media networks will help shed light on the reality of the situation and allow the public to make more discerning decisions.

Lobbying expenditures already reach into the billions (over three billion in 2012). Imagine what that number might be if we enforced full disclosure of all digital lobbying practices. But for now, digital lobbying remains hidden from view, and we are left guessing at how much of our digital content is the unbiased result of non-partisan algorithms, and how much is part of strategic digital campaigns.

Image Source: Andrew Couts DigitalTrends.com

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Camille Koué is pursuing her master’s degree in Communication, Culture & Technology at Georgetown University. She is focused on the intersection of technology, infrastructure and design and the effects these domains have on human relations, civic engagement and community development. A native of Oakland, Calif., she graduated from American University with degrees in Visual Media, Justice and Spanish Language.