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Blog Post

Social Media, Democracy and Activism

August 4th, 2010 in Blog by 1 Comment

As the digital revolution would have it, social media is the new way to do, well… everything.

For marketers and advertisers it is the new cart from which to peddle their various wares. But more interestingly for some people, social media is colliding with politics, governments, corporations, civil society, activism and, on the whole, what I would call democracy.

To demonstrate the extent to which democratic deliberation and engagement is moving online and being enhanced by social media, we need to look no further afield than the UK Prime Minister and Government.

In a political context where US President Obama orchestrated ‘an improbable two-year climb that owes much of its success to his command of the internet as a fundraising and organising tool’, it is no longer surprising that the UK Government is using social media. However, the coalition’s recent initiative – to essentially crowd-source ideas for spending cuts in its budget via Facebook (see above video) – had the potential to be ground-breaking.

Despite the headline-grabbing launch to Facebook – which, by the way, reached 500 million users last week – the channel was removed when a competition site was launched which made a mockery of the official one. This in itself is testament to the ability of social media to level small and large organisations – with Liberal Conspiracy and a goat mascot (ie. ‘Can this goat get more followers than HM Treasury Spending Challenge?’) causing the government to feel they wanted to take down the page. It’s a shame, as it would have been an important testing-ground for this kind of public engagement.

More successful is the new government’s Your Freedom. The site allows users to submit suggestions for legislation relating to civil rights and human freedoms they would like to see repealed or modified, and has had 150,000 visitors. ‘Democracy UK’ is also a great success on facebook, with 273,000 participants and extremely high levels of interaction.

The take-up of social media by companies largely preceded that of Governments and politicians, yet there are still new opportunities for brands and the corporate bottom dollar, being presented in social media. However, these are matched by risks as companies are discovering there is no worse way to be ‘outed’ for corporate misdeed than online.

To take an example of the interaction of civil deliberation interacting with a company, there was the astounding reaction – both organised and spontaneous – surrounding the BP Gulf disaster. A great deal has since been written analysing the way social media has not let BP sleep. There were oodles of conversations, jokes, films, photos and tweets all working to shame the company into action and perhaps changing their behaviour in the future.

Greenpeace’s online campaign against palm oil was far more successful than their face-to-face efforts – with social media taking the sharing of their ‘Kit Kat: Give the Orang-utan a Break’ video to viral proportions. This campaign culminated in Nestlé ditching their supplier of palm oil Sinar Mars and carrying forward the tactic to take on other corporate giants such as HSBC.

I recently wrote about online activism for the Foundation for Democracy and Sustainable Development. The online tools of email and online networking have already been superseded by social media as a tool. But whether it’s email or social media, the implications of online social networks for the evolution of democracy still stand.

This form of deliberation, activism and change-making has infinite potential. Already it has gone great lengths toward levelling the playing field between large corporations or governments, and smaller organisations, NGOs and even individuals. And it can be a democratising force both in terms of political and financial influence – empowering the individual as both consumer and citizen.

Social media provides opportunities to connect with like-minded people and amplifies voices on issues which are important, without necessarily having access to traditional sources of capital such as financial clout or access to the ‘old’ media.

The new form of capital is the strength with which an idea or piece of information takes hold in the collective online consciousness.

Apple boss Steve Jobs said many years ago that those ‘who will ‘win’ the most from the web were those with something to sell, but secondly those with something to share.’ As we are now seeing, the resonance that a simple idea has with people and their desire to share it through their networks certainly carries more weight than any financial or governmental clout which might fall behind an official statement.

Social media is playing a role in almost every part of our lives. Its uses are extending into politics, governance and corporate accountability – good news for activists and good news for democracy.