Introducing The Citizen Marketer

citizen marketer book cover

I’m very excited to announce that my new book, The Citizen Marketer: Promoting Political Opinion in the Social Media Age, is now available from Oxford University Press! I’ve also launched a new website for the book, www.citizenmarketer.org, which includes a blog where I’ll be posting in the future on relevant social media and politics topics. Since I’m putting all my effort behind the new site, I won’t be updating this blog as much anymore, although I invite you to check out the archive here for posts covering 2013-2016.

Here’s a short summary of the new book:

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.

 

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How Memes Create Social and Political Change: The Guardian Tech Podcast

wonka political meme

I recently had the opportunity to participate in The Guardian‘s fantastic new tech-themed podcast, “Chips With Everything,” in an episode covering the wide world of political internet memes. Along with Paolo Gerbaudo of King’s College London, I talk about the definition and history of memes, their adoption by political campaigns and social movement activists, and their ability to draw citizens into the political process through accessible humor and entertaining pop culture references. Furthermore, I address how “people use these forms for political expression, to express their views, their opinions, and often in ways that they may see as spreading an idea that’s influential, that’s even persuasive.”

Towards the end, I also discuss my research on the Facebook marriage equality profile picture campaign, and make the point that political meme-spreading campaigns are often intended to heighten people’s identification with causes and move them towards additional forms of participation (in direct contrast to “slacktivism” fears).

You can listen to the entire podcast below (via Soundcloud), as well as from The Guardian’s website.

News Feed Filtering: A Threat to Online Political Expression?

facebook-organic-reach

In recent years, it has become conventional wisdom that social media sites like Facebook and Twitter serve as democratic platforms for citizens to express their political views and opinions. The key assumption underlying this idea is that these sites operate on a peer-to-peer sharing structure that allows anyone to communicate to a public audience with their posts—provided, of course, that these audience members are connected to them as “Friends,” “Followers,” etc. Therefore, a social media user’s level of reach and influence (including political influence) could be understood as simply a matter of how many connections they have in their networks.

However, as Facebook has moved more and more towards a model of complex algorithmic news feed filtering, the notion that one’s posts will actually be seen by one’s peers is increasingly being called into question. This development, which is likely to become industry standard, may have important consequences for the use of social media as a platform of political expression.

At the moment, these sorts of concerns about Facebook are largely centered on the diminishing “organic reach” of organizational Facebook Pages, such as those of non-profit activist groups (in addition to businesses and brands). What is “organic reach,” you ask? As B. Traven explains in a great piece for ValleyWag,

Put simply, “organic reach” is the number of people who potentially could see any given Facebook post in their newsfeed. Long gone are the days when Facebook would simply show you everything that happened in your network in strict chronological order. Instead, algorithms filter the flood of updates, posts, photos, and stories down to the few that they calculate you would be most interested in. (Many people would agree that these algorithms are not very good, which is why Facebook is putting so much effort into refining them.) This means that even if I have, say, 400 friends, only a dozen or so might actually see any given thing I post. One way to measure your reach, then, is as the percentage of your total followers who (potentially) see each of your posts. This is the ratio that Facebook has more-or-less publicly admitted it is ramping down to a target range of 1-2% for Pages. In other words, even if an organization’s Page has 10,000 followers, any given item they post might only reach 100-200 of them.

As Traven argues, this lowered capacity for political organizations to send messages to their own followers significantly compromises Facebook’s role as an open marketplace of political expression. The only way that organizations can truly bypass these filters is to pay Facebook to promote their posts, and while major commercial brands (and perhaps major party candidates) can afford the price, small non-profits and advocacy groups largely cannot. Thus, Facebook is starting to look less like an even playing field for political communication and more like television, where big-ticket ad buys dominate and the resource-rich get a much louder megaphone than the resource-poor.

Facebook-Reach

However, I can’t help but think that this is just the tip of the iceberg. The impact of news feed filtering will likely extend far beyond the realm of organizational Facebook Pages, which are already experiencing the effects of a diminished “organic reach.” Now that we know that Facebook is making behind-the-scenes decisions about which posts you will see from your connections and which posts will be hidden from you, how else could this model end up skewing the flow of online political discourse?

To explore this question, it is helpful to understand exactly how Facebook currently filters its News Feeds. However, this is not as easy as it sounds. According to TechCrunch, the algorithm that sorts Facebook News Feeds uses over 100,000 different factors to determine the relevance of posts. Among the most important factors are the following (as told to TechCrunch by Facebook News Feed Director of Product Management Will Cathart):

• How popular (Liked, commented on, shared, clicked) are the post creator’s past posts with everyone
• How popular is this post with everyone who has already seen it
• How popular have the post creator’s past posts been with the viewer
• Doe the type of post (status update, photo, video, link) match what types have been popular with the viewer in the past
• How recently was the post published

In addition, Facebook recently announced that it would push to prioritize “high-quality” content in users’ feeds and reduce the amount of spam posts. What constitutes “high quality” in Facebook’s eyes? Here is how the company defines it on its website:

While the goal of News Feed is to show high quality posts to people, we wanted to better understand what high quality means. To do this we decided to develop a new algorithm to factor into News Feed. To develop it, we first surveyed thousands of people to understand what factors make posts from Pages high quality. Some of the questions we asked included:
• Is this timely and relevant content?
• Is this content from a source you would trust?
• Would you share it with friends or recommend it to others?
• Is the content genuinely interesting to you or is it trying to game News Feed distribution? (e.g., asking for people to like the content)
• Would you call this a low quality post or meme?
• Would you complain about seeing this content in your News Feed?

In other words, Facebook is ostensibly adopting a model of ‘giving people what they want,’ rather than making editorial decisions about quality based on their professional judgment. Indeed, in a piece for Fortune, Matthew Ingram writes that “Facebook’s director of news partnerships, Andy Mitchell, rejected the idea that the social platform is some kind of gatekeeper when it comes to the discovery of news, saying Facebook doesn’t control the news-feed — users control it by telling Facebook what they are interested in. In other words, Facebook sees itself as merely reflecting the desires of its users.” Critics, on the other hand, have pointed out that the process is still susceptible to censorship based on various national laws as well as the site’s own community standards.

However, an even bigger potential issue here is how news feed filtering may pave the way for Facebook (and social media sites more generally) to manipulate the flow of news and political expression along ideological lines. Surely, the company would vehemently deny doing this. Yet I couldn’t help but think of what the recent gay rights-celebrating rainbow profile picture campaign suggests about Facebook’s capacity to elevate the flow of posts that display a particular political point of view. Did Facebook actually favor these rainbow picture posts in its News Feed algorithm, above and beyond the criteria outlined above? Honestly, I have no idea. Yet the very fact that the company itself orchestrated this particular meme on its own platform indicates that it is not entirely above the fray of partisan political battles, and furthermore, appears willing to leverage its prominent position in the viral media culture to advance certain political ideas.

Since I strongly support the sentiment behind the rainbow profile pictures, it’s hardly a sticking point for me. However, the campaign seems to complicate Facebook’s insistence on being a fully neutral channel for political discourse with no vested interests beyond serving the most relevant content to its users. Could it be possible that the site would play with its algorithms to filter down the reach of posts that it deems inimical to its worldview, or boost the flow of posts that support issues favored by its leadership? This may sound like conspiracy theory territory, but Facebook has opened Pandora’s Box in a very real sense by moving to a model of news feed manipulation.

What, then, could be a solution to this looming threat? It seems unreasonable to argue that Facebook should simply go back to its original model of showing every piece of content from Friends in the order in which they were posted. As the company often points out, there are so many people and organizations now on Facebook that an average user has approximately 1,500 posts that are eligible to show up in their News Feed every day—i.e. far too many to wade through. Twitter, by contrast, has had a long-standing commitment to showing every tweet from a user’s connections in chronological order, but recently announced via the New York Times that they are “question[ing] our reverse chronological timeline” in order to stay competitive and profitable.

At a time of increasing news feed manipulation, what I’d like to see is not only more transparency about how these feeds are actually filtered (which could alleviate fears over ideological bias), but also more user choice about how the criteria are applied. In other words, Facebook users should be able to decide how much “organic reach” they receive from their own connections. Now, it is true that Facebook already allows users to control their feeds to some extent by hiding posts from specific “Friends.” However, these options can be greatly expanded. Want to see more posts from your political organization Pages than just the default 1-2%? You should be able to choose such an option with a simple click of a button. Want to see more political posts that diverge from your views, rather than just seeing those that the algorithm determines you’d be most likely to “Like?” You should be able to have that choice in the settings. Putting users in more control of their own news feeds would go a long way towards mitigating concerns that social media sites like Facebook are becoming the new political media gatekeepers.

Black Twitter and the Rise of Viral Pressure Groups

Black Twitter

A few weeks ago, the Washington Post published an excellent piece about the phenomenon of Black Twitter, explaining how this community has used peer-to-peer social software to mobilize around numerous race-related political causes. Recently, Black Twitter activists have enjoyed a number of high-profile successes, such as pressuring a book publisher to drop a deal with a Trayvon Martin murder trial juror, pressuring InterActive Corp to admonish (and eventually fire) a PR executive who tweeted a racist joke, and pressuring singer Ani DiFranco to cancel an event at a former slave plantation. As these examples demonstrate, the political power of this form of activism rests in its high-profile application of public pressure. While tweeting responses to troubling news of racism and racial insensitivity may not “do” anything political in and of itself, it can put a media spotlight on an issue that may in turn lead to real change.

For many decades, professional watchdog organizations (AKA “pressure groups”) like the NAACP, GLAAD, and NOW  have engaged in this form of activism to varying degrees of success. Now, it appears that decentralized groups of citizens are taking it upon themselves to band together around common issues and draw the public’s attention to them through strategic media interventions. The fact that Black Twitter has no organizational center, but is rather an open-ended community of like-minded citizens who find one another via popular hashtags like #PoliticosBlackIntellectuals #solidarityisforwhitewomen, is quite significant. It reminds me a lot of W. Lance Bennett and Alexendra Segerberg’s point that the traditional collective action of  organized social movements is giving way to “connective action,” which describes a more diffuse and personalized style of public engagement that is powered by digital peer-to-peer networks.

That being said, there does appear to be a certain cohesiveness to virtual communities like Black Twitter, even though they are strongly decentralized. It is important to keep this point in mind when thinking about how political causes “go viral” on Twitter and social media platforms in contemporary times. When we say that a political news story, photo, or video “goes viral,” it conjures up images of widespread social popularity that does little to specify the investments and agendas of particular groups that have strategically contributed to the peer-to-peer spread of content. Communities like Black Twitter are essentially issue publics that draw upon their ranks to deliberately make a story like the Ani DiFranco concert or the PR exec’s racist tweet go viral – in other words, their viral popularity doesn’t just materialize out of thin air (i.e. from the aggregated effect of isolated, individual shares), but is rather the result of a concerted effort on the part of groups of invested citizens who wish to make an impact on the public sphere. Clearly, the agenda-setting labor of these viral pressure groups is a crucial object of study for scholars who seek to understand the emerging shape of digital activism.

#Blackout: Justice for Trayvon and Profile Picture Campaigns

images-supporting-trayvon-martin

As anyone paying attention to the news for the past few weeks knows, the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the high-profile Florida trial for the killing of Trayvon Martin has galvanized one of the largest protest movements in recent American history. Of course, in addition to marching in the streets, protestors have taken to social media in droves to express their outrage at the verdict and their dissatisfaction with racial profiling, gun laws, and a host of related issues. In the immediate aftermath of the verdict announcement on July 13th, social media sites were flooded with impassioned personal reactions, links to petitions, and numerous agit-prop graphics that went viral in a matter of minutes. Over two weeks later, much of the initial fervor has died down, yet one class of social media responses largely remains: the profile pictures.

Following the lead of the red equal sign for gay marriage and other similar recent campaigns, many supporters of Trayvon Martin have transformed the visual representations of their online identities into soapboxes to advance their cause. Perhaps the most popular strategy has been to use a stark black square, an idea that was promoted online with the hashtag #blackout and has since received the support of the Martin family. There have also been profile picture memes incorporating Trayvon’s portrait, a silhouette of the symbolic hoodie he wore the night of his death, and other graphics associated with this burgeoning movement.

As an observer of social media and politics, I’m struck by how these campaigns confirm the popularity of the profile picture as a primary space for political expression and engagement in the online world. Yet what I find most interesting about this latest round of politically-charged profile pictures is their sheer endurance in the rapid, blink-and-you-missed-it maelstrom of social media discourse. While links and image shares come and go very quickly, the profile picture enjoys a relatively stable digital presence, reappearing each time a person posts new content. Every time I log into Facebook and see the ominous black squares and hoodies in my news feed, I am reminded of the passion of this movement and the commitment of its supporters to anti-racism and social change.

The profile picture thus seems to have a weight that a lot of other social media strategies are lacking – in a way, its the strongest kind of link or association a person can make in the digital environment. To throw one’s entire online identity behind a cause, giving it an overarching presence in each and every activity they perform, provides politically-engaged social media users with a powerful symbolic tool unlike any other. Like the red equal sign campaign before it, the Trayvon profile pictures are blazing a trail for long-term social media activism that I imagine will be utilized by many more movements to come.

The Red Equal Sign Meme for Marriage Equality: A Look Back

red equal sign liberty justice

With the Supreme Court decisions striking down DOMA and Prop 8 last week, the red equal sign meme supporting marriage equality has been taking a victory lap on Facebook. As I wrote in an earlier post, this campaign is a significant moment in the development of viral politics, particularly for its use of profile picture-changing as a way of displaying a collective identity around an issue. Now that the dust has settled on this historic campaign coinciding with a major triumph for gay rights, it’s time to look back at some of the most interesting coverage that has appeared online in the past few months.

Anatasia Khoo, the head of marketing for Human Rights Campaign (HRC), gives an inside look at the creation of the red equal sign meme in pieces for Huffington Post and Stanford Social Innovation Review. In the former article, Khoo recounts an intriguing anecdote about the impact of the campaign:

“For many, this act marked the first time they had come out as a straight ally, or in some cases, the first time they had come out as a member of the LGBT community. Since then, we’ve heard so many stories, but one really sticks out for me. One day, we got a message from a gay soldier who had come out to his mother and unfortunately, it wasn’t the positive experience he was hoping for. It wasn’t until he saw that his mother had also changed her profile picture to the HRC logo that he felt accepted by her. It’s incredibly powerful to know that something so simple could provide such a strong feeling of support.”

In the latter article, Khoo offers a key lesson for organizations who wish to create a similarly viral social media campaign:

“We documented close to 100 different variations on the logo, and we made an important decision: We were going to not only embrace the memes, but also promote them. Politicians, celebrities, and corporate America embraced the logo. Bonobos, Bud Light, Martha Stewart, and Beyoncé all picked up the red logo—it became synonymous with equality… Most organizations are very protective about their brands, but for this campaign, HRC put our logo out into the universe without any organizational language, making it easy for individuals to embrace. It was a bold move for the organization… We certainly could have taken a much different approach to try and control the campaign or to brand it more tightly, but success relied on allowing people to make our logo their own and feel like they were part of something bigger.”

In a blog post for Scientific American, social psychology scholar Melanie Tannenbaum outlines a compelling theory for how the red equal sign meme may work as effective political persuasion. Basically, it all comes down to modeling behavioral norms (i.e. setting ‘descriptive norms’), which parallels my own argument in “Visual Identities, Visual Rhetoric” regarding the importance of visually articulating ‘the people’ as a way of changing perceptions about social reality:

“People look at an issue like marriage equality, and the first inclination is to set prescriptive norms. We should do something, the justices should rule a certain way, you should support a given cause. But based on everything that we know about our brains and their bafflingly strong desires to fit in with the crowd, the best way to convince people that they should care about an issue and get involved in its advocacy isn’t to tell people what they should do — it’s to tell them what other people actually do. And you know what will accomplish that? That’s right. Everyone on Facebook making their opinions on the issue immediately, graphically, demonstrably obvious. That is literally all that it takes to create a descriptive norm: Publicly acknowledging your belief along with the thousands of other people who are also publicly acknowledging theirs.”

Finally, in a thought-provoking piece for the New Yorker Online, Matt Buchanan compares the red equal sign campaign with Malcolm Gladwell’s famous castigation of “Facebook activism” as so-called slacktivism in the same magazine:

“While the HRC’s profile-picture activism relies on weak ties, like those between celebrities and their followers, it’s designed to exploit the stronger personal connections that lurk among the web of weak ties in a Facebook profile. That is, you are true friends with at least a few people that you are ‘friends’ with on Facebook… The odds that the HRC’s campaign, as wildly successful as it has been, will directly influence the decision of the Justices are nil, which speaks quite loudly to the limits of online activism: twenty million avatars are not twenty million people in the street. However, as Jeffrey Toobin wrote, as people and politics change, so does the Court. And online activism has shown, most notably through its role in the defeat of the controversial Stop Online Piracy Act last year, that maybe it can change people.”

In other words, Buchanan is saying that while online activism may not have a direct effect on public policy, it may have a long-term impact on public opinion that can eventually trickle up. It’s an intriguing thought, and one that seems to be supported by Tannenbaum’s point about the power of social media to shape social norms, one Facebook friend at a time.

The NSA PRISM Leak, Edward Snowden, and the Online Response

george-w-obama

The leak of PRISM, the NSA’s online surveillance program under the Obama administration, currently has internet users around the world in an uproar. Originally reported by the Guardian with the aid of whistle-blower Edward Snowden, the PRISM leak along with several others have mobilized internet privacy activists like never before. In fact, in Snowden’s interview published in the Guardian, he drew attention to a movement gaining traction on Reddit called Restore the Fourth Amendment, which is now planning public protests across the U.S. on July 4th. There is also a “We the People” petition to pardon Snowden up on Whitehouse.gov that has received over 27,000 signatures, along with a predictably vast array of humorous critical responses that have popped up online. Early on, a hilariously biting image morphing Obama’s face with George W. Bush’s appeared on the homepage of the Huffington Pteam edward snowdenost and quickly went viral. As for the response on social media, CNN has a good roundup of the funniest tweets mocking Obama and the U.S. government regarding PRISM, while Buzzfeed has compiled some of the Snowden-related memes that have appeared in the last few days.

It is becoming clear that the PRISM leak and Snowden’s perceived heroics will reverberate online for a long time to come. This is because the story itself concerns the ability of internet users to communicate freely, in this case without fear of government intrusion. As the PIPA/SOPA movement from last year demonstrated, internet freedom-related issues are particularly amendable to viral politics, as legions of netizens are inspired to use the very technologies in question to mount a defense of their digital rights. Scholars and activists who are interested in the political uses of social media should pay close attention to the online anti-PRISM and pro-Snowden efforts in the weeks (and perhaps months) to come, since they may serve as a model for how political protest movements are orchestrated in the digital age more broadly.

That being said, I’m still unsure of what the long-term effects of this online response will be. While we may very well be at a tipping point in terms of internet privacy becoming a major global political issue, the fears about PRISM and the U.S. government’s online spying are still speculative in nature. The Obama administration continues to claim that these tools are only used to stop dangerous terrorists, while critics who worry about abuses of power are left making sometimes-hyperbolic ‘what if?’ comparisons to Orwell, Stalin, and the Stasi in order to drum up popular outrage. What we still don’t have yet is a ‘smoking gun’ that clearly shows a program like PRISM being used in an abusive manner, such as against the administration’s political opponents (i.e. along the lines of Watergate). If and when such a story emerges, we can expect movements like Reddit’s Restore the Fourth Amendment to really take off.