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Online service helps encourage political involvement

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Athens County has one of the highest usage rates of Resistbot in the U.S. Here’s how it’s getting people involved in politics.

At first, Meigs County resident and community organizer Liz Shaw tried to resist Resistbot.

“I’m not usually the tech-y type,” Shaw said. “I don’t play video games or that kind of thing. I thought, ‘Is this gonna be some type of app I put on that’s gonna take up room on my phone and be a hassle?’”

But now, Shaw considers the bot to be her friend.

“It’s like you’ve got this little friend who is a personal carrier pigeon and it encourages you to write what you think.”

Resistbot is an online service launched in March of 2017 as a means to contact elected officials. The system is reminiscent of a video game, with users being given more options once they complete more tasks. The first task has the user send a fax to his or her U.S. Senators, and eventually advances to writing personalized letters.

“Asking for too much from users or having too many complex options would have turned people off before they got through anything, but a visual artifact of a real fax in 2 minutes was delightful for the user, and they understood that they had created something real with the bot,” wrote Jason Putorti, one of Resistbot’s founders.

The step-by-step nature of the program makes it easy for users to navigate and makes contacting representatives a more streamlined process.

“For some people it is confusing to reach out to a member of congress, and resistbot makes it easier for them to do because they feel a little more in control of it,” Shaw said. “They can edit it, look it over and reread it. I think it’s a good way for someone who is maybe a little shy about talking to people on the phone, it’s a good way to get involved.”

Shaw is a founder of Indivisible Appalachian Ohio, a local resistance group. Using Resistbot has become a hallmark of IAO and other grassroots resistance groups in the area, according to Shaw.

Athens County has the 5th highest amount of Resistbot users in the U.S. per 100,000 people. The average Athens Co. Resistbot user also engages with the bot slightly more frequently than the average user, with usage ranging from 5-15 times per month. Overall, the average user typically interacts with the bot anywhere from 3-12 times a month, according to Resistbot Data Scientist Sohan Murthy.

The top counties where Resistbot is being used are primarily home to large public universities, with Athens being home to Ohio University. But Shaw doesn’t think that it’s the college students who put Athens Co. near the top of Resistbot’s list.

“It’s the grandmas like me, it’s the single mothers, the retired coal miner who is using resistbot,” Shaw said.

Resistbot doesn’t collect the age demographics of its bot users, but 50 percent of its social media followers are between the ages of 25 and 44. Over 38 percent are older than 45, and less than 10 percent of its followers fall within the typical college age demographic.

Like many other places on the list, Athens Co. is a predominantly blue county within a red state. The geographic and demographic factors of Athens make Murthy — who was raised in Ohio — think it is better situated for people who want to resist.

“In Ohio, my political views were constantly challenged by friends and coworkers on the ‘other side,’ encouraging me to learn, debate, re-evaluated my positions, and take action,” Murthy said. “I’ve noticed that generally isn’t the case in a more politically homogeneous place like San Francisco, and I think people are a bit more complacent as a result.”

Shaw said she helps conduct Resistbot training at the meetings for IAO, and that the bot is advertised on the group’s Facebook page. While she doesn’t think college students are solely responsible for Resistbot’s success in the Athens area, she does think the greater Ohio U community has helped.

“You do have more people resisting because of the university, faculty and other workers who are exposed to better communications,” Shaw said. “I think the university might have had a factor, and just the opportunity for communication.

“But it’s been your local citizens who have been plugging into resistbot.”

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