Illustration depicting politics and social media

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

  • 04 August 2020
  • 29 min listen

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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Episode transcript:

Narrator: Thanks for pressing play on this podcast from the University of Portsmouth. Across this series we’re bringing you world-changing ideas from our researchers, 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 its set to change our world in the near future. Today we’re delving into our democracy and citizenship theme. When was the last time you openly discussed something political on social media?

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.

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

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

Narrator: 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. 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.

Narrator: Dr James Dennis is Senior Lecturer in Political Communication and Journalism. Today, one of his focuses is political communication inn social media and digital news.

James Dennis: I come from, uh, you know, one of the areas of the lowest social mobility in the UK. I didn't really want to go to university, to be honest, but it was my mum who encouraged me to go. As 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.

Narrator: 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 39 Degrees, an activist non-profit that mobilises its mailing list members to come together for group action through petitions, blogging and offline activities such as calling local MPS.

James Dennis: What I'm really interested in is looking at the ways in which people can consume political news. You understand and reflect on it. Discuss political news and how that then relates to the ways in which they participate in political life. Normally, when I start talking about what I do, people with kind of seem to see it as an excuse to spend all of my time looking at Facebook and Twitter, which it partially is. We need to see, you know, in everyday situations, in everyday circumstances, how the Facebook and Twitter impact the way that we learn about news, the way we talk about me with our friends and families and the way in which we participate in public life. So that's the way I try and get it out and inclusive. That includes of all the different ways being part of politics online. So anything from reading a news story to sharing mean all of these things are political acts. And I argue they need to be explored together, not in isolation. If you are analysing things in isolation like petitions or Cambridge Analytica, you know, you're going to get a very skewed perspective of what is a communication medium.

Narrator: 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 being was the Cambridge Analytica scandal of 2018. At this point it was revealed a data consulting firm had misappropriated personal Facebook data to influence the outcomes of election campaigns.

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

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

James Dennis: With this project was particularly interested in comparing the national level, 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 mentioned do the local level have got over 200 groups of another country that do local activism? And I was fascinated to try and see is there a difference between a national level organisation? You hope a little organisation in terms of hardware and social media.

James Dennis: At a 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 momentums aims with an explicit aim of getting more supporters to sign up to become paid members. So it's kind of one of their key goals on national level social media is to get them to 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 or gain people involved in deciding gonne 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 working out, 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 the national level, which. It's 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 lots of political parties, have tried to create funny videos and failed miserably and boxed for it, mocked mercilessly for it.

James Dennis: And the local level organisation and here are focussed on the the Portsmouth Momentum Group. They use a private Facebook group to make decisions collectively. It's much more like a social movement where they have a trauma in their work. 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 that 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 all in alignment with momentums focus at that point at a national level. But it was something that got national level of support for that local level effort.

James Dennis: At a national level, they have their campaigning practices that looks similar to a political party at a local level. They have their campaigning and digital practices 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 organizations do.

Narrator: So what did James conclude were the most crucial elements of engaging individuals all over the country with the political wrangling's of Westminster?

James Dennis: I mean, we know from lots of studies in political engagement that citizens in contemporary politics were much like what we really want to understand why they participate in what was a key factor in extended high threshold participation in 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 dual structure at the local level provides that and people can feel that they're being autonomous and having an impact at the local level. It's still recognised at the national level that trying to contribute to this electoral ambition.

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

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, that 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 and be very passionate about qualitative research and talk to people use use techniques like diaries - which I did in my work - and get a real sense of how the 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.

James Dennis: Any advertiser can use Facebook to target specific demographics. You know, that's not something I think it's ever really been. I mean, it's something that if you work in industry, you know, about this kind of the business model is, yes, that's how they exist. And I'm for political parties advertising. I mean, the conservatives use it very, very effectively in 2015, targeting marginal constituencies with and specific adverts even on Facebook. It's research showing that it has some impacts. It's very hard to say if it was a real cause in those in its victories.

James Dennis: If you remember a campaign a few years ago called Stop Kony or Kony 2012, there was a video went viral on social media and people were very critical of it because it made that kind of claim that by showing the video, you can make a difference. This was the Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony. And once there were huge problems with that campaign. It led to this this idea of slacktivism, which is a kind of progressive term. It's a criticism of the digital engagement online, which really the idea behind it is that these acts that we do online, some in a petition sharing political status update put changing our profile picture to support a cause, had no real impact or influence on politics. And are dangerous because the more that 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 tried and tested forms of activism.

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

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.

Narrator: James went about his research by studying 30 mailing list ‘members’ of the group 38 Degrees. I wondered how this could really represent the politically-engaged British public.

James Dennis: The members 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 card which you normally get as a rank and file member of the party. But instead, 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. What was really quite awkward was how many differences of opinion they were and substantial differences of opinion over really important issues. So LGBTQ rights, environmental issues, there was climate change deniers and yes, climate change and things in the same room as really quiet. As someone who was kind of moderating the event, it's quite a difficult challenge. But in the end of the day, what what kind of united them was that for them? What they all kind of enjoyed about their membership was 38 degrees. Was that it was all on their terms. They could choose the campaigns they want 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.

Narrator: James’s 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 have a voice.

James Dennis: One of the things that I really appreciated was the interview data which helped to illuminate just for a lot of 38 degrees members. These are people that have highly demanding lives, whether it is through a one member I spoke to was in a 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 she was it was like a Democratic short cut. She could have a say on issues. She could mobilize and lobby corporations or lobby the government through the tools, 38 degrees provided. But also as well within that, when the undergraduate students who I spoke to, who, you know, had demanding degrees, also demanding social lives and were trying to fit politics, you know, trying to fit some engagement within that remit. And I think 38 Degrees found them very useful as a way of understanding how their tools can be seen and perceived as kind of these democratic shortcuts to to help people who feel pressured by time.

Narrator: 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.

James Dennis: With 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 willing people, even their members, people who are – some of the members I spoke to have spoken up protests. So they were very highly engaged when it came to politics, even though they were willing to take a day off work worked into a protest. They were unwilling to go into the group's Facebook page to express their political opinions. 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.

James Dennis: 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 is very important because politics impacts everyone in very different ways. We all define politics in very different ways. I want to find through that project was which surprised me and also kind of went against the this idea of slacktivism was that the majority of participants who were recruited I recruited them on the basis that they were they regularly check social media and then 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. Or semi publicly on Facebook because they were worried about the reputational damage or impact someone seen. 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 broadcast news. They might heard on the radio.

Narrator: 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 that there is still a pattern to the way individuals are using social media for political engagement?

James Dennis: There's sometimes a quite lazy assumption 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 of news, but they often can, you know, the way daily existence. You're always going to be exposed to other places, whether that's on TV, whether it's communications with family, etc. And what the diary research really helped to show me was just this process in terms of the similarities, in terms of, yes, there are people that will go to social media first for their news. Yes, there were people that would rely probably on the 10 o'clock 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, you know, watching the news and having a conversation with a loved one or looking at a scene, a Facebook post, a controversial one, they're going to what's up and have any contact, you know, having a message with your best friend. And what I think we've seen over the past, especially with the with the incredibly surprising election of Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Labour Party, is social media being a important political space for young people? Whether that says an important space to consume news, but also I think it's important space to form connections with very kind of niche groups.

Narrator: 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?

James Dennis: I think one of the things that I was most surprised by was that even even amongst those, uh, the most I describe the civic instigators - those who deliberately provoking people on political issues have clear political interest in quite strong issues. And sometimes the kind of political ideologies - even when they were using social media, they would see things that disagree with their views. And I was quite kind of I was over for quite a positive thing to see that people were exposed to these. Obviously all of this is kind of has a little asterisks next to it because it all depends on how Facebook change their algorithm.
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 10 o'clock broadcast? The difficulty with Facebook and Twitter, more, more so Facebook, because of the way that the newsfeed works, is that you have a corporation making decisions about the kind of news content you're seeing.

Narrator: 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 real influence lies. So how can political bodies use this information as a force for good: to better engage with all aspects of society?

James Dennis: One of the kind of ways I've tried to disseminate these findings to organizations is to talk about how they can better integrate, whether it's kind of forums or whether there are challenges with these reforms or better integrate what's up or private forms of communication or have closed group communication as a way of better engaging with their membership. Also as well working with groups that haven't traditionally been very kind of driven by leaders or by elites. I mean, how can a better change to use social media to bring that membership into the group? Yeah. They feel like they're able to be involved in decision making more broadly.
So the next project to start at the moment is looking at in, um, areas with low social mobility. So areas that have had real issues with deprivation, where young people are the least likely to go to university to to kind of break out from whatever kind of class or demographics they are in. How does social media shape and change their politics? So hopefully that there'll be some kind of ways to see how we can use social media to better address some of these issues of inequality.

Narrator: But just as grassroots groups can be a hotbed for democratic discussion, there is a risk that they are used for less productive purposes too.

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 kind of racism, sexism, etc.. And we've seen that in the UK with the with the growth of Britain first, for instance on Facebook. Well, ISIS is very good at using encrypted exactly occasions on social media and so on. And so it's important to them as just as these you know, I'm very optimistic about the kind of everyday opportunities, exhaustion, but that they can be used in negative context as well. I think social media can be really important spark or starting point for political interest.

Narrator: 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 We’d love to hear what you think of the research discussed in this programme, so do get in touch via social media at @SOCIALTAG and shout about this podcast using the hashtag lifesolved.

Narrator: Next time, we’ll be back with the researcher who’s tackling one of our most prevalent and embarrassing conditions thanks to smart analysis and tech.

John Young: The disease overactive bladder starts to become prevalent at age 40, 50, 55, something like that. So, you know, for us, not too far away. But people are in employment and in relationships. They like to travel, to go places. And all those things become really problematic.

Narrator: Make sure you subscribe in your podcast app to get every episode of Life:Solved automatically, and please do tell us what you think with a review and rating, if you get a moment.

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

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