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: 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 cal

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