Demos’ Virtually Members report is virtually useful

The centre-left [sic] think-tank, Demos, has a new report out presenting some interesting insights about the virtual ‘membership’ of the UK’s three main political parties. Titled, Virtually Members: The Facebook and Twitter Followers of UK Political Parties, the briefing paper is the latest publication to come from Demos’ Centre for Social Media Analysis. I’ve embedded the full paper below:

Virtually Members by Simon Collister

Despite, however, the snazzy name and Demos’ past reputation for leading-edge research into social media (I can remember attending a number of briefing events about social media and political engagement back in 2009/10) the report feels fairly lightweight – even if it is a vaguely dressed up corporate sponsorship vehicle for Tweetminster which provides the authors with analytics technology.

For example, in 2013 after two US election cycles and a UK general election with social media playing a central part; the coalition embedding edemocracy into parliamentary process; not to mention the numerous examples of social media empowered social movements, such as UKUncut, 38 Degrees, etc, the report’s opening statement hardly sets the pulse racing:

“The internet and social media are having a profound effect on British politics: it will re-shape the way elections are won and lost, how policy is made, and how people get involved in formal and informal politics.”

Equally disappointing is the report’s focus on evaluating social media quantities (fans, followers, etc) for main political parties and attempting to equate these with some comparable measure of party membership. Didn’t we move beyond such quantitative fixations years ago? Even with caveats adopting such a straw man position risks undermining the overall findings – which do make some salient points about political participation and mobilisation – from the outset.

More worryingly, I can’t see any attempt in the analysis to account for the spam followers we know most (if not all) Twitter account accrue; not to mention the phantom ‘Likes’ Facebook (or third parties) seem to generate, thus boosting fans and skewing quantitative analyses. And this isn’t a particularly low key phenomenon at the moment.

Maybe I’m being overly harsh, but a failure to acknowledge and engage with the messy realities of social media in a post-IPO world make the Demos paper difficult to take too seriously, which is a shame as the CASM (and the team behind it) appears to have a lot of potential.

#ukriots and the limits of traditional media (and what it means for democracy)

This post started out as a few immediate thoughts about the way the #ukriots played out across the media.

By the time I'd got around to tidying up what I'd written it'd been superceded by a wealth of good analysis – some focused on media, some not.

Having written something I felt it worthwhile adding my own initial reactions to the debate, particularly from a media perspective given the political role the media has within liberal democracies.

I end the post with some next step ideas about what this all means for democracy. Something I'll hopefully return to a later date.

As mentioned above, recommended wider reading would include: Zygmunt Bauman's article on the consumerist context for the riots; Critical Legal Thinking and Schnews' account of the broader neoliberal capitalist project as cause of the riots and the London Review of Book's historical perspective.

I wanted to capture some of my thoughts around the limitations (and failings) of the media during the worst of the rioting, which may be useful for my ongoing research.

The guiding theme for all the points I jotted down was how the liberal media has possibly reached its limits for effective and adequate reporting in the 21st century.

This is partly due to the emergence of networked media powered by the internet and increasingly networked mobile technology; however, it is also down the wider structural limitations of liberal democracy within which the media plays a central role (see Louw, for a good overview of how the emergence of liberal democracy has gone hand-in-hand with the media).

Networks/Technology
During the worst of the riots social media gave access to multiple sources of information enabling anyone with internet access to gather information and build their own real-time stream of news.

Fascinatingly, the BBC was urging people not to use social media (Twitter in particular) to interpret events.

They told us: Twitter was full of misinformation, conflicting accounts and unverifiable information. Stay tuned to the BBC for verified and authoritative coverage.

Importantly, this random, disparate and admittedly sometimes misleading information flow of Twitter was the reality of the situation.

Gathering real-time streams of information and content from social channels and augmenting it with mainstream media coverage or official sources allows individuals to build their own personal news feed using multiple, heterogenous sources.

The flaw in the BBC's argument is that live streams of social information are much more reflective of the reality of the situation and allow individuals to create a flexible, open-ended picture of what's happening.

The role of the BBC (and other traditional new providers) is to crystallise information into "news" whereas following events through social channels recognises the fact that "news" is never created as a fixed reality, rather it allows us to infer a complex and ever-changing picture of events.

It can be suggested that this problem arises from the industrial model of news production where the gathering of information has to result in a completed, finalised and sellable product.

The BBC's idea of Twitter being misleading and unreliable is also a flawed argument based on the fact that it fails to recognise any other mode of editorialising except their own, professional news-production.

For example there are a number of filtering, accrediting and editorialising information using peer networks as Yochai Benkler has examined – see chapters 6 & 7 in The Wealth of Networks for an exploration of the different models of peer-to-peer information gathering and filtration.

As an example, I relied mainly on my own Twitter and Facebook network for gathering information about events, turning only to the #riot and #londonriot hashtags to verify what the BBC and mainstream media was reporting.

And as James Cridland has pointed out in a great blog post, when it came to gathering useful or verifiable data on the riots, traditional media – including the BBC – was reporting inaccurate information on events.
 
So, the BBC's attempts to warn people against using social media was telling: if anything, it reveals the real power of social media.

That the nation's public service broadcaster needs to try to convince people it has better information than the people on the ground suggests the game may soon be up for traditional, top-down, authoritative media.

(an ironic foot-note to all this, most forward-thinking mainstream media are actually seeking to build on real-time, social reporting as articulated by by the emerginging concept of "ambient journalism" according to Alfred Hermida.)

Reinforcing the argument that social media is over-taking traditional editorialising was the quality of the BBC and Sky's rolling news coverage.

Throughout the night, as I skipped from the BBC News channel to Sky News all I saw were news anchors repeating a variation of the same information drawn predominently from official sources; largely inane commentary from the paid-up commentariat or politicians and police sources who simply maintained an entrenched position that arguably created the socio-economic situation that gave broth to the riots in the first place.

The real voices of people involved or pragmatic analysis by individuals perhaps better qualified to talk about what was happening – people on the streets, sociologists, political economomists and the rioters/looters themselves – went unreported.

In fact, the news coverage on Sky went further than not offering real voices by actively seeking out and then mis-preresenting real voices.

Reporting on being told by one looter that they were looting because they paid taxes and got nothing in return, the correspondent reported this saying: "But I wouldn't say that's a political response. This is all just opportunistic."

If these points are political and cultural reasons why mainstream media has become inadequate in reporting news then there are also arguably institutional reasons as well.

For example, once the sun went down or rioting become too intense, dangerous or moved to perceived unsafe locations, such as housing estates, both BBC and Sky resorted to reusing aerial footage of burning buildings or footage recorded earlier.

No doubt this is to protect the health and safety of reporters, but it further reveals the limits of the media's ability to tell the full story.

Just as the textual/spoken reporting was limited to a repetitive set of 'known' or 'verified' information so too was visual reporting limited to unhelpful long-range or out-dated scenes.

There was arguably some 'citizen reporting' via Sky and the BBC – but this itself brought about an interesting blurring of boundaries between social and institutional reporting.

With many of their own correspondents living within areas subject to rioting and looting, Sky and BBC brought their reporters into live broadcasts on the phone.

Similarly, many were reporting events in real-time via Twitter. These off-duty reporters were reporting on local events from a personal persepective: remember almost all of these individuals have a "tweeting in a personal capacity" disclaimer on the accounts, plus by reporting through Twitter their coverage isn't limited to Sky subscribers or license fee payers.

Their actions were arguably blurring the role between being a professional reporter and a personal or citizen reporter. 

Limits of liberal democracy
The limits of the media can be extended, I'd argue, to an analysis of the increased decline in liberal democracy and its hold over people's lives and society as a whole.

Firstly, which is the demographic consuming least traditional media? Young people of course. And what was the core demographic of rioters? Young people – although, of course, with exception.

Young people as a whole crude homogenous lump don't consume mainstream media. On the one hand this is causing advertisers and media companies sleepless nights, but on the other it also means that the media's role in performing its rational, liberal public information or watch-dog role is being undermined.

Added to this situation is the established – and growing – disenfranchisement of young people by other structural elements of liberal democracy, such as government policy, political parties and the police.

For example, see my post on the March 26th demo and how so many of the young people I saw were serious about fighting back against police brutality meted out at the last year's student demos and a government which has made only too clear how public policy is dictated by the market by u-turning on student fees.

As a result, you have a liberal democratic mechanism of managing public opinion which is no longer effective among the emergent population (not to mention further exacerbated by the ongoing economic effects on quality of life and perceived life chances).

Then there is the content of the media and the role it plays in liberal democracy.

At a normative level the media is meant to help us rationally debate and discuss events in the public sphere and form reasoned, democratic responses upon which our political institutions will act.

However, the trend over the past decades has been an increasing sensationalism and populism among the broader, mainstream media.

The public – and in particular those who consider themselves liberals – who pay particular attention to the media to stay abreast of topical issues – are failing to recognise or discover the nuances and complexities of what is happening.

The public appears almost unanimous in adopting the sensational language used by politicians and media commentators and most importantly the predominently white, middle-class news readers who themselves are guilty of reinforcing this media "restyling" by adopting media stereotypes, e.g. referring to looters as animalistic, feral, etc.

There's no space in this type of traditional media coverage for critical debate. Suggestions that the government's strategy of destroying communities by cutting its funding and increasing levels of unemployment is parallel to destroying a community through the physical violence of trashing shops go unheard.

Arguably, the strategy is the same; the tactics differ. The government has the upper hand and can destroy communities through policy-decisions and structural means; young people adopt much cruder approach

And this allows us to glimpse a subtle and potentially crucial failing of the traditional media in what we might term 'end-stage liberal democracies'.

The government and the wider political institutions in a liberal democracy (of which the media is one) are used to controlling the media and shaping coverage.

Young people realise this. Many refused to become part of the media spectacle by attacking journalists or refusing to be interviewed – which further inflames the media's democratically privileged position and response.

Of course, social media's operational relation to this is not unproblematic. While social media can (but doesn't always) cut through the manipulation of media coverage by dominant interests, it can also incriminate people committing criminal acts.

As if to reinforce how important the traditional media's role is in supporting or facilitating liberal democracy – and social media's potential to disrupt and challenge established ways of working – as I write this endnote David Cameron is stood in the House announcing plans to censor social media during public disorder, effectively legislating for an enforced reliance and dominance of traditional media when liberal democracy is faced with 'legitimation crises'.

As none of the proposed knee-jerk respoens are likely to identify or attempt to fix the underlying causes of the #ukriots I expect we'll see more legitimation crises.

Escalate Collective: a critique of a critique

The Escalate Collective has recently published its latest essay/communique/article/post about events on the 26th March demo which is definitely worth reading.

Escalate, a collective of writers and activists from within the University of London, seems to be the closest we have to Tiqqun here in the UK and at this particular time. For that they should be commended.

On reflection I think I prefer their first essay but in both communiques they unpick key issues unfolding within current events by charting a path direct through centre of the problem. And by that, I don't mean they adopt a middle ground as position for analysis. Rather, they split issues down the middle; break them open; expose the vacuity… I'll end the metaphor there. It's late and you get the idea.

What gets a big thumbs up from me is the inclusion of 'social media' in their list of targets for critique. Their analysis isn't always spot on but crucial contributions include the following:

Escalate challenge the misrepresentation of "social media as panacea". While this is a crucial criticism that addresses and undermines both pro- and anti-technology camp's arguments the collective also over-state the case somewhat. Let's unpack their critique.

Firstly, technology – and in particular Twitter and Facebook – are critiqued for being glorified as radical tools for emancipation. The collective writes:

"The praise Twitter and Facebook have received is matched only by the compliments showered on a mythical young generation who have supposedly expropriated the potentials within this technology for radical means."

It's their belief that this myth hides the reality that social media – incorporating their broader definition, "web-based media" – is of course a commodity. A commodity that young people consume and of course which is as radical as tie-dye t-shirts were for the Soixante Huitardes: "the only victory can be further consumption, this time of web-based goods."

In fact, it gets worse than this. Not only is social media a de-radicalised consumer commodity but it's a commodity whose consumption is undertaken as part of what Jodi Dean has termed 'communicative capitalism' – that is (perhaps stating it too strongly): "Web 2.0 is a political trap that disempowers political action" by grounding it in endless discussion, debate and content circulation.

Grounding this emergent concept in more classical Marxist terms, Escalate point out that: 

"Software corporations and PR agencies have entire departments devoted to astro-turfing and the countering of malevolent online publicity. Professional journalists and salaried unionists have the advantage of time and often resources to invest in their Twitterfeeds and Facebook friends."

The initial criticism is arguably wide of the mark – although I utterly understand where the writers are coming from here. For instance, why pick out software corporations? Odd choice – software corps aren't really at the front-end of current political debate as they make software. I put this down to a misunderstanding.

In terms of PR agencies, I'm fairly confident I can say that my dalliances with a couple of very big PR firms' digital teams has shown me that a) many high-profile firms they are not involved in intentionally astro-turfing (to the point of proactively avoiding anything that could be mistaken – although this policy has not always prevented it) and b) "whole departments" in my experience means less than 30 and usually a lot less (the implication for me here is that we're talking 100s as per the Chinese Government's 50 Cent Army) and never the whole department working on a single client.

On the latter point of journalists and union reps I do agree. It is a solution offered by economic capital – perhaps a wider critique missed here: the volunteeristic power of social media is based on social capital. A significnat benefit in circumstances where social relationships are all that's needed to negotiate an outcome. But by injecting economic capital into the mix you get a relational imbalance and if that relational imbalance is desired to misdirect, destabilise or destroy networks of relationships then it can be highly effective – providing you have the resource to scale. Refer back to China's 50 Cent Army.

Escalate also reject another misperception perpetuated through the media and some enthusiastic activists and academics. That is, the binary of social media and horizontality. This is a long-standing bugbear: just because something occurs via the web or social media doesn't make it horizontal.

Yes, the rhizomatic structure of the web often sets the default organisational settings to non-hierarchical networks but care is needed to ensure this myth doesn't end up hiding more deeply set hierarchies and power relations. And lest we forget: horizontal organising can – and does – take place outside of virtually networked structures.

Linked to this, another major critique of social media arises, again from media and organisational misperceptions of what the social web is and how it functions.

Escalate argue:

"Many organisations enjoy the perceived leaderlessness of Twitter and Facebook because of how clearly this myth masks the mechanisms of privilege and capital power which allow leadership to emerge when any network is left unchecked."

While I broadly agree with their conclusion that the "perceived leaderlessness" within social media allows privilege (presumably time-based and technological knowledge) and capital power to allow leadership to emerge this statement is useful because it points to a wider theme that runs through much of Escalate's analysis of social media.

Namely that social media, Twitter, Facebook, "web-based media", etc are interchangable, homogenous wholes when in reality they aren't.

While this methodological short-cut still allows Escalate to make incisive and accurate critique of conteporary politics, media and capitalism, it means that there is arguably a much more deeper analysis and (potentially constuctive) critique that could be made.

I say potentially constructive because this is something I'm thinking and writing about at the moment: how analysis of the complexities of the social web and its components can be used to achieve a greater understanding of forms of resistance.

Perhaps now isn't the time to go into the detail, but perhaps take a look at this recent conference abstract  for an idea of what I'm talking about.

Finally – and most glibly – the collective's approach to writing anonymously overcomes some of the ego issues that definitely can be seen within the liberal/left blogo- and Twittersphere. It's a breath of fresh air and allows – IMHO – a much more radical exploration of contemporary issues to be broached.

 

 

 

 

Wikileaks: 10 Theses by Lovink & Riemens

Geert Lovink and Patrice Riemens have posted a really interesting analysis of Wikileaks – which is well timed given the current traditional mass media attention.

Their 10 theses begins with some basic reading for those new to wikileaks or crowd-sourced, collaborative investigative journalism that paces it firmly in a time-worn tradition:

These 1:

"[…] Disclosures and leaks have been of all times, but never before has non state- or non- corporate affiliated group done ever before has a non state- or non- corporate affiliated group done this at the scale Wikileaks managed to with the 'Afghan War Logs'.”

Given the current media hype around Wikileaks and the War in Iraq, Lovink and Riemens inject some critical reflection into the debate:

“Nonetheless,” they argue:

“we believe that this is more something of a quantitative leap than of a qualitative one. […] In the ongoing saga termed "The Decline of the US Empire", Wikileaks enters the stage as the slayer of a soft target. It would be difficult to imagine it doing quite the same to the Russian or Chinese  
government, or even to that of Singapore – not to speak of their … 
err… 'corporate' affiliates. Here distinct, and huge, cultural and  
linguistic barriers are at work, not to speak of purely power-related ones, that would need to be surmounted."

Lovink and Riemen's Theses are broad and searching and help any social media evangelists place the current Wikileaks phenomenon into perspective. A must read.

Coalition Government to introduce epetitions that will influence parliamentary debate

It's been a short while since my last post, and in that time we've acquired a new Conservative-Lib Dem government.  So what better way to get back back to blogging than drawing attention to an interesting piece of Conservative policy that offers a major opportunity for campaigners (especially digitally active ones) to get their issue on the the government's agenda – and potentially have a real impact on legislation.

The policy in question is referenced in the Coalition's final Programme for Government in the section on Political Reform where it sets out the following commitment:

"We will ensure that any petition that secures 100,000 signatures will be
eligible for formal debate in Parliament. The petition with the most
signatures will enable members of the public to table a bill eligible to
be voted on in Parliament."

Pretty radical?

In essence it seems the government is committing to ensure that any petition over the magical 100,000 number will eligable for debate in Parliament.

Even more interesting is the secondary commitment to allow public petitions with the "most signatures" to also table bills. Now this second point is rather vague but I'm sure that I remember reading in Conservative policy documents during the election campaign outlined petitions with 1m signatures or more would be tabled as bills.

Two immediate thoughts spring to mind here.

The first, prompted by a Glen Tarman on the ecampaigning forum, covers the implications for campaigning groups – especially those effective at online mobilisation.

Glen argues that a "high-visibility impactful campaign is not always […] correlative to the numbers game" and of course he's right. But he also points to recent examples where significant numbers of people have 'signed-up' to social change causes far in excess of the benchmark of 100,000 set by the current policy:

  • Jubilee 2000 petition – 2,960,262 UK signatures
  • Make Poverty History – 500,000 petition signatures (90% of signatures were online)
  • Trade Justice Movement – 750,000 signatures
  • Downing Street Road Tax epetition – 1.8m online signatures

And that's what I find interesting with the 100,000 (and possibly 1m) signatures benchmark. In the age of email, social media and social networking it really isn't too difficult (although it's not *easy* either) to mobilise significant volumes of people around an important issue.

As the list above shows, even less-mainstream aid issues can generate enough signatures to secure a parliamentary debate. Compare this with the infamous road tax epetition example or this England/World Cup Facebook Page which has generated 140,000+ Fans in 48 hours.

So what are the implications for professional campaigners? One the one hand the policy taps into our digitally networked age where online sign-ups and 'Likes' lower the barriers to taking part in social change movements and campaigns.

Conversely, it can be argued that this will enshrine a culture of 'slacktivism' in our political system which in turn may lead to a de-incentivising and disenfranchising of real-life action and its corollary, an increase in disproportionate policing and political prosecutions

While I'm not suggesting this is definitively the intention of the policy, it is – in my mind at least – a possible outcome. Of course, this may also have the opposite effect. Who can say yet.

The other implication of the policy worth considering is whether a distinction will be made between public petitions and NGO-driven petitions?

As well as the likelihood of generating different petition topics (e.g. international trade justice vs domestic road pricing) it's arguable that NGOs or professional campaigns are likely to consistently mobilise 100,000 signatories on 'progressive issues', as opposed to the weirder – or 'self-interested' as Glen more appropriately puts it – ones.

Any decisions around implementing the policy will need to factor in these issues if the initiative is to be seen as credibie – especially to a traditionally hostile media when it comes to anything remotely disintermediating and web-based.

It will be fascinating to see how this policy issue will develop and play out as it's clearly an integral part of the Conservative's plans for parliamentary reform that aims to put citizen
empowerment at its core, e.g. the web-based Public
Reading Stage
for new laws.

Add to this EU plans to introduce a similar petition policy and we could start see a radical political agenda that involves and enfranchises citizens at the core of democracy. But then that might open another debate as to who and how criteria for citizenship are constructed. But I'll save that for another blog post.

MyDavidCameron: some post event analyses

Elvis1

With the buzz about the remixed Conservative Party election posters and Clifford Singer’s MyDavidCameron website a few days old I thought I’d reflect on the debate and offer up some analysis about what might be going on here and what it means for political parties ahead of the election.

But before I can do that I need to jump back to September last year when I discussed Manuel Castell’s theory of networked power and suggested how it could be applied to the UK’s political blogosphere.

In a nutshell, Castells argues that power in networks is fundamentally about the ability to establish and control particular networks.

This can be achieved by one of two ways:

  1. the ability to constitute network(s), and to program/reprogram the network(s) in terms of goals assigned to the network (largely by setting and controlling the way we perceive issues and information)
  2. the ability to connect and ensure cooperation of different networks by sharing common goals and combining resources (i.e. identifying like-minded networks with which you can work to challenge the dominant program)

Castells calls actors in the first mechanism ‘programmers’ and those in the second mechanism, ‘switchers’.

I argued that Conservative and right-wing blogs were successful because they had programmed the UK’s political network by a) adapting early and b) creating a broad anti-government debate which resonated with the media and wider public.

This meant that left and liberal bloggers had to find common issues and threads with each other and the public with which to try and switch the dominant power in the network away from anti-government/right-wing debate.

So what does this tell us about the MyDavidCameron success? Firstly, I think it supports my original hypothesis. That is, Labour have identified a wider – albeit smaller – network outside of the UK political blogosphere with a shared value (mocking David Cameron/the Conservatives and graphic design).

They are then co-opting this network, forming a strategic partnership but letting the idea and content go where it goes, as opposed to trying to centrally plan and control what happens with the David Cameron imagery.

In my opinion, a political party having the foresight and ability to spot an opportunity like this and use it to help try to ‘switch’ the dominant discourse in the political blogosphere is smart.

Yes, there may be those that say: “well, who wouldn’t jump on an opportunity if it arose?” But I’d argue that the traditional approach to this kind of online meme would be to try and own it: take it in-house.*

I think Labour have deliberately avoided doing this, having learnt the lesson from last summer’s #Welovethenhs grassroot campaign that which Labour co-opted, arguably tried to centralise and quickly destroyed the value in the network. Compare how they're currently using a Labour Party version of MyDavidCameron (i.e. becoming another node in the network) versus their mini-campaign site for #Welovethenhs which argubly tries to own the decentralised campaign network.

But thinking logically about the MyDavidCameron campaign: would Labour seeking to ‘own’ the network really kill it in the same way that it killed #Welovethenhs?

I’m not so sure for two reasons:

  1. Firstly, the #Welovethenhs campaign was not a pro-government campaign; nor was it an anti-tory campaign. It was a pro-public healthcare system campaign. It’s an issue that traditionally has a shared value for with liberal/left networks but not solely. Labour arguably killed this campaign as it tried to go further than switching and instead reprogram the networks’ values as pro-government/pro-Labour.
  2. Secondly, network alignment based on shared opposition to David Cameron and/or the Conservatives is one thing, but the reality is that only Labour can defeat the Conservatives at an election. Therefore, Labour trying to reprogram the goal of the networks driving the MyDavidCameron campaign to be pro-Labour is actually a smart move.

What this says to me is that now we’re entering the run up to an election, the political discourse is no longer split broadly between anti-government/right-wing ideology and pro-Government goals (that were largely indistinguishable form Labour policy).

Instead, Labour is starting to reprogram the UK’s political networks through creating a discourse of Conservatives vs Labour. It’s early days and the Conservatives still have the upper hand but I’d argue that the MyDavidCameron campaign plus the recent emergence of distinct left and Labour-aligned voices is starting to re-balance the pro-right-wing goals of the UK’s political networks.

Footnote:
* What this reveals is Labour’s ability to switch between a traditional command and control political party and a node in a fluid, participative network. Something Andrew Chadwick has defined as “organisational hybridity” – the internet driven phenomena that enables organisations and institutions to switch between being member-led hierarchical institutions, single-issue campaign groups or temporary, loosely joined networks of like-minded individuals. I believe this is what political parties of the future will look like: political parties in all but name, But that’s something for another post.