More than 'Slacktivism' - We Dismiss the Power of Politics Online at our Peril

Originally published on The Conversation, as part of the Democracy Futures series

Log on to Facebook or Twitter and you’re likely to see a deluge of political posts – a humorous meme or viral video skewering politicians like Donald Trump, the latest hashtag slogan in response to breaking news, maybe even a social movement symbol as an updated profile picture.

The sharing of political opinion on social media is now ubiquitous. But what does it mean for democracy?

For years, debate has raged about the significance of symbolic, expressive political activity at the level of the everyday citizen.

Critics fear it is simply self-satisfying “slacktivism”. It gives people an easy way to feel they’re contributing to a cause while substituting for more intensive political participation.

Conversely, optimists see a flourishing of civic engagement on the internet that gives people an accessible entry point into politics. If it helps them to develop a sense of political identity and agency, that enables more participation down the line.

These contrasting positions both have merit. Yet are those who take them asking the right questions in the first place?

By evaluating online political expression only in terms of possible impacts on traditional political activity, we risk sidestepping a far more crucial set of issues.

Forget ‘slacktivism’

Myriad organisations and institutions see this citizen-level expression on social media as being far from just a private or personal affair. It is increasingly valued for its aggregate promotional power. The marketing professions know this as electronic word of mouth.

Political groups of all stripes promote social media participation to amplify the reach and credibility of their persuasive messages. Although each individual act of posting, linking, commenting and liking may look insignificant up close, at a macro level they add up to nothing less than the networked spread of ideas.

There is enormous power here for mass persuasion, one viral share at a time. We dismiss this power at our peril.

During the 2016 US presidential election cycle social media soared to new heights of prominence in the political media landscape. It appears we are finally starting to recognise this power for what it is.

For instance, controversy over fake news on sites like Facebook has drawn attention to how peer-to-peer sharing can influence public opinion and even the course of elections (in this case by spreading false and defamatory messages about Hillary Clinton that consolidated her image problems). New research has highlighted how:

… far-right groups develop techniques of ‘attention hacking’ to increase the visibility of their ideas through the strategic use of social media, memes and bots.

The so-called alt-right celebrates its “meme magic” in propagating white nationalist ideology online in service of Trump. The pro-Clinton “Correct the Record” political action committee admits to paying people to post on social media during her primary battle with Bernie Sanders. We are seeing the persuasive value of citizen-level political media coming into sharp focus.

We need to reflect on how we each use this power. That involves thinking through the consequences of what we share online and how it can both strengthen and harm democratic values.

The citizen marketer

Sharing political opinion on social media must be understood in no small part as participation in political marketing. Its practitioners have long circulated persuasive media messages to shape the public mind and influence political outcomes.

This understanding calls for a new kind of media literacy. It requires individuals to acknowledge their own position in circuits of media influence and take seriously their capacity to help shape the flow of political ideas across networks of peers.

We should no longer think of political marketing — or its conceptual forebear, propaganda — as something only powerful elites do. We must recognise that we are all now complicit in this process every time we spread political messages via media platforms that we personally control.

Many citizens are keenly aware of their capacity to persuade their peers through their online posting. They have embraced the role of social media influencer. Most often, they focus on trying to rally the like-minded or undecided, rather than winning over converts from the other side.

This citizen marketer approach to political action can be seen as an outgrowth of the more established concept of the citizen consumer. A citizen consumer deliberately uses their spending power as another way to influence the political sphere.

They may, for instance, buy only environmentally friendly products, or boycott companies whose CEOs donate to campaigns and causes that the consumer opposes. Similarly, we are seeing citizens use their power as micro-level agents of viral media promotion and word-of-mouth endorsement to advance a wide range of political interests and agendas.

There is an enormous opportunity to democratise the flow of political media messages and publicise causes that lie outside the mainstream.

Consider recent activist movements, often built around viral hashtags like #occupywallsteet and #blacklivesmatter. Here, citizens are co-opting the tools and logics of social media marketing to advocate for political ideas that are typically poorly represented in the corporate mass media.

By recognising the potential value of our own grassroots political marketing power, we can gain a foothold in a political media landscape that elite interests traditionally dominated.

Perhaps even more importantly, cultivating a sense of responsibility for what we share on social media puts us in a better position to navigate the emerging digital ecosystem in which these elite actors are capitalising upon — at times even exploiting – our electronic word of mouth.

Know what you are posting, and who you are posting for

Nowadays, major election campaigns and large-scale issue advocacy organisations have professional digital marketing teams. One of their tasks is to spur the promotional labour of everyday citizens to maximise the virality of their messages, whether these people are truly aware of their participation in political marketing or not.

In addition, for-profit political news sites like Breitbart and The Daily Kos have become dependent on social media shares to boost clicks and advertising revenue, as well as to advance their proprietors’ often-partisan agendas.

In this environment, it is crucial that we make informed decisions when we lend our promotional labour and word-of-mouth endorsement to institutional actors and the interests and agendas they represent.

At times we may be eager to act as “brand evangelists” for candidates, parties, advocacy groups or news agencies whose political goals align with our own. At other times developing media literacy might cause us to pause and reflect before we amplify the latest trending political message.

Back in 2013, Facebook users posted a red equal sign as their profile picture to express their support for same-sex marriage. Some had no idea the symbol was the logo of the Human Rights Campaign. This organisation has had a controversial status in the LGBT movement because of its past treatment of transgender issues.

Would these citizens still have posted the image if they knew they were participating in a viral marketing campaign for an organisation that was not universally supported by the LGBT community, and whose message of equality has drawn criticism for emphasising assimilation over radical structural change?

Or would they have chosen instead to amplify an image and an organisation with a different shade of meaning?

These kinds of important conversations can only be opened up if we start to develop a critical literacy of the citizen marketer approach and how it is transforming what it means to be an active participant in our media-dominated, postmodern political reality.

If we see our online political expressions as mere “slacktivism”, a simple private matter, or just having fun with friends, then we become more vulnerable to manipulation by forces that seek to exploit our citizen marketing power to serve agendas that we may not share.

If we become more aware of our position in these circuits of power, we will be better equipped to resist this manipulation.

The Long History of Political Social Media

Originally published on the Oxford University Press blog

One of the key stories of the last US presidential election was the battle of words and images fought by supporters of the candidates on social media, or what one journalist has called “The Great Meme War” of 2016. From hashtag slogans like #FeelTheBern and #MakeAmericaGreatAgain to jokey internet memes like “Nasty Women” and “The Deplorables,” public participation in political advocacy and promotion has reached a fever pitch in the age of networked digital technologies.

After the election ended, this activity has only seemed to intensify with each Trump-related meme of the day, even hour. Citizens are not only following politicians on a range of social media platforms, but are also actively spreading messages of endorsement and opposition by posting and sharing digital content that essentially functions as political advertising. However, although these practices have now reached a level of prominence perhaps never before, they are far from new. Rather, they represent only the latest phase of a long and unheralded tradition of citizen participation in the spread of political messages.

Prior to the advent of online platforms like Twitter and Facebook, participation in the landscape of political communication flourished in the form of material culture—banners, sashes, and ribbons, and eventually more modern items like T-shirts, buttons, and bumper stickers. Back in the nineteenth century, before politicians were able to take advantage of the broadcast airwaves to bring their messages directly to voters, they depended upon their supporters to act as surrogate message carriers at public events such as parades and rallies.

The William Henry Harrison campaign of 1840 was a watershed moment in this participatory election spectacle, as enthusiastic supporters engaged in actions like rolling giant balls made of buckskin through the city covered with campaign slogans like “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too.” Over a century before Twitter, the ‘great meme wars’ of presidential politics were waged in the streets between everyday citizens who filled the public vistas with the messages of their favored parties and candidates.

This tradition diminished in importance in the twentieth century, when political candidates began using radio and eventually television to deliver slickly-produced campaign advertisements without the mediation of surrogate message carriers. However, although formalized mass displays like parade processions eventually became old-fashioned, a more informal tradition of citizen political expression started to build steam in the context of Postwar countercultures. For the hippie generation, political expression became intertwined with cultural self-expression, bringing message-sending and statement-making into the spaces and places of everyday life. Slogan buttons like “Make Love, Not War” became a part of everyday dress and effortlessly broadcasted one’s political beliefs to onlookers while moving through public space.

Around this time, a new ethos was emerging of the individual as a screen for promoting new social identities and worldviews—an alternative, grassroots media channel that set itself in opposition to mainstream media and advertising dominated by the status quo. No one epitomized this more than the hippie icon John Lennon, who made a point of promoting an anti-Vietnam War message in all aspects of his life (such as wearing T-shirts in public adorned with the peace sign). As Lennon remarked, “‘Henry Ford knew how to sell cars by advertising. I’m selling peace at whatever the cost. Yoko and I are just one big advertising campaign.”

This notion of using personalized expressive channels to become an advertisement for favored political messages—what I refer to as the citizen marketer approach to political action—proved to be highly influential in the following decades. By the 1980s, wearing slogan T-shirts to make public political statements had become a notable fashion trend, especially in the form of designer Katharine Hamnett’s famous block-letter environmentalist shirts like “Stop Acid Rain” and “Worldwide Nuclear Ban Now.”

Election campaigns and their supporters embraced the trend as well, and by the 1992 presidential race between Bill Clinton and George H. W. Bush, there were so many election-themed T-shirts in circulation that the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York devoted an entire museum exhibition to it. As curators Richard Martin and Harold Koda put it,

The candidate may throw his or her hat into the ring, but the voter can actively participate as well long before Election Day in sartorial persuasion and expression. There are those who believe that sound bites and media-centric campaigning have displaced the grassroots democracy in which opinions are freely expounded and exchanged neighbor to neighbor. Perhaps the intensity of this year’s T-shirts gives us reason to believe that voters are ready to speak out...

Replace “sartorial” with “social media” and “T-shirts” with “tweets,” and their words sound strikingly familiar. Indeed, they illustrate that the impetus for everyday people to participate in the political media landscape did not originate with the appearance of peer-to-peer digital technologies. Rather, today’s ‘great meme wars’ on the internet descend from long traditions of citizen-level political expression that are grounded in material culture practices such as dress.

Looking at this history of material culture as the predecessor to today’s social media helps contextualize many of the current debates and controversies around online political expression. For instance, in the 1980s, slogan T-shirts like Hamnett’s were a frequent target of derision for seemingly dumbing down political discourse—a preview of the ‘slacktivism’ critique of political social media that frames it as empty and lacking in substance. By contrast, during the same decade, the ruling party in apartheid South Africa banned the public display of T-shirts featuring the symbol of Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress. Such an action demonstrates the feared persuasive power of grassroots citizen media, foreshadowing the current wave of governments around the world shutting down internet access and blocking social media sites to quell oppositional voices.

Like their material cultural forbearers, tweets, memes, and viral videos have the potential to shape the flow of political ideas, one citizen at a time—even as they draw from repertoires of cultural expression that often clash with the norms of elite political discourse.

Introducing The Citizen Marketer

From hashtag activism to the flood of political memes on social media, the landscape of political communication is being transformed by the grassroots circulation of opinion on digital platforms and beyond. By exploring how everyday people assist in the promotion of political media messages to persuade their peers and shape the public mind, Joel Penney offers a new framework for understanding the phenomenon of viral political communication: the citizen marketer. Like the citizen consumer, the citizen marketer is guided by the logics of marketing practice, but, rather than being passive, actively circulates persuasive media to advance political interests. Such practices include using protest symbols in social media profile pictures, strategically tweeting links to news articles to raise awareness about select issues, sharing politically-charged internet memes and viral videos, and displaying mass-produced T-shirts, buttons, and bumper stickers that promote a favored electoral candidate or cause. Citizens view their participation in such activities not only in terms of how it may shape or influence outcomes, but as a statement of their own identity. As the book argues, these practices signal an important shift in how political participation is conceptualized and performed in advanced capitalist democratic societies, as they casually inject political ideas into the everyday spaces and places of popular culture.

While marketing is considered a dirty word in certain critical circles -- particularly among segments of the left that have identified neoliberal market logics and consumer capitalist structures as a major focus of political struggle -- some of these very critics have determined that the most effective way to push back against the forces of neoliberal capitalism is to co-opt its own marketing and advertising techniques to spread counter-hegemonic ideas to the public. Accordingly, this book argues that the citizen marketer approach to political action is much broader than any one ideological constituency or bloc. Rather, it is a means of promoting a wide range of political ideas, including those that are broadly critical of elite uses of marketing in consumer capitalist societies. The book includes an extensive historical treatment of citizen-level political promotion in modern democratic societies, connecting contemporary digital practices to both the 19th century tradition of mass political spectacle as well as more informal, culturally-situated forms of political expression that emerge from postwar countercultures. By investigating the logics and motivations behind the citizen marketer approach, as well as how it has developed in response to key social, cultural, and technological changes, Penney charts the evolution of activism in an age of mediatized politics, promotional culture, and viral circulation.