Online campaigns are often accused of being ‘armchair activism,’ but RUTH HUNT talks to the people determinedly tweeting for a better tomorrow
A SUCCESSFUL campaign for social media activists often focuses on a particular subject, and is an ideal vehicle for producing a sense of solidarity between a diverse group of people. One example of this could be the Occupy movement — we are the 99 per cent. If used well, social media can mobilise large numbers and if online campaigns can move into physical spaces as well, it has the capacity to influence policy and create real change.
What isn’t so clear is who are the leaders and what happens to those who feel left out and without a “voice.” What action should we all take to make it more inclusive?
Twitter user @imajsaclaimant began to campaign when he received a benefit sanction for four weeks. He said: “I lived without food, heating and electricity over the Christmas period, which had a big impact both physically and mentally. The next month my adviser said she was putting me on ‘workfare’ as punishment for my ‘lack of discipline’ which resulted in the sanction.
“That afternoon I went home and swallowed every tablet I had, to end my life. I ended up in hospital and have had counselling to overcome my mental health issues. I used social media as I felt very isolated. I was afraid to reveal it to family and friends so instead of writing on Facebook, I joined Twitter.
“I found a community who offered attention, support and advice, and who were not concerned about my anonymity. At that time I was using Twitter for support, to overcome the trauma I’d been through. After my sanction I started to do some research, I spoke to my MP and he was evasive — which raised my suspicions something was going on. I discovered the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) releases quarterly sanction statistics. Millions of people had received a sanction since they’d been introduced, but nobody seemed to know or care. Knowing this drove up my online activism.”
Like @imajsaclaimant, Rick Burgess (@TenPercent) experienced the cruelty of the current benefits system and what should be the safety net, but says that “when you’re living under a regime that would prefer you go away and die, [social media] focuses your thoughts.”
“Two of the main advantages of social media,” says author Mike Robbins (@MikeRobbins19), “are its accessibility and that it can mobilise large numbers of people who will not, or cannot take part in real-life action. Moreover, a single tweet or post can reach more people, in theory, than a leaflet campaign ever will.”
@imajsaclaimant, who is in Britain’s top 100 influential tweeters, also points to the large numbers you can attract: “According to my Twitter analytics, my tweets are seen by 2.5-3 million people each month. I would never get that protesting outside a shop in my home town — or even Trafalgar Square unless I was very lucky. There’s also the possibility that journalists see what you’re doing and write about it. I’ve also had contact with politicians and academics — people who actually influence policy — so online activism can really work.”
A criticism often made is that social media makes everyone a self-appointed “expert” and that consequently messages are diluted or fragmented. Mike Coulson (@mikecoulson48) says: “I’m not so sure I know what an ‘expert’ is. Social media allows us all to share knowledge and opinion, which benefits us all.”
Burgess adds: “Social media allows lived expertise to challenge institutional power. So overall, maybe one person’s fragmentation is another person’s blossoming of voice.”
Robbins added: “The problem isn’t exactly fragmentation, but a related danger: who is authoritative?”
The question of whether activist groups such as Occupy were ever truly leaderless, spontaneous and “horizontal” organisations often belies the work that went on behind the scenes. Leaders and those with influence still exist, though the democratising force of social media means that power may shift between the more established groups to new influencers and leaders.
So if social media can mobilise large numbers online, does that mean more people are taking this message on board, and changing their opinions and allegiances? Well, maybe not. Campaigns that move into physical spaces are often required. Robbins says: “Just as more people can be reached than with a leaflet campaign, the disadvantages with social media are it can be superficial; you can ignore a post or tweet without even the effort it takes to put a leaflet in the bin.”
@imajsaclaimant adds: “Another downside is you could be talking with people who already agree with you. I try to reach new audiences by making use of hashtags such as BBC Question Time (#bbcqt). When I realised what was going on [in benefit cuts] I found I wanted to do more than just tweet, so now I’m able to combine my social media activities with campaigning in my local area. I don’t think of them as two separate things. Some campaigns may originate online, others won’t. One informs the other, both are crucial for success.”
Burgess said when he was involved with the WOW campaign (www.wowpetition.co.uk) he also saw “the need to be out in the real world, to spread the word. Just remaining on social media wasn’t enough and by doing so we made good connections, and gained credibility. We need activism on all fronts. I know people whose activism on social media led to real world activism. I see it as symbiotic, social media activism and real world activism help each other, and we should value and use both.”
What’s clear is that not all will be able to move into these physical spaces. Therefore, the responsibility of campaigning groups is to reach out to these groups, recognise the contribution they make and the importance of their roles and either nurture them online or support them so that the barriers can be removed that were preventing them from being part of real world campaigns.
Unite’s community membership scheme has the right approach.
@imajsaclaimant said: “Hard-to-reach groups often need more support to get online. That’s another reason why I joined them as they support members to get online and learn IT skills, along with English as a second language, and classes aimed at empowering people.”
Robbins and Coulson both felt it is crucial keep a lookout while on social media, to search out hashtags that are relevant to those people concerning disability for example and/or for mental health, and retweet and repost what’s good.
“It’s all about inclusion,” Burgess concludes: “It’s important to recognise the importance of this activism and examine one’s own privileges and assumptions. Inclusion is not an add-on. It is integral to how we live.”
Ruth Hunt is author of The Single Feather (Pilrig Press).