It’s new research week here in the Orangespace, and today’s contribution is a teaser for a paper that’s at the revise-and-resubmit stage. (This post will be updated when I have something to link to.) It’s about a key turning point in Canadian copyright politics and the politics of online social movements. It’s less about copyright politics and more about how social media can shape social movements.
The Fair Copyright for Canada Facebook page (né December 2007) has a strong claim to being not only the first example of a successful political, grassroots social-media campaign in Canada, but one of the first in the entire world.
* (If anyone can think of a similar campaign that predates the December 2007 FCFC campaign, please let me know in the comments.)
The abstract, please:
Despite their growing importance, the political effectiveness of social media remains understudied. Drawing on and updating resource mobilization theory and political process theory, this article considers how social media make “political engagement more probable,” and the determinants of success for “digital social movements.” It does so by examining the mainstreaming of the Canadian “user rights” copyright movement, focusing on the Fair Copyright for Canada (FCFC) Facebook page, created in December 2007. This decentralized grass-roots social-media action, the first successful campaign of its kind in Canada and one of the first in the world, changed the terms of the Canadian copyright debate and legitimized Canadian user rights. As this case demonstrates, social media have changed the type and amount of resources needed to create and sustain social movements, creating openings for new groups and interests. Their success, however, remains dependent on the political context within which their protests take place.
In many ways, the FCFC movement was my introduction to Canadian copyright politics. I’d just started sketching out my dissertation on what I assumed would be a relatively low-key topic when all hell broke loose and copyright became a front-page issue. It was also my introduction to the power of social media as a political tool. When the prorogation crisis hit in 2010 and ordinary Canadians used Facebook to organize protests that got tens of thousands of Canadians into the streets in January, journalists fell all over themselves trying to understand whether a Facebook “like” had any political weight.
Thing is, the FCFC protests had already given us the answer: You bet it does. Not because of some kind of Internet magic, but because it indicates an interest in a subject. And if only 5% of 30,000 “likers” do something in the real world, then you’ve got yourself a potent political force. That’s what happened, in 2010 and 2007.
One thing in particular stood out when I was doing my literature review on the effectiveness of online social movements. I think everybody’s familiar with Malcom Gladwell’s widely derided article on how social media can’t possibly be used to cause a revolution. Most of the peer-reviewed journal articles that I came across argued were framed at least partly in terms of whether social media could or couldn’t have a significant political effect. However, most (if not all) of the cited academic literature supporting Gladwell’s position was: a) theoretical; and b) from the early part of the aughts (i.e., before or at the very beginning of the “Web 2.0” era). As far as I could tell, more recent empirical work overwhelmingly suggests that Gladwell’s social-media pessimism (dating from 2010) is unsupported by the available facts.
My question: has this “the revolution will not be tweeted” position become something of a straw man that we should discard? We’re almost a decade into the Web 2.0 era, so we should be discussing this issue in terms of empirical studies, rather than as a theoretical debate about “strong” or “weak” ties. My Canadian study suggests that of course social media can have an important political effect. If anyone knows of recent empirical work that supports Gladwell’s position, I’d be most grateful to learn of it (bhaggart at brocku dot ca).