Of course it started with a hashtag. But #PaulRyanFaxParty wasn’t your typical 21st-century call to action. When Davon Magwood, a comedian from Pittsburgh, called Paul Ryan’s office and got a busy signal, he turned to a technology that he’d never used before, a technology that was arguably invented before the telephone—and that already seemed obsolete by the time Magwood reached adulthood. As several punning twitterers put it: alternative fax.
“I was angry that the phones were off and there was no way to contact him,” Magwood said, 31. “I thought that faxing would be the best way, and would be really annoying.”
Paul Ryan had his phones cut off because of the volume of calls. Let’s have a #PaulRyanFaxParty
Fax things to Paul Ryan
Fax: (202) 225-3393
— Davon Magwood (@davonmagwood) January 26, 2017
But instead of pulling out the dusty old machine and feeding in petitions to the tune of dial-up, internet activists quickly found that online fax services could do the sending for them. On Twitter, services like HelloFax and FaxZero garnered attention for offering at least a few free faxes upon sign-up—enough for folks to petition their elected representatives via what seems like the least relevant communications technology of 2017.
At least some Americans don’t think so. Both services say they’ve seen an uptick in users in the past few weeks. HelloFax (which in 2011 received Y Combinator funding to improve faxing), says it saw a 20 percent jump over normal sign-up rates during the past two months, though they can’t say directly that these sign-ups were politically motivated. FaxZero, meanwhile, has a specific page for faxing US representatives and senators. From February to October 2016, users of the site sent 11.4 faxes per day on average to elected officials through that page. From January 4th through January 26th, the average jumped to 140 faxes per day—not exactly a deluge, but a big leap for faxing.
Now FaxZero is featuring a ticker that keeps track of which representatives have received the most faxes in the last 24 hours. Late last week, Paul Ryan and Dianne Feinstein vied for the lead. Then Magwood pointed out FaxZero to #PaulRyanFaxParty followers, which appears to have pushed Ryan ahead—he hit 449 faxes by noon on Friday. Considering that faxes usually have a cover page, that’s almost two reams of paper from just one of the many online services that faxes documents (not to mention those office-dwellers who used a regular old-timey fax machine). Today’s leader is senator Pat Toomey (R-PA), who apparently thanks to a concerted Twitter campaign has had more than 3,500 faxes sent to his office over the past day.
“There’s something tangible about a physical fax showing up on someone’s desk, and maybe it gets treated with a little more respect than an email,” says Kevin Savetz, the creator of FaxZero.
If those faxes are really are showing up on representatives’ desks at all. As with other constituent communications to Congress, staffers read all the faxes coming in. Emily Ellsworth, a former congressional staffer for US representatives Chris Stewart (R-UT) and Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), says faxes to members of Congress are typically digitized and sent to an email address as attachments. In other words, these “faxes” probably won’t land on a rep’s desk with a thud after all.
Ellsworth says receiving faxes “wasn’t effective because it felt weird.” A survey of congressional staffers by the Congressional Management Foundation in 2011 suggests that many staffers agree with her. That study found that faxes ranked below personal visits, snail mail, emails, and phone calls in how likely a particular medium would be to influence the decisions of a representative.
That hasn’t stymied Gordon Klingenschmitt, an activist who founded the website FaxCongress.com to allow activists to host petitions, which anyone can fax to their own representative’s district office for free.
“In the political environment that we’re in, people are excited about getting their voices heard,” he said, pointing out that faxes are faster than snail mail or a phone call.
For those who might want to fax the president, they will have to find an alternative. While George W. Bush and Barack Obama had fax numbers, President Trump’s White House doesn’t list one online. A White House operator said she did not know if the president had a fax number and asked us to send an email to find out. We never heard back.
In Paul Ryan’s case, the country may never know whether the office desks were piled high with faxes late last week. When Magwood started the #PaulRyanFaxParty, he imagined the surprise of suddenly receive hundreds of faxes. But some on Twitter reported that attempts to fax him failed. In the meantime, I’ve tried to call his office repeatedly for comment. All I got were busy signals.
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