What does social media mean for our politics?
Our Senior Lecturer in Political Communication and Journalism, Dr James Dennis, is exploring how digital politics really works
Dr James Dennis is a Senior Lecturer in Political Communication and Journalism at the University. During England’s summer of unrest in 2011 – when thousands rioted on the streets – James was doing his PhD.
"I was the first in my family to go to university. I come from one of the areas of lowest social mobility in the UK," he says.
"I think for a lot of people from low social mobility backgrounds, when you get to university you have the opportunity to find the issues and subjects that drive you. For me that was social media and politics, and youth engagement, and the way in which it enables people to connect on very specific issues.
"[During] the student protests in London, you had occupations in universities around the country. I saw people very quickly using digital tools to mobilise physically and have real impact – whether it’s on university-level decisions at a campus, or protesting against changes to tuition fees. That captured my interest and led me down this path of research."
Today, James specialises in political communication, with a focus on social media and digital news. His research also explores political participation, British citizenship and identity.
James’ research has revealed a gap in the centre of popular discussions around social media and politics:
"On one hand are people who see social media as a democratising force, transforming the way we do politics into a more direct form of democracy," he says. "On the flipside, we see dystopian accounts of how social media is potentially impacting democracy in negative ways.
"While both arguments have some credibility, what I articulate through my work is that we need to see, in everyday situations, how social media impact the way we learn about news, the way we talk about news, and the way in which we participate in political life.
"This includes all the different ways we encounter politics online – from reading a news story to sharing a meme. All of these things are political acts, and I argue they need to be explored together, not in isolation. If you analyse things in isolation, like e-petitions or Cambridge Analytica, you get a very skewed perspective of these communication media."
When it comes to social media and politics, James describes himself as ‘a cautious optimist.’ One of his major research projects centres on the campaigning group, 38 Degrees. You may have signed one of their online petitions.
James took an anthropological approach, observing the group for three months in their office, to understand how they integrate social media into their campaigns.
He then travelled up and down the UK talking to members, seeking to understand whether their engagement goes beyond just signing an e-petition, and to explore how signing might subsequently impact their views of the given issue.
James’ first book, Beyond Slacktivism, challenges the term “slacktivist” – a pejorative noun for a person who engages with socio-political issues digitally.
The core idea of slacktivism is that online acts, such as signing an e-petition or changing a profile picture to support a cause, have no real impact. What’s more, they are dangerous – because the more fulfilled people feel by doing these things, the less likely they are to get involved in ‘real’ activism, such as street protests or writing to their MP.
James says: "I reject this approach of focusing on a specific campaign in isolation, and instead look at participation and engagement as a process.
"I looked at how e-petitions and the use of Facebook and Twitter fit within 38 Degrees’ campaign process. I found that the way they use social media is to get easy feedback from their members in a very quick, time-efficient manner.
"They’ll use the number of likes and shares to understand what their members feel about an issue, and whether they should campaign on it.
"Going beyond that, during a campaign to compel a utility company to pay more corporation tax, they offered their members a list of different tactics, asked for suggestions, and used this as a way of sharing influence down from the leadership to the members."
James got a surprise when he invited members to come together and talk about their campaigns:
"I found there were many, substantial differences of opinion, over really important issues – from LGBTQ rights, to environmental issues.
"There were climate change campaigners and deniers in the same room, but what united them was that they all enjoyed that their membership was on their terms.
"They could choose the campaigns they wanted to be involved with, and felt they could have some kind of tangible influence over the decisions made."
James’ interview data revealed that a lot of 38 Degrees members have highly-demanding lives – such as the 60-something lady who doesn’t have time to be as politically-engaged as she used to be, because she is now her husband’s carer:
"She really valued 38 Degrees because it was like a democratic shortcut to have her say on issues, and lobby corporations and the Government through the tools they provided."
In James’ view, findings like these flag up a problem with traditional political science:
"We tend to deem good citizens to be those who devote the most time to politics. But I argue that one of the end goals of politics is to reach a point where citizens are happy and fulfilled and able to have interests outside of politics. It’s strange then to criticise people who have very busy work and social lives and are trying to remain engaged."
Some highly engaged activists on the British left are members of the political organisation, Momentum. Forged from the campaign that helped Jeremy Corbyn secure the Labour Party leadership in 2015, Momentum was described – by former Labour MP Chuka Umunna – as ‘a party within a party, posing as a movement.'
James took that quote as the title for an article in the Journal of Information Technology & Politics. This detailed his research into how Momentum uses social media in campaigning activity.
In the aftermath of the 2017 UK general election, which saw a surprise turnaround in Labour’s fortunes at the ballot box after months of dismal polling, Momentum was viewed as ‘a key innovator in digital campaigning,’ James explains.
"Momentum’s innovation was viral video and organic sharing, encouraging activists to amplify messages."
James scraped Facebook and Twitter content from Momentum for analysis. He also interviewed a number of paid Momentum staff, as well as volunteer supporters and members in Portsmouth.
Supporters and members all said how important those viral videos were in engaging them in the organisation; encouraging them to amplify key messages and get others involved; and creating their sense of collective identity.
Allied to – but not part of – a political party, Momentum occupies an interesting space, without the reputational pressures of a party. This frees it to embrace humour and irony in an authentic way.
A key tactic is to share clips where Momentum itself is criticised by mainstream political figures, as a provocative way of demonstrating its own importance and effectiveness (in the eyes of members and supporters).
But James noticed an interesting disconnect:
"What fascinated me was that they claim to be a people-powered movement, but their campaign techniques don’t enable members to have a say in key strategic decisions about what messages and policies they prioritise.
"While groups like 38 Degrees use surveys and the number of likes and shares of a video to determine what members think and feel, there was very little evidence of those analytics being used to support decisions taken by the central Momentum organisation. It felt very much like what academics describe as 'controlled interactivity'.
"Put simply, communication officers use social media to set specific tasks for members and supporters, who, in turn, spread the word by sharing centrally-created content.
"There is occasional push back from members – for example, some were unhappy at a slate of Momentum-endorsed candidates for internal Labour Party elections being determined without consultation. But generally, there is an acceptance that ‘in order to win an election campaign it’s sometimes not strategic to have a large presence of members taking decisions."
James identified a key way in which these tensions are eased and, typically, overcome:
"The trade-off is that local level organising allows much more autonomy.
"While at the national level, Momentum is a well-oiled and professional, social media-savvy machine, disseminating key strategic messages, its network of around 150 local groups are free to determine and run their own campaigns and activities.
"You’ve got leader-driven campaigning orchestrated by a core team of employed communication workers. But at the local level you’ve got this member led, movement based structure where social media is used to underpin the decision making process.
"This kind of hybridity is something we’ve not seen many organisations do. I saw in interviews that the local level engagement allows them to be comfortable with what happens at the national level."
James spent time observing the Portsmouth Momentum group, which uses a private Facebook group to determine its own campaigning activities. For instance, they organised a vigil for Grenfell a year after the tower block fire took place. That was not Momentum’s national focus at the time – it was initiated and run by local members. But it then gained national support.
The local group is open to collaborative campaigning, and less strategic about securing name recognition for Momentum itself – an example being their campaigning work around Universal Credit, delivered alongside local trade unions.
Right now, Momentum uses social media effectively to operate in two different, but fundamentally aligned, ways. James notes challenges are likely to arise if Labour form a majority government, as it would prove difficult to give the grassroots a meaningful say in policy decisions.
But Momentum have a voice and they’re unlikely to stop using it, no matter who asks.
James is ‘cautiously optimistic about the democratic shortcuts’ social media can provide. His caution is based on observable phenomena:
"Yes, you can form connections with politically engaged people on social media, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be able to change policy – or that all these connections will be for good."
He cites recent examples, including how the ‘alt-right’ use 4chan to drum up support for far right causes in the USA, and how Britain First used meme-sharing on Facebook in an attempt to normalise far right views in the UK.
Ultimately, James feels it is vital to engage with marginalised groups:
"I get a lot out of amplifying voices of people whose perspectives you wouldn’t otherwise hear. My next project looks in areas of low social mobility, with issues of deprivation, where young people are the least likely to go to university, to find out how social media shapes their politics."
James hopes this new project will reveal ways in which social media could be used to address issues of inequality. Once again, he’s sure to find some surprises by exploring research areas where traditional political science may not venture.