A call to arms for online citizen participation from Siân Brooke.
Politics and social media can seem like unlikely bed fellows. One is full of self-aggrandising narcissistic egomaniacs, and the other one is social media. Social media has now become a popular news source on topics related to government and politics. ‘Facebook’, as a term, appears an odd form of Orwellian newspeak, pasting together the words ‘Face’ and ‘book’, neither of which encapsulate this platform. As is the case with the vast number of communication platforms, there has been a rush in academia to explain and analyse this communication forum. But how can the internet be utilised as a forum for social and political activism?
The example that is often used to demonstrate the importance of social media in politics is Barack Obama’s cross platform use in the run up to the 2008 presidential campaign. Obama’s usage of social media in his political campaigns, including podcasting, Twitter, MySpace, Facebook and YouTube has been compared to the adoption of radio, television, MTV, and the Internet in lifting his presidential campaign to success.
Whilst Twitter is often the focus of many political enquiries into social media, its character count has often resulted in it being of limited interest to me. Imagine if the best remembered political speeches of all time were reduced to 140 characters. For the sake of argument imagine Martin Luther King Jr’s 1963 speech was not at the Lincoln Memorial, but instead took place on Twitter. Let’s take the most memorable line: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.” This singular sentence is 29 characters over the 140 limit, let alone the remaining 8,945 characters of the entire text.
I’m not saying for a moment that there aren’t brilliant speeches in the modern world of the forum of social media. What I am saying, is that you potentially have to butcher the most magnificent ideas to comply with the word limit. But this is the essence that Twitter was created on. According to an interview in Business Insider, Twitter was founded on the basis of sharing “what people were doing at a given time.” Brilliant, fantastic. Tell me all about your breakfast bagel or show me your auto-erotic selfies.
But you might not like my next point. Do not hashtag #RacismIsReal like you are Martin Luther King Jr. at the Washington Memorial. Don’t let a political or social issue that compels you drown in thousands of hashtags. Do something. Perhaps write a blog; you can get the same self-gratification, but you can use so many words that an intelligent idea and some emotion will be put across. I can safely conclude this section of my rant with the idea that real, serious politics should be somewhat removed from the transient nature of Twitter.
Now on to Facebook. Yes, I have watched The Social Network. Yes, I am aware that Facebook was set up by a group of lads basically trying to get laid. Cool. But, setting Mark Zuckerberg’s raging hormones aside, I believe it can be used as a positive and political social force. The Pew Research centre in 2014 found that 48% of the people they surveyed accessed political news through Facebook, only 1% less than those who got news on this topic from television.
As a platform that links and connects content from various sources, Facebook can seem like a legitimate source for political information. For example, as I write this article, the top trending topic on my Facebook is “Benjamin Netanyahu: Israeli prime minister addresses US Congress on nuclear negotiations with Iran”. When I first noticed that political topics do often trend on the site I saw this as a positive thing. It appeared real people were engaging with a variety of political issues and real world events. The instant nature of online communication allows word to spread fast. Sharing posts allows information to be seen by an entire network of individuals.If your friend, on Facebook, then comments on the post then their friends see it, and so on.
Campaigns can be shown to now be targeted towards this new media of participation in politics and other activities. For example, you are probably familiar with the MND Association’s ALS ice bucket challenge. The format of the challenge was simple, somebody has water, often full of ice cubes, poured over their head. They then nominate people they know to undertake the same challenge, which were often sponsored. There have been an excess of 2.4 million ice bucket-related videos posted on Facebook, and 28 million people have uploaded, commented on or liked ice bucket-related posts. The campaign raised just over £7 million in donations from 1 million donors in about three weeks. Comparatively, pre-ice bucket, the MND Association would receive on average £200,000 a week in donations. The ice bucket challenge was an indication of the extreme power of the Internet. It is important to note that whilst the Internet does not guarantee success in a political protest, it does allow your campaign to be viewed by an unimaginably large audience.
My aggravation with online politics led me to suddenly get involved with a new online political platform that I discovered through my friends. Whilst in the first few months of my involvement it could be argued that it was used much in the same way by others involved as Zuckerberg used Facebook, I do believe that it can be incredibly useful in engaging with real politics and information online.
This platform is GovFaces. What it does is very simple. Much like Reddit, Yahoo answers or any site based around user content creation, it has a up-vote, down-vote system. You ask a question, or see a question that you would like answered, you up-vote it, it goes higher up a list with a larger likelihood of being answered. However, what’s different about this site in terms of politics is who you are asking the questions to: they are real genuine politicians.
It’s not Polly or Pete the mindless intern sprouting some buzzword vomit to placate the masses. The politician replies. They have even replied in video format. You can see them, addressing you and answering your question. It’s quite an amazing power trip. Plus, speculatively, if Nick Clegg replies to your question on why he’s a doormat and general Tory rent boy, you can share it on Facebook to show how amazingly politically active and what a brilliant human being you are. Well done you. Essentially, what I am telling you to do is get involved with politics online.
Siân Brooke is the President of the Political Union at Portsmouth University. The text was originally published in The Galleon, the University of Portsmouth’s official newspaper. The views are the author’s own and do not represent those of GovFaces. If you have any questions or comments please email firstname.lastname@example.org.