The blog of Eric Lee - web design and internet consulting for the trade union movement.

Twitter as a campaigning tool

Those of us trying to use email as a campaigning tool are running into some serious problems these days. Getting heard over all the background noise is becoming more difficult. Inboxes are filling up rapidly. At best we skim, and don't read, the hundreds of messages we receive every week. And that's the messages that actually get through our spam filters.

Unions need to find a way to cut through that noise and reach their members. Members need an alternative to the spam-filled, overflowing inbox. Everyone needs messages to be brief and to the point.

Twitter may offer a solution.

Twitter is relatively new online service that allows people to sign up and post very short messages. The limit is 140 characters. Twitter is completely free of charge, and advertising-free as well.

Once you've signed up to the service you can sign up as a 'follower' of an individual or organization, and receive those short messages, which are called 'tweets'.

The real power of Twitter is that it's platform-independent. You receive those messages where it's most convenient for you. That can be through your own Twitter page on the web, or it can be as text messages to your mobile phone, or via the Instant Messager of your choice, or through an RSS news feeds.

I have to confess that when Twitter was launched, I was told about by a friend in the Netherlands. I didn't get it. It struck me as being just one more time-waster. It turns out that he was right and I was wrong. Now I think that Twitter offers real potential for campaigning organizations like unions.

Though launched for one specific purpose (to tell your friends what you're doing) Twitter was quickly adapted by campaigning organizations for our own purposes. I'm reminded of, designed as a dating service but now widely used by political campaigns.

The Hillary Clinton campaign began sending out 'tweets' and eventually had over 4,000 followers. The Barack Obama campaign did the same thing and got 44,000 followers. That says something about the success of the two campaigns in using new technology.

Twitter is used by the American Red Cross for get out short messages regarding natural disasters. Nasa uses Twitter to stream news from the Mars lander. (Followers of Nasa's tweets were the first to learn that ice had been discovered on the red planet.) Mozilla used it to provide updated on the launch of the new Firefox web browser.

One of the most interesting uses of Twitter occurred when a young American activist visiting Egypt was arrested while covering anti-government demonstrations. While in police custody, he used his mobile phone to send off a one-word message to Twitter: "Arrested." (Posting Twitter messages from one's mobile phone is incredibly simple.) His friends, who were following his tweets, immediately began making phone calls and sending out emails. He was released from custody.

LabourStart launched its Twitter service in June 2008. We were initially aiming to solve one particular problem: How do you send out short text messages to phones in different countries, free of charge? Within a few hours, over 100 people -- most of whom had not previously used Twitter -- signed up to our group. By the time this article appears in print, we expect that number to exceed 1,000.

Unlike the other social networks such as MySpace and Facebook, Twitter need not be a time sink. We encourage people to sign up and become 'followers' of LabourStart, and to ensure that our messages are delivered to their mobile phones.

But we don't encourage people to amass hundreds of friends, as one tends to do on other networks -- because you don't want too many text messages pouring into your phone. (You can instruct Twitter to only send messages from certain accounts to your phone and read the others online.)

The idea is not to add one more way to receive junk mail, to contribute to information overload. What we are trying to do is cut through the background noise, and to create a new delivery channel for important information and campaigns -- in very short bursts. Twitter may be the solution we were looking for.


Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Twitter as a campaigning tool:

» Better than email? Twitter as a campaigning tool from Corporate Engagement
Eric Lee: Those of us trying to use email as a campaigning tool are running into some serious problems these days. Getting heard over all the background noise is becoming more difficult. Inboxes are filling up rapidly. At best we skim, and don't read, ... [Read More]

» Campaigning via Twitter from Wir sprechen Online.
Lee: “[Via Twitter we] cut through the background noise, and create a new delivery channel”; [Read More]


Good idea!

I'll "follow" you.

Seems good, just sigennd up and now "following" you. Great that it seems to be platform independent but it will only work if it does help to cut out clutter.

That's exactly what we all need, a kind of filter to all the e-noise we are getting.

So I wonder if too much popularity may make it less useful. We'll see, hey?

I agree that Twitter's a great service to follow politics, but since not all political outlets/ campaigns use it (or they don't update it well), I also use IM Feeds ( to monitor political stories and campaign websites.

I agree with the spirit of this post, ie unions and social movements should definitely figure out their mobile phone strategy, and start gathering mobile phone numbers for SMS lists as if they were email addys. However, there's no particularly good reason to be Twitter-centric. For example we've had activist-focused mobile list services since txtmob (, and there are all kinds of SMS campaign xamples out there now. Check out for more info and some useful toolkits.

I am happy to continue to receive your messages via the web. I often keep these messages in a folder to keep track of what is happening out there. I also dont know wether twitter will work in Australia, I have never heard of it! Keep up the good work,

I think the only certain lobbyist will have the knowledge or drive to use social media to their advantage. But we'll have to wait and see.

This is something that we believe we could use. Will continue to monitor and see where it takes me.

Is this a gift for Big New Labour brother? In the UK civil rights are being eroded very fast and this situation will further deteriorate as ordinary people fight back against wages and rocketing prices.

Long lists of mobile phone numbers of TU and HR activists etc is a gift to the surveillance agencies the Big Brother state etc: they can track the movements of activists around the country and listen in too.

At the moment mobile phones are relatively difficult for these forces to monitor. Why let them have these details for thousands of activists on a slate?

I look forward to your reassurance.

keep up the good work.

ERIC LEE replies:

I don't believe that by signing up to Twitter one is compromising one's privacy any more than using any other communications tool. The security services (and not only the British ones) can read our emails, visit our blogs, listen in to our instant messagers, tap our phone calls, read our SMS messages and open our snail mail -- if they want to, and if we allow them to. Signing up to the LabourStart group on Twitter doesn't constitute a security risk for anyone, but does give us one more powerful tool in our efforts to build solidarity around the world.

Hi Eric

I like email and it's only very rarely I don't read yours. I visit your site mainly from links on your emails.

When I don't follow up on your requests it will either be that I am too busy, or that I don't quite connect with the issue - it's too impersonal or something like that.

I hope you continue with regular email, I really don't want to sign up to another system. I appreciate the energy and effort you put into your work.

Cheers John

ERIC LEE replies:

Don't worry -- we're not abandoning email! We'll be using Twitter in addition to, and not as a substitute for, other means of communication.

How is it to unsubscribe from Tweeter?

ERIC replies:

Click on the word 'Following' to see who you're following. On the right side of the page, click on 'Remove' to stop following that person.