Understanding Facebook activism in two easy steps

After reading Michael Valpy’s confusing article on the political effectiveness of Facebook in this morning’s Globe and Mail, I have to wonder if reporters will ever get their minds around exactly what Facebook is. Judging from Valpy’s interview with a pollster about how Canadians feel about Facebook’s effect on politics – not, note, what Facebook activism has actually accomplished – I fear our intrepid reporters will be misunderstanding Facebook for a long time to come.

Valpy and his source, pollster Nick Nanos, essentially rehash that old chestnut: what does it mean when a bunch of people join a Facebook group? This is the wrong question and misses almost all that makes Facebook and social-networking sites important. I’ll try to put this in more traditional terms.

Facebook is the telephone. It is a way for people to share opinions and to organize online and offline activity. If you remember that Facebook is only a tool, and a tool is only as effective as the people using it, the whole idea of social-networking platforms becomes much easier to understand. It also demonstrates the silliness of asking, as Nick Nanos does, whether Facebook can replace political parties. This is as absurd as asking if a fax machine (remember them?) could replace the Conservative Party of Canada. Facebook is a tool for communicating and lobbying, not governing.

Facebook groups are mailing lists. The power of mailing lists isn’t necessarily in how many people are on that list, but in the amount of money they are able to raise, the number of people they are able to deliver at election time, the number of protestors they’re able to mobilize for a rally. Again, their effectiveness will depend on the people using the lists.

Facebook and other social-networking platforms make it much, much easier for individuals to organize. Before Facebook, getting over 25,000 people out to protest, on a single day, across the second-largest country in the world, with only a couple of weeks of organizing, would have been a massively expensive and complex logistical undertaking (to those who downplay this remarkable accomplishment: try doing it yourself sometime). Most interestingly, Facebook makes it easy for this to happen with little central organization, beyond the original Facebook page.

While its decentralized, inexpensive nature make Facebook activism potentially much more effective for grassroots groups than more centralized forms of political activism, at the end of the day its effectiveness depends on the people involved. It’s still up to the people doing the organizing to make protests work.

So what do the numbers mean? Like everyone else, I don’t know how worried the Conservatives should be that over 225,000 people have joined the Canadians Against Proroguing Parliament Facebook group (I’d be a bit worried). I do know that, via Facebook, Canadians across the country were able to get 25,000 people into the streets to voice their displeasure with Stephen Harper’s suspension of Parliament. I do know that since December, Conservative support has dropped dramatically into a statistical dead heat with a Liberal party that could most charitably be described as “adrift.”

I also know that two years ago, tens of thousands of Canadians joined the Fair Copyright for Canada Facebook group, which they used to organize protests, including visits to MP’s offices, letter writing campaigns, and even showed up at the Industry minister’s riding’s Christmas party to call for public consultations to address copyright reform. I also know that these protests were at least partly responsible for delaying the introduction of a copyright bill long enough that it was killed when the Fall 2008 election was called. It also seems clear that the Summer 2009 public consultations into copyright reform (for which the Conservative government deserves praise) were at least partly the result of this public pressure.

From these two examples, it seems clear that joining a Facebook group does, in some cases, lead to political activism. To the extent that it facilitates this activism and makes people aware of the issues, it can have, as Nanos says, “political heft in (sic.) the ballot box.”

Look: Facebook is still relatively new. We need more research into the conditions under which joining a Facebook group leads to political activism (hmmmm, that would make a nice postdoc subject…). But it does happen. And I’m sure that some enterprising political aide or grad student can come up with a nifty formula that tells us how many voters are represented by each Facebook joiner. It’s not like there are no data on the subject: Facebook has been around for five years, and in Canada we have at least two, and probably more, examples of effective Facebook-based political campaigns.

Understanding the limits and possibilities of Facebook activism requires moving beyond a simplistic view of Facebook as a pseudo-pollster and toward a more nuanced understanding of how Facebook, as a communications tool, actually works.

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