Converting Online Political Discussion into Real World Action

By Tim Hardy

My introduction last night to a discussion @TheFreeSchool will have contained few surprises to anyone familiar with my thinking; the conversation afterwards, however, was rich in fresh insights and observations.

The working premise of the session was that the internet plays a real role in getting people onto the first step of political awakening. Having informed someone, how do we get them to climb the ladder of participation?

We need to be aware that the distinction between on- and off-line might be false, particularly for those with mobility issues. Having said that, one counterintuitive tactic to consider is to raise barriers to participation. The most popular design book for software user interfaces is called “Don’t Make Me Think.” While the core goal behind most web design is to reduce friction, our job is to get people engaging as early as possible by increasing it. For example, hiding navigation links and making a website a treasure trail prepares them to keep finding solutions for themselves: this was done brilliantly by Brighton UK Uncut in their direct action training video series.

Signing an online petition has little impact: it’s effortless and MPs know that. Guiding people through the construction of a personal, considered letter produces something that is far less easy for a politician to dismiss. Both the World Development Movement and 38 Degrees do this well.

We always have to be aware of our goals. It is trivially easy to start a website so many campaigns do that then focus on getting as many followers and hits as possible. Then, not knowing what to do next, start blindly fundraising. If there’s no clear purpose and no path to action that will drive change, online activity will fail.

Go where the crowds are. Don’t pick a niche activists blogging tool, use something open and popular. This has its dangers but if your plan is to inform, engage and mobilise the largest number of people then you have to do so where the most people are. You have to ask yourself who you are trying to reach: if your audience are already plugged into Facebook, use Facebook; if they are of an older generation then Facebook campaigns will just alienate them.

Forget SEO and marketing. Leave that to the suits. The gains of fine tuning your site for more hits are far outweighed by the cost to your spirit. Real content drives meaningful engagement. Stats are a distraction.

Own your words. If you don’t have the courage to stand up for what you believe online, where do you think you’ll find the courage to do so in the physical world? However, as Evgeny Morozov notes in The Net Delusion, words alone are not enough:

Solzhenitsyn and Sakharov may have been more effective communicators if they had access to the internet, but it’s not certain they would have been more effective dissidents. It’s not what they said… that awoke Russians from seven decades of a political coma, but rather what they did – bravely defied the authorities, spoke their minds, and faced the consequences.

Interesting insights, observations and questions from the discussion afterwards include:

  • Most people are not trained through their education how to participate in a democracy. We need tools that inform and demystify the process.
  • Facebook can be a very powerful way of getting information and answers to questions if you have large networks of virtual contacts. It’s a way to mobilise knowledge.
  • Some people are scared to engage online yet welcome the internet as an information service that offers alternative narratives to the narrow interests reflected in mass media.
  • Are people empowered or disempowered by signing a petition? One person felt alienated, another did so out of a sense of duty and saw it as a worthy chore, a third didn’t regard voicing an opinion to be action.
  • 38 Degrees has found that significant numbers of their participants are over 65 and welcome the clarity and simplicity of the site. For such people, raising barriers would be counter-productive.
  • The data collected (with permission) by campaigns empowers local action, for example, by enabling 38 Degrees to put local campaigners in contact with a journalist who was researching the sale of local woodlands.
  • We urgently need new ways of discussing online and new architectures of participation. (I’m currently working on finding a way to create online discussion structures that emulate consensus decision making: I will be writing more about this is due course.)
  • What would happen if a campaign group like 38 Degrees decided to mobilise some supporters for direct action?
  • How do we turn smaller campaigns against particular legislation into a broader questioning of the ideologies that drive such legislation? Can we do so when there is no clear political consensus for example in the case of protesters from different ends of the political spectrum coming together with a concrete goal of saving the forests?

Thank you to everyone who participated and made this such a productive discussion. Please continue the conversation in the comments below and add anything I’ve missed.

4 thoughts on “Converting Online Political Discussion into Real World Action

  1. Since it is very easy for cynics to derail a discussion, I am copying and pasting the original event description here which requested a tight focus on finding solutions and which seemed to work. I will be using this tactic again for future events:

    The working premise of this discussion is that the internet plays a real role in getting people onto the first step of political awakening. Having informed someone, how do we get them to climb the ladder of participation?

    I want this session to be exclusively about finding solutions and generating positive ideas. Anyone who wants to take the “slacktivist” position that the web is a trivial distraction is welcome to debate me at some other time – formally or informally – but please respect the goals of this particular session so that we can make the discussion productive.

    Please bring ideas, enthusiasm and an open mind.

  2. Nice! I can’t see anything obvious that you missed.

    One point I did think about was Facebook’s role. I am a Facebook user (though I’m finding it more and more annoying) and so are many of my friends. To us Facebook is just an extension of real life social gathering spaces (whether that’s with a small group of friends on your ‘wall’ or the much larger space of your news feed).

    Where people do branch out of their friendship networks are through Facebook ‘groups’. To me this is the only place where I would say it is functional for activism to engage. If my friend ‘likes’ a group I will check it out, if it applies to me I might ‘like’ it to – signing up for messages from this group as well as telling all my contacts that I ‘liked’ it.

    Of course, unless a group does in fact message members and sets up real world events for them to take part in, its impact is pretty much non-existent and I am unlikely to visit it again.

    So, Facebook does have a place – but it is a tricky one to get right and many people don’t get it right.

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