Why social media won’t transform our politics

Is there a sweet spot between online and offline activism? 

Stephen Hopgood
1 September 2014

Credit: All rights reserved.

Social media are in their infancy, but it’s already possible to identify two things at which they are extremely good: information sharing and co-ordination. However, neither of these advances provides a substitute for face-to-face interaction in confronting – and ultimately transforming – the structures of social, political and economic power.

Information sharing has been the primary achievement of social media to date. Nothing stays hidden for long. Uploading self-authored content, whether instant news footage or opinion or competing data, has fundamentally changed the way politics works. Governments can no longer hope to hide inconvenient facts or control their own narrative when there are so many sources of alternative information and analysis available.

Coordination has been the second big success – getting people to act in unison whether to rally together to oppose government oppression, send mass emails, sign digital petitions or fund activism. States have tried to keep pace with these advances – they spy prodigiously online, monitor and infiltrate activist groups, and arrest bloggers. They even suspend or ban online platforms. But surely no-one can think - least of all government officials – that the global public sphere will ever be the same again? When Turkey’s then prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, banned Twitter did anyone seriously think anything other than ‘yeah, because that’ll work’? And of course, it didn’t.

Facebook is largely banned in China but tens of millions of Chinese people find effective work-arounds to circumvent the ban. Social media will always find a way. It has a kind of evolutionary drive. In campaigns to organise for democracy, end autocracy, challenge corruption and even to save the Masai from eviction from the Serengeti, social media have been prominent. This, at any rate, is the good news.

But there are important caveats. First, ‘empty vessels make most noise’ as the old saying goes. Demonstrating impact is hard. Governments and corporations who find themselves the object of unwanted critical attention may soon work out that the tigers that roam the activist jungle lack teeth. The more social media-based organizations make demands that remain unmet, the less power they have to wield, and the less attractive they are to joiners who hope to make a difference., for example, makes a great deal of its headline membership figure of 38 million people - rising every second - and its victories. It wants to convince you that your time and money has made an impact. But would an audit of all the campaigns undertaken reveal more wins than losses? And in any case, isn’t it impossible to know what precise difference an Avaaz petition has made, especially in the hard cases, the great powers, or Israel, Sri Lanka, Iran or Syria? Don’t governments just need to wait for the fuss to die down? Does this sort of activism only work against weak governments?

A second caveat involves the signature advocacy mechanism of ‘naming and shaming.’ This is a diffuse, attenuated form of pressure that substitutes for a lack of political leverage. Naming is what social media does best. But shaming? This is all about the audience. Here the anonymity and diversity of social media communities is a problem. To be shamed you must feel the sting of humiliation that only those who you fear, respect or love can give you. You must be in some kind of relationship with them.

Did the vast wave of anti-Israeli social media invective in July during the war with Hamas shame the Israelis? Not at all. Indeed, support for prime minister Netanyahu increased substantially. Israelis felt more justified than ever by what they saw as ill-informed, anti-Semitic and biased attempts to shame them. Ban Ki-moon’s moral outrage over Gaza could only hit home with those he castigated if they recognized his moral authority to chastise them, which in this case they did not. The global public was as much Ban’s audience as the Israelis, but this kind of critique is no substitute for diplomatic pressure, and that requires real leverage to be exerted over those who have real power.

This is a key question in the social media debate: do information sharing and coordination actually create real leverage in the form of irresistible pressure for change?

Here we enter difficult territory. For sporadic, disconnected campaigns, crowd-funded protest and flash mob-style priority setting, social media have clearly made a difference to the profile of issues and the scale of activism. They are a powerful tool and have greatly increased the number of people who say they are activists. But how committed are these new activists, and how effective can they be if all they do is sign an online petition while sitting at their desks? Don’t social media exacerbate the fundamental problem of mobilization, which is free-riding, thereby undermining the long-term impact of social activism on the deep structures of power, inequality and violence?

Free riders are people who realise that they can enjoy the benefits of an activity without contributing to the costs. For example, they might want a sustainable environment but they know that their continued consumption of fossil fuels will never be the difference between success and failure in tackling climate change. For social movements, free riders are difficult to mobilize unless the bar is set so low that people consider it almost costless to participate – like clicking the mouse on their computers. Because social media campaigns look to reach the maximum quantity of participants, the pool from which they draw is likely to contain large numbers of free riders.

The way to deal with this problem is to increase the costs of acting, in terms of time, money, labour and risk: in other words, upping the barriers to entry. These barriers will shake out casual consumers who are buying the feel-good factor of righteousness by spending one minute skimming a petition and clicking ‘yes’ before switching back to Game of Thrones.

What’s left are the true believers on whom long-term, well researched and well organised activism depends. But then this model begins to look a lot like the old one that social media are supposed to have surpassed. Traditional social movement organisations or even NGOs survive, by and large, on the efforts of highly motivated individuals, detailed evidentiary claims against opponents, some degree of management, and meetings.

These meetings could be virtual of course. But then the key element of social movements – the glue which binds them together – is diluted: personal, direct engagement in collective action. Solidarity flourishes when people work together face-to-face in the same endeavour. This creates ‘effervescence’ as French sociologist Emile Durkheim once put it. But effervescence declines as scale grows, its antithesis being the power of social media to generate large numbers and worldwide visibility at low cost to contributors.

It’s a familiar dilemma: if global social media campaigns are too thin to have much impact as forms of activism, then more focused people-driven advocacy soon faces the need to scale-up in order to increase funds and visibility, and that brings with it the need for governance mechanisms that erode the emotional bonds necessary to sustain moral action in the face of resistance and defeat.

Is there a sweet spot between online and offline activism? Traditional campaigning organisations like Oxfam and Save the Children are moving further in the direction of social media, while campaigns that have been based almost entirely on social media are trying to link their work to more concrete forms of action on the ground - like Avaaz’s work with the Masai in fighting eviction from the Serengeti in Tanzania. Both forms are evolving, but mostly toward the online model.

Yet to exercise leverage, particularly over policy makers, the numbers game is not enough. Quality matters more than quantity. Well-informed, well-networked and influential voices in strategic offline locations are far more likely to make a difference, if a difference can be made, than the names of five million invisible people on an online petition.

The numbers game is the lowest common denominator of social activism for many old and new campaigns – the who shouts-the-loudest attention-grabbing efforts that focus on death tolls and pictures of suffering children. But taking on corporations and governments is a tough, painstaking, professional business. Gaza again provides a good example. Are the Israelis guilty of war crimes in Gaza? While the number of civilians killed may be revised downward, no-one disputes there have been hundreds of civilian deaths in Gaza. And if Israel can be shown to have tried deliberately to kill civilians this would be a fairly clear-cut case of a war crime. But does any of the material circulated by social media during the conflict rise to the level of admissible evidence?

Moreover, the core of the issue is likely to be a legal dispute over what constitutes things like proportionality, discrimination between civilians and combatants, fair warning, and high-value targets. Little about the vast social media campaign over Gaza – the casualty figures, eye-witness reports, and cell-phone footage – will play a role when the debate moves on to legal interpretation.

All the things that do build leverage – like long-term commitment, detailed expertise, committed organisers, mobilised communities and shared purpose – can be enhanced by social media, but they can’t be replaced by them.

We live in the age of the end of deference, and social media facilitate this challenge to all established authorities. This can only be a good thing. Social media make us feel as though we can all make a difference.

But to transform the political world more fundamentally will require some old-world structures and institutions like clear lines of accountability, effective governing structures, nuanced political judgement, and legitimate leadership. Sustainable transformation takes time that is measured in years not nanoseconds. However fast social media move, the reality of people living in real places, controlling real material resources, and meeting face-to-face in rooms and corridors and across the barricades will always be where the real action is. 

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