Digital Activism is not as simple as “Facebook Politics”

Julian Zelizer has a post up on CNN.com, echoing Malcolm Gladwell’s New Yorker piece from last week and making pretty much exactly the same mistakes.  He argues that “facebook politics” foster weak ties, rather than strong ties, and that these don’t work to sustain social movements in the long term.  I’ve met Julian in the past (during my time at the Miller Center in ’08-’09), and I find him to possess a first-class intellect.  That said, the argument he’s making here is clearly second-rate.

There are three basic issues with the argument he presents — issues that are starting to percolate among public intellectuals, so it’s worth refuting them here and now:

1. Equating digital activism (“facebook politics”) with “weak ties.”

Zelizer writes, “What makes Facebook politics vulnerable is that it lacks the local element that has always been so crucial to politics.”  He also invokes Gladwell’s example of the Woolworth’s lunch counter sit-ins during the civil rights movement.  Much has already been written about the flaws in Gladwell’s argument.  The unifying theme is that, by suggesting “previous social movements = strong ties/digital activism = weak ties,” Gladwell is constructing an absurd straw man.  If we compare the Woolworth’s boycott to clicking “like” on facebook, then of course digital activism will seem diluted.  But this is the wrong comparison.

During the civil rights movement, there were plenty of citizens who were only weakly tied to the protest actions.  One such population were northern whites, who mostly engaged in the passive act of watching protests on television, and occassionally then wrote letters to the President.  Taeku Lee uses these letters in his book, Mobilizing Public Opinion as a measure of activated public opinion.  Facebook engagement is better understood as a 21st century equivalent of these activities — we used to hear about social movements on television and occassionally write a letter or send a check to an organization.  Now we hear about it on TV, or Twitter, or Blogs, or YouTube, or our FaceBook newsfeeds, and we occassionally click “like,” or forward it to our social networks, or blog about it, or write an e-mail to the President, or give money.  The venues for active public opinion have multiplied.

If we treat this “slacktivism” as a modification of “armchair activism,” then suddenly we’re considering a difference-in-degree rather than a difference-in-kind.

Meanwhile, not all internet-mediated politics occurs through weak ties and “likes” on facebook.  This weekend (on 10/10/10), 350.org is organizing an international day of climate action with over 5,000 events planned worldwide.  The 10/10/10 climate actions have served as a major rallying point for the climate movement — a movement that constantly relies on digital technology to make location-based organizing easier and more effective.  The notion that online activism is divorced from “the local element” was perhaps true in 1999 or 2002, but for years now the biggest advances among social movement organizations have been made by groups that blend online and offline.

2. Equating the Obama campaign with “facebook politics.”

I lived in Charlottesville, VA during the 2008 election.  Obama for America had seven campaign offices in that college town, including a main office in the center of the downtown mall.  It was the largest campaign field mobilization in at least a generation, and that was comprised primarily of old fashioned door-knocking and phone-calling.  When Zelizer writes “Obama’s team may still have all the cell numbers that they collected before announcing their vice presidential pick, but few people are answering or texting,” he’s making a common mistake about the movement feel of the Obama campaign and social movements in general.

Social movements tend to recede in participation after they achieve some major policy goal. Passing the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act doesn’t end racism, but it nonetheless leads to smaller rallies.  Likewise, political campaigns (movement-like or non) recede in participation after election day.  When Obama for America became Organizing for America, it was clear from the outset that total participation would have to fall.  The shared project of winning an election was past (read Rasmus Kleis Nielsen‘s work for more on this subject).

What’s more, Organizing for America faced a very real challenge specifically because of its offline participation.  If, in Charlottesville, all of those Obama campaign volunteers had stayed just as actively involved, how are they to distinguish between the Organizing for America leadership and the local Democratic Party apparatus?  You would have two competing claims to the mantle of “local democratic party,” with real resources and decision power at stake.  Those conditions are ripe for  internecine struggles within the party network.  As a result, OFA had to switch gears.  To cite lowered engagement levels now as an example of the weakness of digital activism is to misunderstand the shared project they were involved in to begin with, and also to hold new social movements to a standard not met by previous ones.

3. Ignoring the Critical Importance of Citizen’s United

Zelizer suggests that, thanks to Facebook politics, “Local candidates can rake in millions of dollars within days, and they can spread their name without anyone going door-to-door or holding fundraisers in the local Holiday Inn.”  Let’s try to keep some perspective here. The Washington Post has recently reported that much of this spending deluge is coming from secret sources, including corporations and uber-wealthy.  2010 isn’t just the facebook politics era, it’s also the post-Citizens United era.  In other words, the success of many of these candidates isn’t about the World Wide Web or social media.  It’s about secrecy and unvarnished pay-to-play power.

Likewise, we cannot properly understand the rise of the tea party movement without including Fox News Channel in our analysis.  As I’ve written before, separating the Tea Party as movement from the Tea Party as meme is particularly difficult given that these high-profile events and rallies are promoted nonstop by a partisan news channel whose chief contributors (Beck, Palin) are also the most visible figureheads of the Tea Party itself.  For every example of a Glen Beck rally, there’s a National Tea Party Convention getting canceled due to lagging ticket sales.  Estimating the size of the Tea Party in the absence of Fox News amplification is a tall order, but there’s great reason to think the media has routinely overestimated its size.

And Fox News is part of a broadcast media empire… hardly an exemplar of “facebook politics.”

To Sum it Up…

Both Zelizer and Gladwell make a useful distinction between strong ties and weak ties, but they mistakenly equate online activism with weak ties.  The reality is that social movements (and political campaigns) have always featured both.  The digital communications environment renders new opportunities for leveraging/forming social ties, both strong and weak.

If the Tea Party phenomenon turns out to be more Meme than Movement — if it is in fact primarily a media scaffolding for wealthy donors to pursue a post-Citizens United strategy — then Zelizer will be proven correct in his assertion that their movement will leave few residual institutions in the post-election environment. But he will have reached the right conclusion for the wrong reasons.  Digital activism is not as simple as “Facebook Politics,” and equating the Obama campaign with a hastily-drawn sketch of “facebook  politics” while overlooking the potentially-transformative impact of Citizen’s United and Fox News Channel obscures far than it reveals about the changing nature of 21st century political engagement.

2 thoughts on “Digital Activism is not as simple as “Facebook Politics”

  1. What really puzzles me about Gladwell’s piece is that he himself talks up the importance of one sort of weak tie, even though he doesn’t call it that.

    He lauds the role of late-night drinking sessions in helping build the deep friendships that fuelled the sit-in protests.

    Social media can take many forms, not all of it productive, much of it trivial and some it downright unpleasant. So too can late night drinking. But as Gladwell himself points out, that doesn’t mean it cannot also have profound effects. So wny not apply the same logic to social networking too?

    (I’ve expanded on this point in my own blog post on the topic at http://www.markpack.org.uk/malcolm-gladwell-social-networking/ )

  2. Huh, that raises an interesting point. I’d actually argue that late night beer drinking is essentially a strong tie. I used to teach organizational development for the Sierra Club, and developed a tongue-in-cheek “beer and pizza, man” theory of org dev. The real point was that the strong volunteer groups were the ones that made social plans for after the meeting, fostering strong ties and making the work of a social movement feel less like “work.”

    I might actually go so far as to say that I’d look at “do you socialize/drink beer together” as a means of operationalizing “strong ties” in an org study.

    Bringing it back to your point about Gladwell, this again highlights that the use of social networking for lowering the costs of face-to-face interaction. Gladwell is simplifying the narrative to “pre-internet = strong ties,” “internet = weak ties.” But, as you suggest, the internet is being used to foster more of both types. I can use Facebook to launch a silly e-petition, but then I can invite those who signed the e-petition to a meeting or social gathering. Not all will show up (that’s forever been the case), but those that do are laying down the stronger ties that help to forge movements for social change.

    So I guess the positive spin we could put on Gladwell is “start with facebook, sure, but make sure to fit beer and pizza in at some point too.”

    Thoughts?

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