Can think tanks make a difference? That is the question framing a one-day conference at the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI), where I was part of a social media panel chaired by CBC’s Peter Mansbridge. My fellow panelists were Chad Gaffield of SSHRC, Bessma Momani of the University of Waterloo, and Toby Fyfe of Canadian Government Executive.

Together we had a wide-ranging conversation about the impact of social media on the policy environment, and its implications for the role of think tanks. I want to sum up my own thoughts about the issues that were raised, which revolve around six key questions:

1. Does social media compete with think tanks in driving policy change?

As I argued on the panel, the focus on social media’s policy impact misses the most significant part of the phenomenon. Much of the political engagement that occurs through social media is aimed not at policy change, but at policy circumvention. Why try to change a law, influence a politician or even sway government when you can simply effect the outcome you want by organizing online?

We’ve seen the strategy of policy circumvention at work on copyright (DeCSS) and election laws (Tweet the Results), on municipal potholes (See Click Fix) and international development (Kiva). More worryingly, we’ve seen it at work in the case of crowdsourced surveillance in the wake of the Vancouver riots.

Whether you think that policy circumvention is mostly exciting or mostly worrying, there is no question that crowdsourced, DIY, citizen-driven solutions have transformed the process of political change. Policy change is only one category of political change; focusing exclusively on policy thus misses all the other ways that social media is transforming our politics and governance. For think tanks, which have historically focused on policy change, that shift raises a particularly acute set of challenges.

2. Can social media support deep conversation?

Both Bessma Momani and former Prime Minister Kim Campbell raised the question of whether social media can support deep conversation. Bessma argued that the best way to look at online conversation is as a starting point; as she put it, it is easier to agree on overthrowing a dictator than on what to do after. This is where institutions like think tanks and governments have to come in, she argued: figuring out what to do next.

But this sounds a lot like saying, hey kids, you’ve had your revolution, now leave it to the grown-ups to clean up. If we want social media users to engage in serious conversations, we have to take their conversations seriously. When policy elites write off social media as noise, they simply validate the worst online suspicions about the difficulty of influencing formal public decision-making. It’s hard to motivate people to participate in meaningful online conversation when they don’t feel like they will be heard – just as it’s hard to get people out to town hall meetings with agencies that have a track record of disregarding public consultations.

That’s not to so say that every tweet is worthy of being tabled as a report to Parliament. Unquestionably, a lot of social media exchange is pretty lightweight – just like a lot of offline conversation. The key is to distinguish between different types of online engagement:

  • hacks: partisan blogs or tweets from political insiders, there to sell a message
  • soap boxes: one-way rants from people who are outside the political system and just want to have a voice
  • dinner tables: informal, usually civil posts and conversations, but not necessarily very deeply thought or informed
  • think tanks: deep and sustained communities of online conversation, which use the Internet in much the same way that CIGI uses its conference room

Your uncle’s looney tunes dining room table take on the future of the Canadian pensions doesn’t make you give up on political analysis by offline think tanks. Similarly, the presence of a lot of looney tunes online political rants shouldn’t make you give up on the possibility (and occasional reality) of meaningful political conversation online.

3. Can think tanks fill the need for high-quality curation and filtering?

A number of participants argued that the continued relevance of think tanks lies in their ability to rise above the noise. Social media is a major contributor to information overload, so there is a real hunger for quality content, analysis and curation. As Bessma put it, the 100-channel universe has yielded a world in which most content (including news content) is very low-quality; the reason she watches the National is because it’s one of the few consistently high-quality news sources.

No question: if I want to keep up on the major news stories in Canadian politics, the National is the place to go. But with all respect to Peter Mansbridge, the CBC just doesn’t do a great job of covering the state of the art in HTML5, the best way to organize Google+ circles, or the top iPad applications for elementary school kids.

And that is precisely the point: any general interest news source is going to fall short in catering to specific niche interests. But that is where lots of individuals and small organizations do a great job, curating topical twitter lists, industry news stories or must-read blog posts. Think tanks can certainly be useful aggregators and redistributors of selected topical content, but there is no intrinsic reason that a think tank is going to be a better curator than a smart, motivated individual. The need for curation is very real, but it’s a need that can already be filled in many ways.

4. Can think tanks rise above the social media fray by producing higher-quality content?

The Internet has forced the complete reinvention of every industry that is based on content creation: music, newspapers, book publishing, TV. Think tanks are just another example. “Thought leadership” is now the widespread currency of social media: a recent study of business people’s use of social media showed that almost as many used social media to position themselves as experts (46%) as used it to get access to others’ expertise (51%). With all sorts of small companies and consultants producing “white papers” and info graphics to support their claim to thought leadership (often simply as a way of driving web traffic or social media follows), think tanks now have competition.

Yes, a decent economic policy think tank might be smarter than Jimmy’s House of Junk Bonds and Economic Policy Analysis. But is it a thousand times smarter? Because it’s probably ten times slower, and more than a thousand times the cost. The Internet is full of guys like Jimmy, and some of them are pretty insightful, and others have access to interesting sources of information. Bloggers like Jimmy are way faster and more responsive than the average think tank, because whatever Jimmy thinks, Jimmy posts. So when the news says that EU is putting more pressure on Greece, Jimmy has his post up in an hour, whereas a think tank is probably just getting to work on a white paper that will take 3 months.

As long as you have the right mechanisms for identifying the best of the lot (not a small problem, admittedly), Jimmy and his ilk make for pretty solid competitors to what a think tank can produce.

5. What will social media do to evidence-based policy-making?

One of the key themes of this gathering is the value of evidence-based policy, particularly in a world in which governments seem more and more willing to disregard basic science in favor of whatever they can sell to the public. Undoubtedly, the speed at which misinformation spreads online can be an obstacle to evidence-based policy, as we’ve seen in the debunked yet persistent arguments against immunization.

But there is no intrinsic reason evidence-based policy or evidence-driven social change can’t emerge online as well as off. Meetup (which burst into the spotlight with the Dean campaign, but has had a much broader social impact) was evidence about the efficacy of microfinance. Tyze, which we were proud to develop for the PLAN Institute, was based on 20 years’ worth of research and practice in the development of support networks.

It’s worth noting that the PLAN Institute was also one of the key organizations behind the RDSP, which was cited by David Mitchell of the Public Policy Forum as a great example of policy entrepreneurship. Evidence-based approaches can drive online organizing as easily as offline paper-writing: think thanks can champion evidence-based work in both contexts.

6. So how should think tanks approach social media?

Chad Gaffield made a compelling argument that we are in a new digital era, one that is historically discrete from the past two hundred years of modernity. The major dimensions of this age hold the key to how think tanks must engage with social media. As Gaffield enumerated them, these dimensions include the radical broadening of participation in creativity, a new way of thinking about diversity, and an embrace of nonlinear, emergent models of change.

This means think tanks have to revisit the very notion of deep thought as something that has to happen in a “tank”, insulated from the popular fray. On the contrary, think tanks should see an opportunity for expanded relevance in the flowering of multiple modes of political engagement, which include not only online efforts at policy change but also crowdsourced problem-solving and web-enabled policy circumvention.

These are all frontiers with which think tanks can engage – if they are prepared to relax their focus on elite influence. Indeed, even if your ultimate goal is influencing elites to effect policy change, public engagement via social media may still be your most effective strategy. Get a politician to look at your evidence and you might persuade him for a day; get the broader public to engage with your evidence and you can enable a broader conversation and opinion shift that drives lasting policy change.

In concrete terms this means that think tanks need to retool for social media by:

  • Publishing research findings and policy recommendations in shareable forms like info graphics, compelling videos and concise blog posts
  • Monitoring and replying to social media comments in their issue area, showing that they take those conversations seriously
  • Encouraging the Executive Director and all senior researchers to participate in social media conversations on their issue area
  • Convening rigorous innovation challenges
  • Introducing research findings and evidence-based policy recommendations into relevant (evidence-light) online conversations
  • Experimenting with projects that translate their research and recommendations into online tools rather than white papers

    Does that sound like a really different job description than what think tanks do today? It isn’t. Think tanks are, as Chad Gaffield put it, in the job of building a better world. This kind of online engagement is simply what building a better world now looks like.