Can social media catalyze or support political change? To answer that question, you have to understand who is asking, and what they really want to know.

And it’s the fundamental question we addressed today in a panel on social media and political activism at Meshwest Vancouver. I’ve been part of a couple of similar panels recently, one hosted by UBC Journalism, the other at the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI). What strikes me about each of these conversations, as well as in reading articles or online conversations about this topic, is how often we are talking at cross-purposes.

Even people who might reasonably be considered “experts” in online politics and activism approach the topic from radically different perspectives, different not (just) in their left-right orientation but in the way they understand the question. These differences can enrich the conversation about online politics, but only if they can actually converge on a common conversation. Too often, we end up conversing in parallel, using the same terms but meaning such different things that we can’t really understand one another. So let me share what I observe to be the intersecting but very different agendas and frameworks that inform how people approach the topic of online activism.

  1. Policy makers, including both public servants and politicians, want to understand how to weight, respond to, harness or control the online pressures for policy change. They are often eager to fit the phenomenon of online engagement into established, well-understood channels of public engagement, so that they have a template for how to respond: e-mails are treated like letters (but may be taken a little less seriously); online policy consultations are structured like paper surveys or town hall meetings. Channels that don’t correspond to traditional channels, like Facebook or Twitter, leave policy-makers more perplexed, so they want to know how social media participation reflects the intensity of political preferences (if I “like” the page of a given issue campaign, am I really invested in that issue as a voter?) and what kind of formal response, if any, is warranted (does every tweet to a government official require an answer?)
  2. Political organizers and social change organizations, who are trying to catalyze large-scale participation (usually, but not always, to pressure policy-makers), want to know about proven and emergent strategies for online organizing. They typically have some theory of social change: an explicit or implicit causal model of how a given form of political expression (votes, letters, sit-ins) translates into a given form of influence (on public servants, elected representatives, citizens who pressure politicians). They are interested in how social media and other online tools compare with other mechanisms for aggregating voices and converting those voices into political pressure, or often, in how online tools can be used to drive participation in the offline forms of political expression that they recognize as politically influential.
  3. Political scientists and academic observers typically approach the question of online activism with some kind of intellectual framework for understanding how political change occurs. This framework may be a highly formalized, recognizable school of thought, such as “institutionalism”, “realism”, “rational actor theory” etc. They will typically analyze the dynamics of online activism according to their usual analytic framework: if they are used to explaining policy change as a competition among different interest groups, they will be inclined to see the story of online activism as the story of how competing interest groups vary in their effectiveness at catalyzing grassroots pressures on policymakers.
  4. Internet geeks are typically interested in demonstrating how the technological or social characteristics of the Internet make social change possible, or sometimes, in talking about which types of online tools or strategies enable which kinds of social or political change. By “Internet geeks”, I’m talking about a wide range of players, including digital strategists, web developers, and social media enthusiasts: in my experience, these different groups approach the question of the Internet’s political impact with a common passion for showing how the Internet matters. If they have a a priori theory of social change that tells a story about how change happens, they may try to map the Internet’s political significance onto that map of how change happens; if they haven’t got a theory of social change apart from online politics, they may construct a narrative of online political engagement that has no corresponding explanation for how political change occurs offline, and thus, may be limited in their ability to weigh online activism in relation to offline activism.
  5. Citizen-activists are interested in how to allocate or amplify their activist efforts and political voices. They are interested in online channels that can provide the various benefits of political engagement (social interaction with other activists, identity claims, a sense of efficacy/impact) at potentially lower cost (if it’s easier to “like” an issue on Facebook than to show up at a rally). Unlike political organizers, organizations and policy makers, they are not necessarily invested in affecting policy; they may derive the benefits of activism through forms of online participation that have other kinds of pay-offs. They are interested in how online activism can make them feel politically effective, connected and/or identified, in away that is more fun or less effort than offline activism.

When you realize how differently each of these groups approaches the question of whether and how the Internet supports political change, it comes as no surprise that you get wildly varying answers. In today’s panel, for example, I found myself underlining the way in which online activism can defy the label of “slacktivism”, and have a potentially greater impact than traditional forms of offline engagement; in the process, I obscured the fact that high-efficacy forms of online activism (like the example I used of coders distributing banned software) are far less common than low-efficacy forms (such as “liking” a cause on Facebook), and that many forms of offline activism (like sophisticated pressure politics) can still have a greater impact than that Facebook “like”. No wonder that an argument that the Internet can support meaningful and consequential political engagement (as is typical for an “Internet geek”, above) often ends up sounding like a claim that the Internet is the most important or powerful source of political change.

Conversely, when you’re listening to a policy-maker, political scientist or political organizer, it’s helpful to note that the impact of online activism may well be under-estimated. If you’re evaluating an online political effort strictly in terms of its policy impact (which is often not the focus of an online political effort), or if you’re trying to make sense of it by fitting it within the framework of offline organizing, you may end up missing or misunderstanding a big part of the story.

Perhaps it is the citizen-activists, then, who are best placed to assess the absolute and relative significance of on- and offline organizing. Think of citizens as “consumers” of political change, making rational decisions about where to spend their political change dollars (or just as often, their political change-making hours) in order to get the most bang for their buck (or the most political impact for their hour). If online organizing provides the greatest pay-off, they’ll do their activism online; if they feel they make a greater impact in the street, then that’s where they will pitch their tents, metaphorically (or these days, literally) speaking.

But that assumes a level of rationality that citizens may or may not apply to their political activism; I, for one, am deeply skeptical of so-called “rational actor” models. I’m even more skeptical of any constructive political change coming out of a model that treats citizens as consumers, or policy change as a product to be consumed. Most of all, I’m skeptical about citizens having access to credible information about where their time will be best invested: if experts can’t provide a coherent answer to the question of whether online activism has an impact, or even a coherent way of analyzing the problem, I’m not sure how the average voter is meant to make sense of the choice between on- and offline activism.

The reality, I suspect, is that few citizens make that choice per se. They are living their lives online, and they are engaging in political action there because that is where they live. Or they are living their lives offline, as much as they can, and want to keep their political engagement in what they perceive as the “real” world. They’re not asking whether online or offline activism is more powerful. They are engaging where they live. The policymakers and the organizers and the analysts and the Internet geeks can only choose whether and how far to follow them.