‘Personal Lobbying’ for Five Bucks?

Would you pay $4.95 for someone to call a lawmaker on your behalf? Amplifyd, a newly-launched start up, claims to offer “personal lobbyists” for less than five bucks a pop. According to Amplifyd’s website, this is how it works:

For every call you purchase, an activist will call and lobby your elected officials relating to the campaign’s issue. This means they might call your state senator or maybe your national representative. With each call, the activist will present the case and strongly urge the official to vote in line with the cause you are supporting. They will describe you and if you choose, state that you are pledging to withhold your vote in the future if your official doesn’t act accordingly. This gives YOU the power of your vote.”

So a few things emerge from this description: first, Amplifyd won’t have someone call a lawmaker on your behalf for any old issue. You must choose from Amplifyd’s pre-selected campaigns, which must be initiated and launched by nonprofits. As of today, there are only nine campaigns listed on the site, addressing issues ranging from student debt reform to the introduction of organic milk at Starbucks.

Second, you do not get to choose which lawmaker your hired activist will call on your behalf; the nonprofit that launches the campaign is in charge of deciding who receives phone calls. While this aspect of the service is arguably somewhat limiting, Amplifyd ensures that the elected official who is contacted represents your home district (a step in the right direction).

Individuals who ‘purchase’ phone calls will receive a recording of the call so they know exactly what was said. In an interview with the Huffington Post, Amplify’d founder Scott Blankenship explains that anyone can sign up to make phone calls on behalf of a campaign in exchange for money; “as a caller, all you need is a computer with a microphone and speakers, and an Internet connection. A dynamic script is provided for the caller too, so calling is as easy as clicking a button and reading from the script.”

I would argue that anonymous people paid to read from a script are not exactly ‘activists,’ but at least people can pick and choose the campaigns that they will make calls in support of. Blankenship explains why the service that Amplifyd provides is more valuable than some other forms of citizen advocacy:

“Signing online petitions is no longer an effective tool to influence your elected officials! Why? Because elected officials only care about the opinions of the voters in their districts and there is no way to determine who is a constituent and who’s just some random person across the country (or someone from another country for that matter). We talked with several staffers working for elected officials and they all said the same thing – online petitions are either drastically discounted in value or completely ignored.”

It is true that adding your name to an online petition accomplishes much less than picking up the phone to call your elected official, or writing a detailed, personalized letter or email. But it remains to be seen if ‘a random person’ calling on another’s behalf – with a message that is clearly scripted – will wield the same results as a phone call from an actual constituent to their lawmaker’s office. I suspect not, but it may be too early to make that call.

It is true that adding your name to an online petition accomplishes much less than picking up the phone to call your elected official, or writing a detailed, personalized letter or email.

So where does your $4.95 go? It’s divided up between the paid caller, the nonprofit organizing the campaign and, of course, Amplifyd. So long as you have the cash, you can purchase as many calls as you want in support of a particular cause.

By enabling so-called “slacktivism,” Amplifyd’s service will continue to inspire criticism . But I give Blankenship due credit for coming up with a new way for constituents to communicate their messages to elected officials. If you want to pay a stranger to chat with a congressional staffer on your behalf, I say go for it.

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