SOLVE magazine Issue 02 2021 | Page 13

On one hand are people who see social media as a democratising force , transforming the way we do politics into a more direct form of democracy . On the flipside , we see dystopian accounts of how social media is potentially undermining democracy .
– James Dennis need to be explored together , not in isolation . If you analyse one element in isolation , like e-petitions or Cambridge Analytica , you get a skewed perspective .”
Slacktivists arise One of Dr Dennis ’ major research projects has centred on a campaigning group , 38 Degrees . He took an anthropological approach , observing the group for three months in its office to understand how it integrates social media into its campaigns .
He then travelled up and down the UK talking to members , seeking to understand whether their engagement went beyond just signing an e-petition and to explore how signing might subsequently impact their views of the given issue .
Dr Dennis ’ book , Beyond Slacktivism , challenges the term ‘ slacktivist ’ – a pejorative noun for someone who engages with sociopolitical issues digitally .
The core idea of slacktivism is that online acts , such as signing an e-petition or changing a profile picture to support a cause , have no real impact . What is more , some argue they are dangerous – because the more fulfilled people feel by doing these things , the less likely they are to get involved in ‘ real ’ activism , such as street protests or writing to their MP .
Dr Dennis , however , rejects this by regarding participation and engagement as a process , not an isolated visceral reaction .
“ I looked at how e-petitions and the use of Facebook and Twitter fit within 38 Degrees ’ campaign process . I found that it uses social media to get easy feedback from its members in a quick , time-efficient manner .
“ It will use the number of likes and shares to understand what its members feel about an issue , and whether it should campaign .
“ During a campaign to compel a utility company to pay more corporation tax , the group offered its members a list of different tactics , asked for suggestions , and shared this with members .”
While this was interesting in itself as a democratic process , Dr Dennis ’ real surprise came when he invited members to come together and talk about their campaigns : “ I found there were many and substantial differences of opinion , over really important issues – from LGBTQ rights to environmental issues .
“ There were climate change campaigners and deniers in the same room , but they were united by a shared enjoyment of membership being on their terms , being able to choose the campaigns they wanted to be involved with and have some influence over the strategies decided on .”
For Dr Dennis , findings like this flag a problem with traditional political science . Another research project explored the workings of the campaign organisation Momentum , forged from the movement that helped Jeremy Corbyn secure the Labour Party leadership in 2015 . Momentum was described by former Labour MP Chuka Umunna as “ a party within a party , posing as a movement ”.
Dr Dennis says Momentum ’ s innovation was viral video and organic online sharing , encouraging activists to amplify messages created .
“ Supporters and members all said how important those viral videos were in engaging them in the organisation ; encouraging them to amplify key messages and get others involved ; and creating their sense of collective identity .”
Allied to – but not part of – a political party , Momentum is able to operate without the reputational pressures of a party , free to use provocative ‘ hooks ’ such as humour and irony , including self-deprecation . A key tactic has been to share clips where Momentum itself is criticised by mainstream political figures as a way of demonstrating its own importance and effectiveness ( in the eyes of members and supporters ).
But Dr Dennis noticed an interesting disconnect : “ What fascinated me was their claim to be a peoplepowered movement , but their campaign techniques don ’ t allow members to have a say in what messages and policies they prioritise .
“ While groups like 38 Degrees use surveys and the number of likes and shares to determine what members think and feel , there was little evidence of such analytics being used to support decisions taken by the central Momentum organisation . Communication officers used social media to task members and supporters to disseminate centrally created content . So it was very much ‘ controlled interactivity ’.”
Nonetheless , Dr Dennis says he is “ cautiously optimistic about the democratic shortcuts ” social media can provide . This is based on observable phenomena : “ Yes , you can form connections with politically engaged people on social media , but that doesn ’ t mean you ’ ll be able to change policy , or that all these connections will be for good .”
He cites recent examples , including how the ‘ alt-right ’ uses 4chan to drum up support for far-right causes in the USA , and how Britain First used meme-sharing on Facebook in an attempt to normalise far-right views in the UK .
Whatever the example , Dr Dennis says it is important to engage with marginalised groups .
“ There is a lot to be learned from amplifying voices of people whose perspectives you wouldn ’ t otherwise hear . My next project looks into areas of low social mobility , deprivation , and where young people are the least likely to go to university , to find out how social media shapes their politics .”
Dr Dennis hopes this project will reveal ways in which social media could be used to address inequality . Once again , he is sure to find some surprises by exploring areas where traditional political science may not venture .
ISSUE 02 / 2021