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. They are no longer 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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