Advocacy groups, also known as interest groups, special interest groups, lobbying groups or pressure groups use various forms of advocacy in order to influence public opinion and ultimately policy. They play an important role in the development of political and social systems.
Motives for action may be based on political, religious, moral, or commercial positions. Groups use varied methods to try to achieve their aims, including lobbying, media campaigns, awareness raising publicity stunts, polls, research, and policy briefings. Some groups are supported or backed by powerful business or political interests and exert considerable influence on the political process, while others have few or no such resources.
Some have developed into important social, political institutions or social movements. Some powerful advocacy groups have been accused of manipulating the democratic system for narrow commercial gain and in some instances have been found guilty of corruption, fraud, bribery, and other serious crimes; Some groups, generally ones with less financial resources, may use direct action and civil disobedience and in some cases are accused of being a threat to the social order or 'domestic extremists'. Research is beginning to explore how advocacy groups use social media to facilitate civic engagement and collective action.
The early growth of pressure groups was connected to broad economic and political changes in England in the mid-18th century, including political representation, market capitalization, and proletarianization. The first mass social movement catalyzed around the controversial political figure, John Wilkes. As editor of the paper The North Briton, Wilkes vigorously attacked the new administration of Lord Bute and the peace terms that the new government accepted at the 1763 Treaty of Paris at the end of the Seven Years' War. Charged with seditious libel, Wilkes was arrested after the issue of a general warrant, a move that Wilkes denounced as unlawful – the Lord Chief Justice eventually ruled in Wilkes favour. As a result of this episode, Wilkes became a figurehead to the growing movement for popular sovereignty among the middle classes – people began chanting, "Wilkes and Liberty" in the streets.
After a later period of exile, brought about by further charges of libel and obscenity, Wilkes stood for the Parliamentary seat at Middlesex, where most of his support was located. When Wilkes was imprisoned in the King's Bench Prison on 10 May 1768, a mass movement of support emerged, with large demonstrations in the streets under the slogan "No liberty, no King." Stripped of the right to sit in Parliament, Wilkes became an Alderman of London in 1769, and an activist group called the Society for the Supporters of the Bill of Rights began aggressively promoting his policies. This was the first ever sustained social advocacy group;—it involved public meetings, demonstrations, the distribution of pamphlets on an unprecedented scale and the mass petition march. However, the movement was careful not to cross the line into open rebellion;—it tried to rectify the faults in governance through appeals to existing legal precedents and was conceived of as an extra-Parliamentary form of agitation to arrive at a consensual and constitutional arrangement. The force and influence of this social advocacy movement on the streets of London compelled the authorities to concede to the movement's demands. Wilkes was returned to Parliament, general warrants were declared as unconstitutional and press freedom was extended to the coverage of Parliamentary debates.
Another important advocacy group that emerged in the late 18th century was the British abolitionist movement against slavery. Starting with an organised sugar boycott in 1791, it led the second great petition drive of 1806, which brought about the banning of the slave trade in 1807. In the opinion of Eugene Black (1963), "...association made possible the extension of the politically effective public. Modern extra parliamentary political organization is a product of the late eighteenth century [and] the history of the age of reform cannot be written without it.
From 1815, Britain after victory in the Napoleonic Wars entered a period of social upheaval characterised by the growing maturity of the use of social movements and special-interest associations. Chartism was the first mass movement of the growing working-class in the world. It campaigned for political reform between 1838 and 1848 with the People's Charter of 1838 as its manifesto – this called for universal suffrage and the implementation of the secret ballot, amongst other things. The term "social movements" was introduced in 1848 by the German Sociologist Lorenz von Stein in his book Socialist and Communist Movements since the Third French Revolution (1848) in which he introduced the term "social movement" into scholarly discussions – actually depicting in this way political movements fighting for the social rights understood as welfare rights.
The labor movement and socialist movement of the late 19th century are seen as the prototypical social movements, leading to the formation of communist and social democratic parties and organisations. These tendencies were seen in poorer countries as pressure for reform continued, for example in Russia with the Russian Revolution of 1905 and of 1917, resulting in the collapse of the Czarist regime around the end of the First World War.
In the post-war period, women's rights, gay rights, peace, civil rights, anti-nuclear and environmental movements emerged, often dubbed the New Social Movements, some of which may be considered "general interest groups" as opposed to special interest groups. They led, among other things, to the formation of green parties and organisations influenced by the new left. Some find in the end of the 1990s the emergence of a new global social movement, the anti-globalization movement. Some social movement scholars posit that with the rapid pace of globalization, the potential for the emergence of new type of social movement is latent—they make the analogy to national movements of the past to describe what has been termed a global citizens movement.
Advocacy groups exist in a wide variety of genres based upon their most pronounced activities.
In most liberal democracies, advocacy groups tend to use the bureaucracy as the main channel of influence – because, in liberal democracies, this is where the decision-making power lies. The aim of advocacy groups here is to attempt to influence a member of the legislature to support their cause by voting a certain way in the legislature. Access to this channel is generally restricted to groups with insider status such as large corporations and trade unions – groups with outsider status are unlikely to be able to meet with ministers or other members of the bureaucracy to discuss policy. What must be understood about groups exerting influence in the bureaucracy is; "the crucial relationship here [in the bureaucracy] is usually that between the senior bureaucrats and leading business or industrial interests". This supports the view that groups with greater financial resources at their disposal will generally be better able to influence the decision-making process of government. The advantages that large businesses have is mainly due to the fact that they are key producers within their countries economy and, therefore, their interests are important to the government as their contributions are important to the economy. According to George Monbiot, the influence of big business has been strengthened by "the greater ease with which corporations can relocate production and investment in a global economy". This suggests that in the ever modernising world, big business has an increasing role in influencing the bureaucracy and in turn, the decision-making process of government.
Advocacy groups can also exert influence through the assembly by lobbying. Groups with greater economic resources at their disposal can employ professional lobbyists to try and exert influence in the assembly. An example of such a group is the environmentalist group Greenpeace; Greenpeace (an organisation with income upward of $50,000,000) use lobbying to gain political support for their campaigns. They raise issues about the environment with the aim of having their issues translated into policy such as the government encouraging alternative energy and recycling.
The judicial branch of government can also be used by advocacy groups to exert influence. In states where legislation cannot be challenged by the courts, like the UK, advocacy groups are limited in the amount of influence they have. In states that have codified constitutions, like the US, however, advocacy group influence is much more significant. For example, – in 1954 the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) lobbied against the Topeka Board of education, arguing that segregation of education based on race was unconstitutional. As a result of group pressure from the NAACP, the supreme court unanimously ruled that racial segregation in education was indeed unconstitutional and such practices were banned. This is a novel example of how advocacy groups can exert influence in the judicial branch of government.
Advocacy groups can also exert influence on political parties. The main way groups do this is through campaign finance. For instance; in the UK, the conservative parties campaigns are often funded by large corporations, as many of the conservative parties campaigns reflect the interests of businesses. For example, George W. Bush's re-election campaign in 2004 was the most expensive in American history and was financed mainly by large corporations and industrial interests that the Bush administration represented in government. Conversely, left-wing parties are often funded by organised labour – when the British Labour Party was formed, it was largely funded by trade unions. Often, political parties are actually formed as a result of group pressure, for example, the Labour Party in the UK was formed out of the new trade union movement which lobbied for the rights of workers.
Advocacy groups also exert influence through channels that are separate from the government or the political structure such as the mass media and through public opinion campaigning. Advocacy groups will use methods such as protesting, petitioning and civil disobedience to attempt to exert influence in Liberal Democracies. Groups will generally use two distinct styles when attempting to manipulate the media – they will either put across their outsider status and use their inability to access the other channels of influence to gain sympathy or they may put across a more ideological agenda. Traditionally, a prime example of such a group were the trade-unions who were the so-called "industrial" muscle. Trade-unions would campaign in the forms of industrial action and marches for workers rights, these gained much media attention and sympathy for their cause. In the United States, the Civil Rights Movement gained much of its publicity through civil disobedience; African Americans would simply disobey the racist segregation laws to get the violent, racist reaction from the police and white Americans. This violence and racism was then broadcast all over the world, showing the world just how one sided the race 'war' in America actually was.
Advocacy group influence has also manifested itself in supranational bodies that have arisen through globalisation. Groups that already had a global structure such as Greenpeace were better able to adapt to globalisation. Greenpeace, for example, has offices in over 30 countries and has an income of $50 million annually. Groups such as these have secured the nature of their influence by gaining status as nongovernmental organisations (NGOs), many of which oversee the work of the UN and the EU from their permanent offices in America and Europe. Group pressure by supranational industries can be exerted in a number of ways: "through direct lobbying by large corporations, national trade bodies and 'peak' associations such as the European Round Table of Industrialists".
There have been many significant advocacy groups throughout history, some of which could operated with dynamics that could better categorize them as social movements. Here are some notable advocacy groups operating in different parts of the world:
On some controversial issues there are a number of competing advocacy groups, sometimes with very different resources available to them:
A general theory is that individuals must be enticed with some type of benefit to join an interest group. However, the free rider problem addresses the difficulty of obtaining members of a particular interest group when the benefits are already reaped without membership. For instance, an interest group dedicated to improving farming standards will fight for the general goal of improving farming for every farmer, even those who are not members of that particular interest group. Thus, there is no real incentive to join an interest group and pay dues if the farmer will receive that benefit anyway.: 111–131 For another example, every individual in the world would benefit from a cleaner environment, but environmental protection interest groups do not receive monetary help from every individual in the world.
This poses a problem for interest groups, which require dues from their members and contributions in order to accomplish the groups' agendas.
Selective benefits are material, rather than monetary benefits conferred on group members. For instance, an interest group could give members travel discounts, free meals at certain restaurants, or free subscriptions to magazines, newspapers, or journals.: 133–134 Many trade and professional interest groups tend to give these types of benefits to their members.
A solidary incentive is a reward for participation that is socially derived and created out of the act of association. A selective solidary benefit offered to members or prospective members of an interest group might involve such incentives as "socializing congeniality, the sense of group membership and identification, the status resulting from membership, fun, conviviality, the maintenance of social distinctions, and so on.
People who join an interest group because of expressive benefits likely joined to express an ideological or moral value that they believe in, such as free speech, civil rights, economic justice, or political equality. To obtain these types of benefits, members would simply pay dues, and donate their time or money to get a feeling of satisfaction from expressing a political value. Also, it would not matter if the interest group achieved their goal; these members would merely be able to say they helped out in the process of trying to obtain their goals, which is the expressive incentive that they got in the first place. The types of interest groups that rely on expressive benefits or incentives are environmental groups and groups who claim to be lobbying for the public interest.
Some public policy interests are not recognized or addressed by a group at all. These interests are labeled latent interests.
Much work has been undertaken by academics attempting to categorize how advocacy groups operate, particularly in relation to governmental policy creation. The field is dominated by numerous and diverse schools of thought:
Apart from lobbying and other methods of asserting political presence, advocacy groups use social media to attract attention towards their particular cause. A study published in early 2012 suggests that advocacy groups of varying political and ideological orientations operating in the United States are using social media to interact with citizens every day. The study surveyed 53 groups, that were found to be using a variety of social media technologies to achieve organizational and political goals:
As noted in the study, "while some groups raised doubts about social media’s ability to overcome the limitations of weak ties and generational gaps, an overwhelming majority of groups see social media as essential to contemporary advocacy work and laud its democratizing function."
Another 2012 study argued that advocacy groups use social media to reach audiences unrelated to the communities they help and to mobilize diverse groups of people. Mobilization is achieved in four ways:
"1). Social media help connect individuals to advocacy groups and thus can strengthen outreach efforts.
2). Social media help promote engagement as they enable engaging feedback loops.
3). Social media strengthen collective action efforts through an increased speed of communication.
4). Social media are cost-effective tools that enable advocacy organizations to do more for less." 
While these studies show the acceptance of social media use by advocacy groups, populations not affiliated with media advocacy often question the benevolence of social media. Rather than exclusively fostering an atmosphere of camaraderie and universal understanding, social media can perpetuate power hierarchies. More specifically, social media can provide "a means of reproducing power and fulfilling group interest for those possessing excessive power... [having the potential to] indirectly reinforce elitist domination." By excluding those without access to the internet, social media inherently misrepresents populations- particularly the populations in low-income countries. Since media advocacy groups use social media as a way to boost the narratives of these populations, the effect of social media use can be counteractive to well-intentioned goals. Instead of directly amplifying the voices and narratives of historically marginalized populations, social media magnifies their concerns through the perspective of individuals with access to the internet.
Since advocacy groups have the agency to control a community's narrative through a social media post, they have the agency to control the deservedness of a community as well. That is, the amount of resources or attention a community receives largely depends on the kind of narrative an advocacy group curates for them on social media. 
Former president Bill Clinton defined it as "stunningly effective". Former speaker of the House of Representatives Newt Gingrich called it "the most effective general-interest group across the entire planet". The New York Times as "the most important organization affecting America's relationship with Israel"
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