LifeSolved Episode 2

Dr James Dennis explores how political behaviour is changing in the digital age

29 min listen

External Audio

Episode 2: How Politics Became Social

From the Cambridge Analytica scandal, to protests in response to the death of George Floyd, Dr James Dennis explores how social media is a gateway and amplifier to learning, engagement and civil participation in politics. Find out how political behaviour is changing in the digital age and how social media can be used as a force for change.

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But what I was surprised to find was that the vast majority didn't share or express their political views online, publicly or semi-publicly on Facebook because they were worried about the reputational damage.

Dr James Dennis, Senior Lecturer in Political Communication and Journalism

Episode transcript:

Anna Rose: Thanks for pressing play on this podcast from the University of Portsmouth. Across this series, we're bringing you world-changing ideas from our researches. Whether you're curious about nature and ecology, technology, security or health. In Life Solved, we're seeking out cutting edge research and asking the big questions about how it's set to change our world in the near future.

Anna Rose: Today, we're delving into our democracy and citizenship theme. When was the last time you openly discussed something political on social media?

Dr James Dennis: But what I was surprised to find was that the vast majority didn't share or express their political views online, publicly. Or semi-publicly on Facebook because they were worried about the reputational damage or impact of someone seeing that.

Anna Rose: One researcher has been exploring how our political behaviour is evolving in the digital age.

Dr James Dennis: We've seen very kind of dystopian accounts of how social media is potentially controlling or impacting democracy in negative ways.

Anna Rose: After big media scandals and bids of transparency by social media platforms, it looks like the ways in which we acquire information and interact politically online have become more nuanced. And it's an ever-changing landscape as elections, local and world events come and go and our preferred platforms rise and fall.

Anna Rose: Today, John Worsey is going to be finding out what online activism looks like in the present day and how politics and social media go hand in hand.

Anna Rose: Dr James Dennis is Senior Lecturer in Political Communication and Journalism. One of his focuses is political communication in social media and digital news.

Dr James Dennis: So I was doing my PhD, you had the student protests in London, you had occupations up and down universities around the country. You saw people very quickly -- quickly using digital tools to mobilise physically and have real impact.

Anna Rose: James's research has stretched to the analysis of political content from groups such as Momentum, the left-wing grassroots movement. He's also looked at lobbying bodies such as 38 Degrees, an activist non-profit that mobilises its mailing list members to come together for group actions through petitions, blogging and offline activities such as calling local MPs.

Dr James Dennis: So what I'm really interested in is looking at the ways in which people can consume political news, understand and reflect on it, discuss political news and how that then relates to the ways in which they participate in political life.

John Worsey: OK.

Dr James Dennis: Normally when I start talking about what I do, people kind of seem to see it as an excuse to spend all of my time looking at Facebook and Twitter – which it partially is. But we need to see, you know, in everyday situations, in everyday circumstances, how do Facebook and Twitter impact the way that we learn about news, the way we talk about it with our friends and families, and the way in which we participate in public and political life.

John Worsey: Yeah.

Dr James Dennis: So that's the way I was trying to get at it. I mean, inclusive-- that includes all the different ways they encounter politics online. So anything 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 petitions or Cambridge Analytica, you're going to get a very skewed perspective in what is a communication medium.

Anna Rose: Revelations in recent years have given political manipulation of social media a bad press. The public are now sceptical around who is controlling the information we see and the emotions it provokes in us. A famous example was the Cambridge Analytica scandal of 2018. It was revealed a data consulting firm had misappropriated personal Facebook data to influence the outcome of election campaigns.

Dr James Dennis: On the one hand, there are people that, especially a few years ago, kind of saw social media as being this democratising force, everyone's going to be able to lobby and contact their politicians. On the flip side, especially in the last year, we've seen very, kind of, dystopian accounts of how social media is potentially controlling or impacting democracy in negative ways.

Anna Rose: James studied the activities of Momentum, a grassroots movement supporting the Labour Party. He found that its engagement operated on distinct levels.

Dr James Dennis: With this project, I was particularly interested in comparing the national level and what Momentum do in terms of their-- they have a, like, a team of paid communication officers that work on their social media strategy, but also what Momentum do at the local level. They've got two hundred groups up and down the country that do local activism. And I was fascinated to try and see, is there a difference between a national level organisation, the local-level organisation in terms of how they operate and social media?

Dr James Dennis: So the national level, there was lots of evidence of controlled interactivity. The group shares lots of-- firstly they share lots of news stories that relate to Momentum's aims with an explicit aim of getting more supporters to sign up to become paid members. So that's kind of one of the key goals on national level social media is to get and sign up to get more money into the organisation. Secondly, they have -- rather than kind of asking for people to make suggestions on what that campaign focus should be or getting people involved in deciding on candidates for internal Labour Party elections, they instructed their membership to complete specific acts. So it's very much like, go do this for us, this will help us achieve our goals. And in the context of the time period I was looking at, this was vote for these candidates in internal Labour Party elections. So members and supporters had no influence on choosing that slate of candidates, that list of candidates. They were just told to vote for these specific candidates. And the third key thing that I noticed on a national level, which is something that is quite innovative in the context of organisational politics, is that their ability to create very funny viral video in a kind of authentic organic way compared to, you know, lots of political parties have tried to create funny videos and failed miserably and were mocked for it, mocked mercilessly for it. At the local level organisation, and here I focussed on the Portsmouth Momentum Group.

John Worsey: Yeah.

Dr James Dennis: They use a private Facebook group to make decisions collectively. It's much more like a social movement where they'll have conversations on the Facebook group which overlap with their face to face conversations that they have in their regular meetings. But ultimately, the issues that they prioritise, the campaigns that they start, the way in which they target their communication is all decided by members. For instance, they organised a vigil for Grenfell a year after -- year after Grenfell had taken place, and that was not at all in alignment with Momentum's focus at that point at the national level, but it was something that got national-level support for that local level effort. At the national level, they have the campaigning practises that look similar to a political party. At a local level, they have the campaigning and digital practises that look like a social movement. And that's a really interesting blend of different styles and practices. And this kind of hybridity of these two different styles is something we've not really seen many organisations do.

Anna Rose: So what did James conclude for the most crucial elements of engaging individuals all over the country with the political wranglings of Westminster?

Dr James Dennis: We know from lots of studies on political engagement that citizens in contemporary politics were much like what we want to understand why they participate and what is a key factor in extended high threshold participation is efficacy. People want to see value from their actions. They want to see how they are individually contributing to the cause that they're passionate about. And Momentum having this jaw structure at the local level provides that. And people can feel that they're being autonomous and having an impact at the local level yet still recognise at the national level they're trying to contribute to this electoral ambition.

Anna Rose: So is social media good or bad for our democratic freedoms?

Dr James Dennis: We get very caught up in the sensationalism of Cambridge Analytica and we get very caught up in the sensationalism of, you know, the Facebook revolution. And it was Facebook that led to the collapse of regimes in the 2010-2011 period in Egypt, Tunisia, etc. But really what we need to do as researchers is to engage in, I'm very passionate about qualitative research, talk to people, use techniques like diaries – which appears in my work – and get a real sense of how do people on the ground in everyday life experience social media and politics and then understand how these tools are impacting these processes rather than just judging it on single cases.

Dr James Dennis: Any advertiser can use Facebook to target specific demographics, and that's not something I think that's ever really been... I mean, it's something that if you work in industry you know about this as kind of...

John Worsey: Well it's a business model, isn't it? That's how -- that's how they exist.

Dr James Dennis: Exactly. But for political parties, advertising, I mean, the Conservatives used it very, very effectively in 2015, targeting marginal constituencies with specific adverts using Facebook and research has shown that it had some impact. It's very hard to say if it was a, you know, real cause in its victories. But, I don't know if you remember a campaign a few years ago called Stop Kony or Kony 2012, there was a video that went viral on social media. And people were very critical of it because it made the kind of claim by sharing a video, you can make a difference.

John Worsey: This was the Ugandan warlord?

Dr James Dennis: Yeah, the warlord Joseph Kony. And whilst there were huge problems with that campaign, it led to this idea of slacktivism, which is a kind of prerogative term, it's a criticism of digital engagement online. The idea behind it is that these acts that we do online, signing new petitions, sharing political status update, changing our profile picture to support a cause, have no real impact or influence on politics and are dangerous, because the more the people do them and feel fulfilled by doing them, the less inclined they are to go into the streets to protest or to contact their MP. It replaces kind of tried and tested forms of activism.

Anna Rose: So is using social media as a news source really a lazy or unreliable way of engaging with news or political thought?

Dr James Dennis: Slacktivism would say, you know, the reason people start to share a video or petition is because they want to look like they care about an issue to their friends, not because they have genuine interest in an issue.

Anna Rose: James went about his research by studying 30 mailing list members of the group, 38 Degrees. He wondered how this could really represent the politically engaged British public.

Dr James Dennis: The members that I spoke to did not look at all like the members that you would associate with a political party. They don't carry a formal political -- a formal card which is what you normally get as a rank and file member of a party. And what was quite interesting, actually, with 38 Degrees is I did a number of members meals where I asked members to come for a meal, which I paid for, we all sat down we spoke about the campaigns they were involved in. And what was really quite awkward was how many differences of opinion there were, and substantial differences of opinion, over really important issues. So LGBTQ rights, environmental issues, there were climate change deniers and climate change enthusiasts.

John Worsey: Wow!

Dr James Dennis: They're In the same room. It was really quite a – as someone who was kind of moderating the events – quite a difficult challenge. But at the end of the day, what was kind of united them was that, for them, what they all kind of enjoyed about their membership of 38 Degrees was that it was all on their terms. They could choose the campaigns they wanted to be involved with. They could -- and then for those campaigns, they felt that they could have some kind of tangible influence over the decisions that are made within the campaign.

Anna Rose: James' interviews also ended up having a secondary benefit. To show how digital campaign groups, such as 38 Degrees, were allowing time-poor people to continue to engage with politics and to have a voice.

Dr James Dennis: One of the things I think they really appreciated was the interview data, which helped to illuminate just, you know, for a lot of 38 Degrees members, these are people that have highly demanding lives, whether it's through... You know, one member I spoke to was in her 60s caring for a husband and just didn't have the time to be as politically engaged as she used to be. And therefore, she really valued 38 Degrees because it was -- it was like a Democratic shortcut for her. She could have a say on issues, she could mobilise and lobby corporations or lobby the government through the tools 38 Degrees provided. But also as well within that there were undergraduate students who I spoke to, who, you know, had demanding degrees, also demanding social issues and were trying to fit politics, you know, to try and fit some engagement within that arena. And I think 38 Degrees found that very useful as a way of understanding how their tools can be seen and perceived as kind of these democratic shortcuts to help people who feel pressured by time.

Anna Rose: James set out to explore just how much the politically engaged were interacting with public social media as a campaign device. The results were surprising.

Dr James Dennis: 38 Degrees work, it's trying to help non-governmental organisations, charities and civil society groups better understand how to communicate with their members. And I think one of the things that surprised 38 Degrees was just how unwilling people were, even their members, people who are, you know, some of the members I spoke to, I spoke to them at protests. So they were very high-- highly engaged when it came to politics. And even though they were willing to take a day off work to come to a protest, they were unwilling to go onto the group's Facebook page to express their political opinions.

John Worsey: Right.

Dr James Dennis: I got 30 people to fill out a diary each week to reflect upon how they consume news, where they access it, how they talk about politics and how social media fits into that. So it was a very qualitative piece of work and people were kind of free to write and reflect in their own words, which is something that I think is very important because politics impacts everyone in very different ways and we all define politics in very different ways. And what I found through that project was – which surprised me and also kind of went against this idea of slacktivism – was that the majority of participants who were recruited, I recruited them on the basis that they were -- they regularly checked social media and they had some level of interest in politics, but what I was surprised to find was that the vast majority didn't share or express their political views online, publicly.

John Worsey: Right.

Dr James Dennis: Or semi-publicly on Facebook because they were worried about their reputational damage or impact on someone seeing that. Instead what they would do is use Facebook Messenger, use WhatsApp, these kind of semi-public or private forms of communication to reflect and discuss political news items that they may have seen on social media, they might see on the news, they might have heard on the radio.

Anna Rose: So people aren't as willing to publicly share their political opinions as freely as we previously thought. But that doesn't mean they're not using digital channels to participate in politics in a more private manner. Could this mean there is still a pattern to the way individuals are using social media for political engagement?

Dr James Dennis: There's sometimes are quite lazy assumptions that people who use social media as their primary source of news, sometimes that's equated to it's their only source of news, which really isn't the case, that, yes, you might have younger cohorts of individuals that rely on Facebook and Twitter for their main port news, but they're often, you know, the way daily existence, you're always going to be exposed to new in other places. Whether that is on TV, whether it's communications with family, etc. And what the diary research really helps to show me was just this process in terms of the similarities, in terms of, yes, there are people that would have to go to social media first for their news. Yes, there were people that would rely promptly on the 10:00 news broadcast on the BBC. But the kind of reflective process that these sets of citizens take is remarkably similar. You know, in terms of watching the news and having a conversation with a loved one or looking at -- seeing a Facebook post, a controversial one, then going to WhatsApp and having a contact -- having a message with your best friend.

John Worsey: Yeah.

Dr James Dennis: It's remarkably similar these processes are. And what I think we've seen with the incredibly surprising election of Jeremy Corbyn to leader of the Labour Party, is social media being an important political space for young people, whether that's as important space to consume news, but also I think it's important space to form Connexions with very kind of niche groups.

Anna Rose: So in terms of Facebook and social media, can users really trust themselves to choose whether they are influenced by ads or politically motivated content?

Dr James Dennis: I think one of the things that I was most surprised by was that even the most, what I described as civic instigators, those who were deliberately provoking people on political issues, have a clear political interest in quite strong issues and sometimes kind of political ideologies. Even when they were using social media, they would see things that disagree with their views. And that was quite kind of -- I was, you know, I thought that was quite a positive thing to see that people were exposed to these opinions and content that differs from theirs. Obviously, all of this is kind of has a little asterisk next to it because it all depends on how Facebook changed their algorithm. It constantly changes. So one of the kind of negative things that this area is that traditionally gatekeepers, those that kind of decide what news you see, would be journalists or editors. They would be the ones making the decisions on what goes on your front page, what is the ordering of the stories you're going to see in the 10:00 broadcast. The difficulty with Facebook and Twitter, more so Facebook because of the way that the news feed works, is that you have a corporation making decisions about the kind of news content you're seeing.

Anna Rose: As technology evolves, so too does our behaviour it seems. People are finding more private ways to create political discourse. And perhaps this is where the real influence lies. So how can political bodies use this information as a force for good to better engage with all aspects of society?

Dr James Dennis: One of the kind of ways I've tried to kind of disseminate these findings to help these organisations is to talk about how they can better integrate, whether it's forums – although there are challenges with using forums – or better integrate WhatsApp or private forms of communication or closed group communication as a way of better engaging with their membership. Also, as well, working with groups that haven't, you know, have traditionally been very kind of driven by leaders or by elites. And how can they better change-- use social media to bring their membership into the room?

Dr James Dennis:

John Worsey: Yeah.

Dr James Dennis: So that they feel like they're able to be involved in decision making. So the next project that I'm just starting at the moment is looking at in areas with low social mobility, so areas that have had real issues with deprivation and where young people are the least likely to go to university to kind of break out from whatever kind of class or demographics they are in, how does social media shape and change their politics? Because, hopefully, there'll be some kind of ways to see how we can use social media to better address some of these issues of inequality.

Anna Rose: But just as grassroots groups can be a hotbed for Democratic discussion, there is a risk that they're used for less productive purposes too.

Dr James Dennis: Just as these tools can link people around very niche important causes like LGBTQ rights, they can also link people around issues such as racism, sexism, etc. And we've seen that in the UK with, you know, with the growth of Britain First, for instance, on Facebook.

John Worsey: Well, ISIS are very good at using encrypted online communication.

Dr James Dennis: Exactly, yeah.

John Worsey: On their social media and so on.

Dr James Dennis: So it's important to remember that just as these, you know, I'm very optimistic about the kind of everyday opportunities, it's also trying to remember that they can be used in negative context as well. I think social media can be a really important spark or starting point for political interest.

Dr James Dennis: After our interview with James was recorded, The World saw a series of events take place that would add to the discourse on how information is shared, disseminated and used. On the 25 May 2020, a black man called George Floyd was murdered by a Minnesota police officer using excessive force whilst under arrest. This incident of police brutality sparked protest across the United States and around the world. The event led to conversation in the Black Lives Matter movement. In addition to public gatherings and physical acts of solidarity, there was a strong reaction on social media. James explained how simple behaviours on social media acted as a springboard to further engagement within the issues involved.

Dr James Dennis: The kind of case study that fits very much with my research area was this -- this example that happened after the killing of George Floyd – Blackout Tuesday. This was formed by, initially by people involved in the music industry where they encouraged people to change their profile pictures on social media, but also post images on the social media of a black square to symbolise support with the on the ground protests around the United States and around the world in relation to police brutality and the killing of George Floyd. Now, what's interesting is whenever it's, you know, I started research on my book originally as a PhD back in 2011. And since then, there was Stop Kony, there was 'bring back our girls'. It seems every few years there is a kind of a case of activism or a hashtag on social media that really brings back this slacktivist critique, the idea that you know, if you change your profile picture or post a status or sign an e-petition, you're not going to have any real meaningful impact on politics.

Dr James Dennis: And interestingly, with Blackout Tuesday, what you saw was some similar critiques came up, some of them very valid, some of them, I think, problematic. Some of the more valid ones, for instance, that you saw was around how people were sharing these black images to the Black Lives Matters hashtag. Now, that is-- was problematic because people were using that hashtag to share operational kind of on the ground help and support to people who were directly involved within the protests globally. You also saw people kind of amplifying and discussing how this potentially might not be the best form of solidarity with the movement. Just posting a black square, what does it actually add to our debate and our understanding? And you also saw these kind of critiques of slacktivism in the sense of it's a lazy form of engagement, it's an easy way out. If you do that and then don't go out and protest, then what are you really helping kind of contributing to the cause?

Dr James Dennis: What I think is interesting, and I saw this with the example of Stop Kony in 2012, and then you kind of see this with a lot of petition campaigns, is that these moments act as kind of important points of learning for people. And it's not even just the act of sharing the image, but also the critique itself. So in the debates and the critique around the image that we saw on social media, we saw people sharing evidence of readings of great accounts from black activists who you could follow and learn from, whether it's, you know, understanding kind of modes of speech or understanding systemic racism in terms of our behaviour in attitudes. This kind of acted as a learning opportunity. And kind of one of the core problems with slacktivism and focussing on these kind of low threshold, seemingly easy acts is that we focus on them in isolation. We don't see how the act complements other forms of offline or the forms of online activity, how it's part of a set of participation that overlap and interact with each other. We also ignore as well what happens before and after these acts of kind of micro activism online. So, for instance, a little bit of an anecdote, but my niece, who's just turned 15, she was involved in this. And since she shared the image, she's been sharing Instagram stories, she's been sharing posts on Facebook, you know sharing readings, sharing activist accounts. It was kind of a sparking point for her to become more interested, involved in the movement itself. And I think when we look at this as a process, we can see some of the benefits that these campaigns have in terms of people's understanding and engagement.

Dr James Dennis: For people that are interested in digital campaigning by Black Lives Matter, there's great research conducted by Dean Freelon, Charlton McIlwain and Meredith Clark, who looked into Black Lives Matter in detail. And what they found is that by interviewing activists, their main purpose wasn't to necessarily even force some kind of high-level change in terms of behaviour, but it was more about challenging and trying to influence people's attitudes. So they highlighted education as being a key part of their reason why they wanted to kind of mobilise and share content online. And I think here if you look at the evidence from Black Lives Matter recently in the killing of George Floyd, you've seen large scale evidence of amplification of marginalised voices, you've seen lots of evidence of people sharing educational resources in relation to -- in relation to the killing, in relation to people's behaviour and attitudes.

Anna Rose: During the coronavirus pandemic, when the UK was in a state of lockdown, it was revealed that a senior government adviser had breached guidelines and broken the law. James was interested by the spread of reaction and the reporting of information across social media.

Dr James Dennis: The reactions to Dominic Cummings breaking the lockdown in terms of the journey of the Durham, followed by then visiting Barnard Castle to test his eyesight, in terms of public reaction on social media. But social media was really interesting with this example because, yes, we did see a clear divide in terms of whether or not you're a supporter of either the Conservative Party or the Labour Party, but also a divide in terms of supporting and leaving the European Union. There was some element of divide in terms of whether or not you would support or condone Dominic Cumming's actions. But it wasn't as clear as I think a lot of people expected. What we often saw on social media in relation to this was, you know, one of the most kind of active areas of political discussion at the moment on social media is local groups, whether it's like, you know, 'spotted in your city', kind of local discussion groups. And here we saw people, it wasn't really through the frame of politics necessarily, but through the frame of kind of personal experience. What would I do in this situation? What have I been through during the lockdown? And comparing personal circumstances as a kind of way of judging and deciding whether or not what Dominic Cummings did was appropriate?

Dr James Dennis: A lot of it was very personal in terms of people sharing and disclosing what they've been through and comparing it to Dominic Cummings in order to make a judgement on kind of what happened. We also saw, interestingly, it was someone online on social media, not a journalist, that discovered they used a tool called Wayback Internet Archive, Wayback Machine, to understand and show that the claim that Dominic Cummings had made, that he had warned about Coronavirus Pandemic's in a blog post previous to his claims, was actually had been edited in April, which kind of disclaimed already one of the claims he'd made during his press conference. And again, so it's interesting we see how, you know, this is just a member of the public responding to a press conference. And that contribution is then amplified by the press, is amplified by politicians. And it's a great way of showing how social media enables and allows the public in some circumstances to disrupt news cycles and to have a role and influence over the way that the story is told.

Anna Rose: Thanks for listening to this episode of Life Solved from the University of Portsmouth and thanks to James for sharing his findings. You can find out more about his work at

Anna Rose: We'd love to hear what you think of the research discussed in this programme. So do get in touch via social media and shout about this podcast using the hashtag Life Solved.

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