Face to Facebook with civil society

Phil Evans, Senior Consultant, FIPRA*

©Tomas Bravo/Reuters

Democracy is a good thing; transparency is too, and so is openness. Nothing too controversial in this statement, you might think. The veil of ignorance is slowly but steadily being lifted from the eyes of the general public across the world thanks to thriving media, innovation in global communications and the pressure on governments to open up and reach out.

There has been a revolution of accountability and transparency. Many politicians and government departments in many parts of the world now have a web presence and publish documents on it; many now respond to emails and some even enter into dialogue through Facebook and Twitter.

Revolutions do not tend to go into reverse, and people rightly expect this flood of information and transparency to continue stronger, which has forced many in government to change the way they deal with civil society and the wider world. In turn, the spread of the web and social media provides campaign groups with new opportunities and avenues to reach out to individuals directly.

However, this process has also created a series of drivers that fundamentally change the way individuals deal with each other and with all organisations and communities. We are certainly living in a world of the “long tail economy”, where the global market, powered by information and communication technology is allowing more people in more places to buy more things from more sellers based in more countries. Are we also seeing the emergence of “long tail politics” to go with it?

After all, it is quite common to see political or social “campaigns” spread across the world of Facebook in hours and days demanding change to one policy or another. Twitter can erupt with gossip and accusation and can precede conventional broadcasters by vital minutes in breaking news stories.

In the “old” days political campaigns were high cost for organisers and participants. They required real sacrifices and effort to get them going. They were almost entirely driven by vanguard communities acting collectively to exert pressure for change. Look at the Suffragettes, the trade unions in the 19th century and the Civil Rights movement, to name but a few.

The quest for change was difficult and highly organised. NGOs and political parties formed around these communities or co-opted them to their own ends. These groups became mouthpieces that could think collectively and separate the wheat from the chaff. The dialogue for campaigning was focused and deliverable– and was executed in disciplined ways.

Enter the “long tail” political world where the barrier to creating such communities has collapsed. Everyone has a voice and everyone has the means to use it. But is this an unalloyed “good thing”?

It is certainly not risk-free. The ability of social media to spread even erroneous and dangerous rumours like wildfire can have profound effects, as witness the lynching of a senior ex-politician in the UK in November 2012 for an offence he did not commit. The stream of requests for “likes” for agenda issues on Facebook seems endless. Global support is even solicited for purely national causes, like electoral reform and legislation on samesex marriages. In fact, the entry barrier is low for just about any “campaign” you care to set up.

What does this long tail politics mean for governments and civil society? The answer may not be particularly welcome news. The zero entry barriers may globalise communication, but they atomise campaigning and severely undermine the ability of civil society groups to edit and mediate messages, and then communicate them succinctly or pointedly to politicians and government bodies.

This atomisation lends itself most to the “funny cat video” of politics, and garnering simplistic crowd support for, say, providing shelter for homeless pets. The idea that expressing a “like”, “sharing” an image or political sentiment, or re-posting a tweet is in any way comparable to campaigning is underlined by the real and often apocryphal stories of the power of social media for force change. While the change is almost always minor in a wider political sense it seems major in a 24 hour news cycle fed by a social media driven world.

The atomisation of politics can really be traced back to the end of the Cold War and the collapse of ideologically driven politics. While we have not quite witnessed the end of history, we have seen long tail politics unite huge communities of people but often in shallow and politically irrelevant ways.

The worst side effect of this is that these atomised individuals believe that they are making a difference, and so have ticked their box of political or social activism. In fact, that tick may mark a huge increase in their involvement.

We have also seen the merging of the long tail of politics with more established forms of activism in the form of the Occupy movement and the Arab Spring. Movements such as these, despite their shortcomings, at least challenged Facebookers to get up and get out, and connected social media to the kind of political activism that ultimately can force change.

The more we pander to social media only, the more we risk infantilising political messages and marginalising “hard work” political issues. The challenge for civil society perhaps even more than governments (who at least focus their efforts on old-fashioned elections) is how to engage an atomised class of people whose communities are many and diverse and often geographically dispersed.

Issues that cannot be boiled down into “cute cat video politics” or a “like” may find themselves marginalised. Those with real political power may use the increasingly infantilised political dialogue as a handy mask, and a distraction from the real issues. Global challenges, like climate change, may gain but for the vast majority of political issues a simple like/dislike or retweet simply cannot manage the complexity of reality.

Moving people from low cost tweeting and “liking” to real, high-cost, engagement will involve more than a mere click of imagination and engagement. So let’s embrace social media, but not con ourselves into thinking it can change the world on its own.

*Fipra, the Finsbury International Policy & Regulatory Advisers, is one of Europe’s leading public affairs consultancy networks, advising on a range of government relations and regulatory policy issues.

Visit www.Fipra.com

Evans, Phil (2003), “Home truths, globalisation and competition: Making trade work” in OECD Observer No. 240-241, December.

©OECD Observer No 293 Q4 November 2012

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