The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Want your own lobbyist? It’ll only cost you $4.95

This is what real activism looks like. (Photo by Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

We live in an age of hashtag/like/tweetstorm/click-and-type-your-name-here activism. We also live in the time of super PACs and candidate sugar daddies and those annoying people on the street who corner you with the "Want to save the life of a poor, innocent and exceedingly cute animal today?" petition.

Now a recently launched start-up called Amplify'd plans to combine many of those things into one cleverly conceived business. All you have to do is pay $4.95 to get your own personal lobbyist — sort of.

Someone will phone your local representative in Congress on your behalf about the issue of your choosing. The call may or may not come with the requisite manufactured outrage; callers can read from a "dynamic script," Amplify'd founder Scott Blankenship said in a recent interview with the Huffington Post.

Where does the money go? Some of it goes to Amplify'd, because this is a start-up and they need to make money "help grow the site and add more features," according to a company FAQ. A "majority" of the money goes to outside nonprofit groups, which are attached to each campaign; in the case of one cause on the Amplify'd platform — background checks for gun buyers — it's "Everytown for Gun Safety," former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg's gun control group.

Some of your $4.95 —about $1 — also goes to the caller. In this economy, the caller might need $1 for a few minutes of their time. But does Bloomberg? Probably not.

What Bloomberg's group might need is to create the illusion of a ferment of grass-roots support, and that's exactly what Amplify'd provides.

As the financier concerned citizen, you get the satisfaction of listening to a recording of your call — all from the comfort of your home or office, without ever having to break from your game of Farmville to pick up the phone for a cause about which you're terribly concerned.

The Amplify'd system is technologically impressive — callers just need a speaker, a mic and an Internet connection to make and get paid for calls. And it has been gamified: You can earn badges for calling or paying for calls!

Despite the new packaging, this phenomenon isn't novel at all — though it has certainly been made easier and a lot more widespread thanks to the Internet., the petition model of "slactivism" that Amplify'd's founder claims doesn't work anymore, may have started out representing the genuine concerns of activists across the country. Now, companies are paying public relations firms to help them start and seed petitions, and they can pay to get them promoted, which has only helped to render them meaningless.

Anyone living in a major city has experienced being been trapped between two (usually paid) "activists" carrying clipboards, asking you to add your name to their massive database of "supporters" for one cause or another.

Politicians and their hard-working, underpaid staffers (often interns) actually do listen to phone calls from their constituents. In some cases, constituents get return calls or help in resolving their very real problems. But a system that pays random people looking for a little extra cash to feed organizations large and small with what Blankenship calls "passive income" only further dilutes the lawmaker-constituent relationship.

Blankenship told the Huffington Post that Amplify'd uses a billing address to verify that the people paying for calls are actual constituents. But it doesn't solve the problem that lawmakers will continue to face as they find it harder than ever to differentiate among people who care deeply about issues from people who are doing things because it's easy — or because they've been paid.

Blankenship via the Huffington Post:

They're the people who want to have more of an influence on public policy without having to get more involved. By purchasing a call, supporters are having their voices heard in the most effective way possible, without having to sacrifice their time or jobs, and at the same time, they are financially supporting the organizations that are fighting for causes in their communities on their behalf.

His solution: Help people who really don't want to get more involved pretend like they care more. For $4.95.

But also, for democracy! More from the Huffington Post interview:

I was totally frustrated with that sense of having no influence over public policy in my community, locally and nationally. And I felt that there were no truly effective tools available that could really amplify my voice.

There's nothing wrong with creating an organization that helps people willing to pay for services connect with people willing to do those things for a fee. But what's stopping lawmakers from just discounting this newest source of astroturfed activism?