Social media’s impact on politics, part one: the groups that face extinction

Welcome to a two-part series about the real impact social media (or social networking) is having on politics in Britain. In part one I look at the groups which face extinction, whilst in part two I will look at why pundits searching for the impact of social media on politics in 2010 are looking in the wrong place.

What impact has the introduction of cheap colouring printing technology had on British politics? Almost none. Certainly many more leaflets are colour than used to be the case, more target letters contain colour inserts and a generation of amateur designers have had the opportunity to demonstrate just how many ways there are to use colour badly.

But politics has carried on the same.

The widespread use of colour combined with its lack of impact on how the political system operates is a reminder that not all technological development bring forth wider changes. Tempting though it can be to get sucked into the micro-details of the latest internet tools or service and see significance in the details, when looking for big picture change it is necessary to take a step back and consider broader questions.

With social media, it is not the details of the latest Facebook change that matter but rather its role in a broader trend. As Clay Shirky puts it in Here Comes Everybody,

We are living in the middle off a remarkable increase in our ability to share, to cooperate with one another, and to take collective action, all outside the framework of traditional institutions and organizations.

That change is played out across a myriad of different tools and services and is happening regardless of their individual details and which ones are currently on the up or on the wane.

Clay Shirky’s point has been seen at work in a wave of different protests which have sought to influence the political system, or the rules that the political system makes, in recent months.

The Trafigura protest was a protest against not only Trafigura’s actions in seeking a super-injunction but also against the existence of a legal rule which permits such super-injunctions. Tools such as Twitter saw the swift mobilisation of public opinion and hence pressure. Notably absent from the fray were the different traditional pressure groups which campaign for freedom of expression or legal reform.

The protest simply happened too quickly and didn’t need them. Whilst in the past pressure groups were crucial in letting people of like mind find each other and organise activity, with Trafigura and Twitter there was no need for any such role to be played by a pressure group.

Many pressure groups are, despite being armed with a website and some email addresses, still slow moving bodies which look to be the fulcrum around which campaigning will take place on issues that they have selected.

But when people worked up by an issue can swiftly find each other, and the media, through social networks, events move at a pace where traditional pressure groups cannot keep up (several days to agree and write a press release? sorry, the world have moved on) and where they are not needed to be the fulcrum of activity.

That’s why it is they who are under serious threat over the coming years. The good news is that there are three different routes by which they can evolve.

First, there is the Liberty route. It does a fantastic job at getting Shami Chakrabarti regularly in the mainstream, traditional media. Its online campaigning is minimal, but if you view Liberty as primarily a vehicle for repeatedly getting an eloquent supportive voice in the media that does not matter.

Second, there is the think tank route. Campaigns can rise and spread quickly, but they require a body of evidence and detail to call on. The clearer a case is made, the more robust the arguments and the easier to find the evidence, the more likely it is that campaigns will spread. Being the supplier of evidence and arguments to others who then deploy them is similar to the traditional role of think tanks as the supplier of policy and evidence to others who then make policy.

Third, there is the nimble campaigner route. It sounds easy: ah, you just have to get with the internet, speed up your decision making and start making and riding some of these waves. But in reality pressure groups struggle to do this and hence the regular pattern of online campaigns on issues where traditional pressure groups exist, but who do not feature in the action.

But whether they pull off the third option or one of the others, pressure groups have to go for one – or face extinction.

Check back here, same time, same place next week for part two: why pundits searching for the impact of social media on politics in 2010 are looking in the wrong place.

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6 Comments

  • Matthew Huntbach 29th Jan '10 - 2:33pm

    The interesting thing is that cheap black-and-white printing technology revolutionised politics. We should know, we did it.

    This was what the Liberal Party was working on when the SDP came along and utterly failed to realise how a new technology was being exploited for political campaigning. They didn’t realise it because it was a new technology that was best used decentralised rather than centralised. We were doing amazing thing with rapid response leaflets through the door on local issues. So much so that the main problem was treating it as a formula rather than looking forward to what else we could do with that technology. But the SDP accused us of being the “sleepy” party, who didn’t know that the way to win elections was to have a glossy national image, and think-tanks in London churning out detailed policy under the control of a national leadership which consisted of superior Westminster types.

    On amateur designers, part of the appeal was that an amateurish look to the design actually worked to give the impression “we’re people like you, were not part of that alien bubble of politicians and marketing men that run the world and piss you off because of their ignorance of how your life is”. But there was a survival of the fittest mechanism – people who were crap at it, or a bit loony, didn’t win the local elections and so tended to give up. With the “social media” there does not seem to be the sort of control mechanism which allows the best to rise to the top and the worst to be wiped out. The completely instantaneous nature of it rather seems to encourage the obsessive and emotional at the expense of those with something more thoughtful or deeper to say.

    I’m not saying Focus was wonderful, there was much wrong with it. I raise it mainly to point out that it’s so easy to be looking one way that one misses what is happening in another. Particularly when one thing is glamorous and has people who can make big money behind it, and the other is not and does not.

  • Chris Stevens 31st Jan '10 - 5:25am

    Have a gut feeling . Political party newsletters, leaflets etc for most parties are too interested in all color, flashy style and still have the same old boring substance. and structure

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