Doing Democracy: Ten Thoughts about Using Social Media for Policy Change in Canada

So you have a social cause that you want to promote online. Some media attention would be nice, but even better would be if you had a Twitter hashtag trend across the world, or if you had your heartwarming promotional video trend on Upworthy. If only a large part of the voting population could hear what you have to say, the government would only have to listen, wouldn’t they?

There exists an unfortunate assumption among those who engage in online social activism that public attention is always a good thing and that nothing will ever change unless the whole world knows about it. The media in particular feeds this idea partly because it actually does benefit from attention (because advertising revenue) but that’s not entirely fair. Journalists are professionals after all, and there is a long standing value throughout history that the media is there to support the ‘little guy.’ And, even in the age where traditional media is in a period of slow decline, the media’s main tool is drawing attention to social problems.

But attention is a pretty blunt instrument. Once unleashed on the world, it is quite difficult to control. For example, there is a story I told a ways back in my TedX talk about Social networks and public policy. As part of a consultation for the new Halifax Central Library we got people together in the Foggy Goggle to knit a yarn bomb. A co-conspirator decided to place the invitations to the consultations by adding clothespins and string to the piece. What happened next was amazing – people added candy, lovenotes, stories, cartoons etc to those clothespins – it was beautiful.

We posted it on YouTube and amazingly it found itself on the YouTube front page. However, unlike the response from Haligonians, the response from YouTubers was mostly hate. We were criticized for the aesthetics of the piece, for being hippies, for not giving the yarn wrap as a blanket for homeless people and so on. This is an example of what Maarten Hajer calls “multiplicities” in his great book Authoritative Governance. A message that makes a ton of sense to one audience will totally bomb with another. This usually has to do with the base assumptions of different networks. In short, attention — even positive attention — is unlikely to move policy makers unless it is somehow connected to power. So, if you want to create policy change, you need to think about how your particular social movement will be connected to power. So, I came up with ten thoughts on how you might do this. This is not backed by research, it is only some conjecture based on my reading and observation.

  1. Anger is a resource, but not a solution: It is true that there are things in the world that make us angry, and it is excellent advice to say that if you are angry, then that is a time to think about doing something about it. Usually, this means express your anger to your social networks. Often, anger can be contagious, and start the conversation. But then what? Anger is kind of like sugar. Sugar is great, but almost no one wants to eat it on its own. You have to bake it into something inspiring. How about actually looking at the existing policy that is making you mad and re-writing it the way you think it should be?
  2. Coalitions, coalitions, coalitions: So it turns out that you are on the wrong side of the current pendulum swing. You can trend your topic all you want, the government is probably just going to ignore you. However, maybe you can connect with groups that have some similar beliefs. These groups can come from odd places. For instance, radical feminists and social conservatives, who are frequently on different sides on the abortion debate, tend to have common beliefs when it comes to such things as victim’s rights and access to pornography. Thinking broadly about where your allies might be (even temporarily) can help your ideas find their way into even an ideologically opposite government.
  3. Governments Don’t Always Respond to Problems: The truth is that there are no end to the number of problems that governments could respond to. Pointing out that a problem exists is not enough to make government move. One view of how this all works comes from John Kingdon and others. The idea is that problems, solutions and power all happen in different places — it’s not until these things connect that you begin to see change. Kingdon argues that these connections occur during “policy windows” (ie. attention-getting events). So, that’s what you ought to be trying to do during a protest, or tragic event – try to connect the problem with possible solutions and groups who may have the resources to encourage the public to change.
  4. If it Catches On, Someone is Going to Represent Your Cause: Despite all the rhetoric that online media “democratizes” information because it gives citizens their own platforms to publish, the reality is that a very small number of people, perhaps only one, is going to become the representative for your cause. This doesn’t necessarily happen because someone is a tyrant or power-hungry, but because we all only have so many people we can pay attention to in the long run. And when given a choice, why wouldn’t we just go with the most popular opinion. One example is the role Michael Geist plays in representing the more “open” side of Canadian copyright law. And why shouldn’t he be? He’s a very knowledgeable lawyer and professor. This natural thing to happen in social networks can be a problem however, because it makes your cause look like a one person bandwagon. It is a good thing to think about how you can get multiple people’s voices in your network.
  5. The ‘Boomerang Effect’ is a Thing:  From Keck and Sukkink’s Activists Without Borders, the boomerang effect refers to the way social movements can use international groups to enact social change. We see this somewhat with the Northern Gateway and Keystone Pipeline situations. The Athabaska peoples do not have a great amount of power to go up against the oil industry and a generally energy-positive government. However, using environmental networks in the US, they have managed to get considerable support for their cause with Canadian rock star Neil Young putting his celebrity behind it, and Leonardo DiCaprio using his ALS Ice Bucket Challenge moment to highlight the importance of treaty rights.
  6. Homophily is a Thing: Homophily is a persistent trait of social networks. It means the tendency for people of like ethnicity, gender, race, class etc. to tend to want to be together. It can also refer, but to a lesser extent, to policy beliefs. This means that just because your cause got a lot of pickup from social media does not mean it has saliency across the board. You should not let your collective excitement and “me too-isms” make you overconfident. There are others in other places thinking completely different things about the issue. You might want to try and connect to them and see if there is any common ground.
  7. Arguments are a Thing: I get how memes and slogans help to get a broad message across. The number of things I see followed by a comment like “this is just so true!” is just a little bit frustrating, because often, with even just a little bit of research, it is easy to find exceptions to the rule. As you will see in point #8, memes have their place – but be ready with a solid argument to defend your position. It is at the solid argument stage where you will start to see government agencies and departments responding to your ideas.
  8. Think both “weak” and “strong”: There are ways we connect with each other to build trust and there are ways we connect to make acquaintance and perhaps have a little fun. My recent research suggests that you should try to do both. Activities that build strong ties on social media include acknowledging volunteers and donors, posting accountability information, and taking pictures of activities that your group is involved in. These things help people become emotionally attached to your cause. Activities that build weak ties include sharing a meme, connecting to celebrities and marketing Twitter hashtags. These things connect you to people outside your local network and open up doors to other ideas and allies.
  9. Pass the Baton: Even though a small group of people are going to end up being the “heroes” of your cause (see #4), you can still build support by making sure that you have sub-causes that can let other voices come up to the top of the list. It is important to give as many different voices the highlight as you can. This may not happen with any single event, but over time you can show that you have solidarity by letting new faces come forward.
  10. Empathy is a Muscle: The world is full of misery and this requires us to look at our worlds constantly with an eye to how we can improve things. However, we are also human. The truth is, people get fatigued as they come to serve social causes. This fatigue eventually ends up with a surprising lack of empathy for causes that are not our own. Do not fall into this trap. The best way to avoid empathy fatigue is to be selfish once in a while. Take a break from the Internet and go find yourself on a camping trip, take a vacation or spend time with family. The problems will still be there when you get back. Take care of yourself.

These are just some jotted down thoughts I have based partly on some readings, and partly on some research. I’d really appreciate any other ideas you have on the matter. Also, as a favor, if you like this post, I’d really appreciate it if you could share links to my articles on the Keystone XL Pipeline & the Third Sector.

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