One of the problems of being directly involved as a communications director, or adviser, in political and issue campaigns is the ‘bubble’ effect. The singular purpose of creating a multi-media campaign focusing on electing a party or candidate(s), or advocating for policy changes around an issue, provides practical knowledge on engaging citizens, voters, stakeholders, politicians and media, but often leaves out the wider picture around how platforms, especially social media, are rapidly altering overall political communication.
Note: If you are in Victoria BC on Thursday, October 6th there will be a PoliTweetup at the University of Victoria, David Strong Building, Room C118 (see Map) from 4:30 to 6pm. Moderated by Janni Aragon (@JanniAragon), the panel features Emmett Macfarlane (@emmmacfarlane), Anna Drake (@annamdrake), Paul Holmes (@tpholmes) and myself (Mat Wright) (@MatVic) – this is open to students, faculty, and the public. Everyone interested in politics, communication and social media are welcome to attend, and you can follow #PoliTUp.
The topic for this #PoliTweetup is “Canadian State(s) of Mind: Local, Federal and Social Media” – a series of questions and points will be put to the panel for comment, followed by an open session with questions from the audience.
Imagining the media world before the internet might be difficult. After all, websites, email, online forums have been around for over twenty years and have played a major role in political communication. More interesting, and relevant, is the mental exercise – thinking back four to five years, before Facebook, Twitter and social media and noting how those mediums have, and continue, to radically change the relationship between government and citizens.
There is an unwritten, but widely accepted, mantra in Public Relations that in order to be taken seriously campaigns require an online presence. A technical officer – the person who designs and implements a campaign website – is one of the first to be considered in a campaign plan. Just about every candidate or issue campaign from local, to national to ultra-national has a website (along with government departments and political parties of course), and there is both anecdotal and data based research that those who do not, fail to gain any public traction. However, the questions now are: have we moved on from central information depositories (web pages) and broadcast tactics, to a more social, interactive paradigm? Has the social web changed how governments ‘float’ and implement policy? Do citizens have greater influence over elected officials through social media? Have governments and politicians realized the potential positives of social media, and even if they have, are they able to implement policy engagement programs both quickly and effectively?
I don’t think complete conclusions can be drawn for the above questions as the process is complex and unfolding. Social media platforms, while around for a few years, have only recently reached a point of critical mass and traction where, if not a majority, at least a very high percentage of the population are active users – in fact, totaling far more overall influence than any particular legacy media outlet.
Notably, in British Columbia the anti-HST movement was able to harness the power of thousands to force a referendum through a petition campaign. The government program to change provincial tax policy was soundly defeated, despite a well-funded counter multi-media campaign to bring voters onside. The lesson to be learned is contemporary policy initiatives require extensive community and stakeholder consultation, in fact acceptance, before implementation. The ability for protest and effective citizen opposition, largely initiated through social media, is too apparent to ignore.
The 2008 Obama campaign is often heralded as the moment ‘social’ entered the political lexicon, yet criticism abounds that once in office the promise of ‘the continual conversation’ has been sidelined. More recently in the United States, building on the aforementioned lack of recognition, the Tea Party has highlighted ideology (see PBS – ‘How the Tea Party Utilized Digital Media to Gain Power‘), while frustration over congressional deadlock has lead to an #Occupy movement. The past few days have seen hundreds of people camping out around New York’s Wall Street, thousands participating in marches; with a rapid spread to other cities, even countries (Canada has an embryonic movement – see the Twitter List ‘Canadian Cities Occupied)
Similar to the Arab Spring, the ability for disparate individuals to quickly form, propagate and extend movements and protests, or simply to highlight issues is one factor favouring the open potential of social media. As previously mentioned, the point where Facebook and Twitter users especially reach, and pass, a critical number, is when it is almost inevitable masses assemble – the power of numbers.
The most fundamental change in communications, politics, policy and engagement is recognizing a single factor: social media provides any individual the influence potential previously the realm of government leaders, established broadcasters and celebrities.
Watching the communication evolution is fascinating. Are we simply tapping into personal and group memes, always prevalent but never fully voiced, or is this new potential to influence and connect essentially changing the nature of democracy, politics, policy and government?
Information Demand: Plenty of studies have illustrated the issues around information overload. We are continually bombarded on and offline with messages, advertising, emails, texts, status updates – all taking time to acknowledge, absorb, quantify and digest. There is a school of thought that a breaking point has been broached where many, even the most ‘info-savvy’ are tuning out, undoing the potential for political engagement. However, the storm that can, and often has, brewed when information is NOT provided, redacted or only available through Freedom of Information Requests shows demand. The movement towards Open Data, and the principles of Gov 2.0 are essential factors in the changing relationship between governments and citizens.
Voter Apathy: Despite more, and detailed, information on politicians, governments and candidates, the trend in democracies is lower active voter turnout. Yet, at the same time, there is notable public insistence for greater participation in policy formation in between election cycles. When governments simply broadcast, or only deeply converse with stakeholders during election campaigns, the potential to retain cooperation disappears, and increases dissent.
Transparency and Accountability: Connected to the Open Data/Open Information movement, the necessity for governments to be fully transparent and accountable is apparent. Tied into voter apathy is the notion that incumbents and challengers will say one thing, then continue with established practice. Holding ‘Truth to Power’ is an underlying theme behind the obvious frustrations in both engaged and non-engaged citizens.
Interesting link: Umair Haque on MetaMovements