Pulling online activism off-line

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Voter interest in political parties is at all-time lows. Surprisingly, however, engagement in politics is steady or increasing – it’s just most people are engaging outside of party politics, just as they did a century ago.

Instead of sharing news and political views in a real town square, we’re doing so in a digital town square. For example, the Arab Spring spread through the speed of Twitter and SMS using the power of weak ties to engage protesters in a virtual civic space, as Clay Shirky explains.

Across the developed world, independent activist organisations are capitalising on this phenomenon. Get Up in Australia was just our local manifestation of the US Move On. In the UK there is 38 Degrees; globally we have Avaaz and Change.org, as well as hundreds of smaller progressive social action groups. These groups have harnessed enormous good will amongst progressive activists, and have built a considerable staff and funding base. They are embedded within traditional politics but operate outside of it. Although we may scoff at the true nature of the 600,000 people Get Up claims as members (Change.org claims 13 million and Avaaz 15 million!), the fact is that encouraging someone to take any political action at all, even signing an online petition, is something we should support.

A motivated group of people with passion and a simple, powerful message can build mass support and make a huge impact. Grassroots movements have a rich and potent history, demonstrated by the labour movement, anti-war movements, women’s rights and suffrage movements. Each of these movements have been profoundly social (old-style social); at their core they have been built on face-to-face, person to person contact, using this powerful medium to spur people to take action.

Throughout history, these progressive, disruptive movements have used the latest technology to get their message out to as wide an audience as possible, whether the printing press, telegrams, hand-bills and more recently text messages and social media.

Since the turn of the century, grassroots movements have taken to digital campaigning and social media in a big way; the appeal is understandable. From the point of view of a voter struggling to tell the difference between Labor and Liberal, Facebook and Twitter make it easier than ever to join or take action for a cause. The difference is that whereas the 1900s Suffragettes organising Victoria’s second largest ever petition had to collect signatures in the freezing rain and sweltering heat, today’s activists can do all their work from the comfort of their couch.

Why should progressive Labor activists care about online “clicktivists”?

According to a recent survey, nearly half of all people aged 15 to 25 receive their news from friends and family via social networks like Facebook. The same survey also looked at participation in politics and discovered that the same proportion of people (around half) in the same age group have some kind of interactive involvement in politics. However, a fifth of voters could not tell the difference between the two major parties or are turned off by the political process and political tactics.

In a nation like Australia, with compulsory voting, the participation deficit is largely hidden, with only recently growing rates of informal voting and non-attendance telling a story that something is wrong.

One of the primary measures of “brand health” is not satisfaction (which is low for Labor currently) but the number of advocates that brand has. In political terms, this means both members (declining for Labor) and vocal supporters (those friends who forward the online petition). These advocates are the people who sway their peers, friends, and family to change their vote. And as we’ve seen with Move On, Get Up and Obama, online campaign success can translate to bodies on the ground: real people doing real things in the real world.

Interest and participation in the recent Sydney primary run by NSW Labor gives some hope. Interest in this primary was high, in my view, because there was no obvious winner and genuine differences between candidates. The process was seen as more open and democratic – and people responded to the differentiated messages and grass-roots campaigns of all involved.

As we are all exposed to more and more advertising messages – whether political or commercial – people are turning to friends and family online to engage in public speech and to facilitate each other to take political action. Traditional political advertising is a weak force that is more like a fine mist than a concentrated stream. Motivating the committed simply outperforms persuading the disengaged every time. Organisations that can foster the deep involvement of members and supporters do better than those who don’t.

Social media isn’t going to influence the wavering or uninterested voter. The bonds of Facebook aren’t so strong that a like or shared link will cause someone leaning Liberal to switch to Labor, or to change their views from anti-carbon price to pro.

Motivating the committed is how elections can be won; online action begets offline action (it’s called the commitment and consistency principle). Labor’s brand advocates don’t just like things on Facebook. They are more likely to get active and inspire their apathetic and apolitical friends and family offline, in the real world.

How can we encourage this? Essentially we need to have something worthwhile and valuable in the real world for people to engage with online. Groups like Avaaz or 38 Degrees focus on issues. For Labor, primaries contested on the basis of issues and policy is a good start. Having an open process for electing Labor’s leader (like UK Labour) is another – because the stakes are real and the outcome has high value.

Taking online action off-line isn't easy, but the entire reason for engaging with politics online is to work at having a real world impact. 

Author: Alex White

Alex is a development and marketing manager with a background in the trade union & environment movements. He is a member of the Yarraville Branch in Melbourne’s West. He blogs at www.alexwhite.org


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