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BIPR | BOOK PRESENTATION: Transnational Advocacy in the Digital Era
BOOK PRESENTATION: Transnational Advocacy in the Digital Era

November 21, 2022 - 18:30

Nina Hall - Mark Hanis - Alice Mattoni

Event Recap

In Transnational Advocacy in the Digital Era, Nina Hall explores how digital advocacy organizations challenge conventional international relations (IR) theories of advocacy and how these organizations campaign transnationally. She addresses a gap in IR scholarship today, which fails to adequately recognize the role of organizations such as MoveOn, Campact, and GetUp in international relations.

Digital advocacy organizations use of digital technology is not the only, or even the defining, feature of digital advocacy organizations. Hall elaborates on four other attributes differentiating digital advocacy organizations from traditional non-governmental organizations (NGOs), such as Oxfam, Greenpeace and Amnesty International. Firstly, digital advocacy groups campaign for progressive candidates during elections, while NGOs do not partake in election campaigning. If NGOs do, it is around an issue, rather than a candidate. Secondly, digital advocacy organizations leverage their technological and analytical capabilities to rapidly respond to issues based on shifting member preferences. NGOs, however, typically utilize a long-time commitment approach to the issues they focus on through their work. Digital advocacy organizations can quickly start or end new campaigns and change campaign focus. In fact, a third defining attribute is that digital advocacy organizations are also multi-issue in their scope, not experts in one issue area as many NGOs are. Fourthly, digital advocacy organizations react to member preferences, and use digital analytics to listen to, and respond to, their members' preferences. This further differentiates them from staff-driven NGOs.

Although this rapid response, multi-issue, and member-driven model has some strengths, it also has weaknesses and limitations. Hall notes that starting or switching petitions quickly in response to members gaining or losing interest can constrain the organization's commitment to meaningfully addressing certain issues or following through on achieving tangible outcomes. She gave the example of 38 Degrees, a British digital advocacy organization, which rapidly launched a nation-wide campaign to welcome refugees in 2015, and mobilized thousands of members, but then weeks later swapped its focus to saving the bees.

Hall invited Alice Mattoni and Mark Hanis to share their reflections on the book and their view towards digital advocacy organizations. Mattoni questions exactly how digital advocacy organizations interact and partner with other actors, such as grassroots networks and NGOs, and points that Hall's argument goes against the logic of connective action. As Mattoni explained some scholars assume formal organizations are less relevant because the internet, particularly social media, means anyone, anywhere can connect without the need for a formal organization individual to the forefront. Hall, meanwhile, places central importance on formal political organizations as enabling collective action. Mattoni seeks to further understand how the tension that now exists between different types of actors—the individual and collective; as well as digital advocacy organizations and social movements —can be resolved through digital advocacy organizations. Hanis, meanwhile, highlights the tension that exists between their activities and outcomes. Specifically, he questions how conducive the tactics, expertise, and coordination of digital advocacy organizations are in achieving tangible outcomes.

Nevertheless, by deviating from traditional methods of advocacy, digital advocacy organizations challenge the conventional theories of IR scholarship. These organizations mobilize citizens to put pressure on national governments and operate transnationally – sharing campaigning ideas, tactics, tech and diffusing their model globally.

Full Audio:

BOOK PRESENTATION: Transnational Advocacy in the Digital Era
Nina Hall
Author - Johns Hopkins University SAIS Europe
Mark Hanis
Discussant - Inclusive America; Progressive Shopper; Johns Hopkins University SAIS Europe
Alice Mattoni
Discussant - University of Bologna

Nina Hall will present the findings from her recently published book Transnational Advocacy in the Digital Era (Oxford University Press). The book explores the role of digital advocacy organizations, a major new addition to the international arena. Organizations such as MoveOn, GetUp, and Campact derive power and influence from their ability to rapidly mobilize members on-line and off-line, and are shaping public opinion on many issues including climate change, trade, and refugees. Research in international relations (IR) has highlighted the influence of non-governmental organizations, which wield power through their expertise and long-term, moral commitment to an issue. However, no IR scholars have explored the spread and power of digital advocacy organizations. Nina Hall provides a detailed investigation of how these organizations have harnessed digitally networked power and can quickly respond to the most salient issues of the day, and mobilize large memberships, to put pressure on politicians. She finds that these organizations operate in a globalized world but tackle transnational problems by focusing on national targets. This new generation of activists have formed a strong transnational network, but still see the state as the locus of power.


Nina Hall is an Assistant Professor of International Relations at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, Europe. Her research explores the role of transnational advocacy and international organizations in international relations. Her most recent book is Transnational Advocacy in the Digital Era, Think Global, Act Local (Oxford University Press, 2022). She has published research on advocacy organizations and multilateral institutions in: the International Studies Quarterly, European Journal of International Relations, Global Environmental Politics, and Global Governance. Her first book explored how UNHCR, IOM and UNDP adapted to climate change Displacement, Development and Climate Change: International Organizations Moving Beyond their Mandates? (Routledge, 2016). Hall holds a DPhil (PhD) in International Relations from the University of Oxford and a master's degree from the University of Auckland, New Zealand. She previously worked as a Lecturer at the Hertie School of Governance and is a co-founder of an independent think tank, Te Kuaka (formerly New Zealand Alternative). In 2021 she was a Senior Fellow at the Weizenbaum Institute (the German Internet Institute) in Berlin, and a Research Associate at the Centre for Strategic Studies, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. She is currently a Faculty Affiliate at the SNF Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins University.


Mark Hanis is a serial social entrepreneur. He is co-founder of two startups: Inclusive America (a nonprofit to increase diversity in government) and Progressive Shopper (a technology company to harness conscious consumption). Hanis is also Associate Fellow at the European campus of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS Europe) and Senior Lang Fellow at Swarthmore College. Previously, he has helped found several social impact organizations: the Beeck Center for Social Impact & Innovation at Georgetown University, to engage global leaders to drive social change at scale; the Organ Alliance (now ORGANIZE) to address the unnecessary deaths due to a shortage of transplantable organs; and United to End Genocide to empower citizens and communities with the tools to prevent and stop genocide. Hanis also served as a White House Fellow, working in the Office of Vice President Joe Biden as the National Security Affairs Special Advisor for South America, Africa, and Human Rights. Hanis has been awarded several fellowships for social entrepreneurship, including Ashoka, Echoing Green, Draper Richards Kaplan, and Hunt Alternatives Prime Movers, and was named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum.


Alice Mattoni is an Associate Professor in the Department of Political and Social Sciences at the University of Bologna. Her research focuses on the intersections between media - digital and otherwise - and social movements, civil society organizations and movement organizations. Since 2019, as Principal Investigator of the ERC funded project BIT-ACT, she has investigated how movement organizations develop and employ digital media platforms to counter corruption across the world. For more info on this research project, please visit the BIT-ACT website. Since 2022, she has been cooperating partner of the "AUTO-WELF - Automating Welfare: Algorithmic Infrastructures for Human Flourishing in Europe" funded by the Chanse scheme "Transformations: Social and cultural dynamics in the digital age". Mattoni is Coordinating Editor of Social Movement Studies and of the open-access journal Partecipazione e Conflitto. She is part of the Editorial board of Social Media + Society. She is one of the three co-funders and current editor of the Routledge Series "Media and Communication Activism".
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