Forget ‘Slacktivism’ – We Dismiss the Power of Politics Online at our Peril

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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.

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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.

 

Meme-ing The Debates, Framing the Agenda

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This week, the third and final debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump took place, and, predictably, the meme-makers of the internet had a field day. From #Nastywoman to #BadHombres to #TrumpBookReport, Clinton supporters were quick to pounce on her rival’s performance with a bevy of mockery and ridicule, making the #BindersFullofWomen moment from the Obama-Romney 2012 debate look like mere child’s play by comparison. Of course, Republicans and Trump supporters have been circulating their fair share of memes as well, and while they haven’t dominated the latest post-debate headlines, their high-profile and controversial use of the Pepe the Frog meme illustrates how the right is catching up with the left in the realm of viral politics. At the same time, given Trump’s over-the-top public persona, it’s no surprise that his bizarre statements and phrasings are playing into the hands of meme parodists like none other.

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WIRED has a pretty comprehensive roundup of the major memes of the third debate, in case you haven’t already seen them all in your social media feeds. Also, the LA Times put out an interesting piece this week that puts this phenomenon into a broader historical perspective, noting not only the political internet memes of past election cycles, but also their connection to the traditions of political posters and cartoons, as well as image appropriation and manipulation more generally. However, while discussions of political memes tend to focus on the comic creativity of meme-makers and the cultural literacy required to make sense of them, I for one would like to see more analysis of how political memes are taking on the role of campaign marketing and advertising in the age of social media.

Indeed, this is a major theme of my research on the persuasive dimension of online political expression, including my upcoming book The Citizen Marketer (more details soon to follow)! Yes, it is certainly true that political memes may sometimes be completely frivolous and trivial, as I believe was the case with the Ken Bone memes from the second debate that seemed to have little to do with politics whatsoever. And yes, they do tend to circulate in the so-called ‘echo chambers’ of the internet, meaning that anti-Trump memes will mainly be seen by those who already don’t like him and thus may not change many minds. However, the fundamentally partisan nature of so many of today’s political memes cannot be ignored, and their resemblance to the propaganda posters and cartoons of the past underscores their role in processes of political persuasion.

The post-debate memes in particular illustrate their function as crowdsourced agenda-framing devices – in other words, by making Trump’s “nasty woman” or “bad hombres” remarks into memes and hashtags that are repeated and played with over and over, these moments come to define the debate itself for those who keep encountering them online (in lieu of other debate moments that don’t get the same meme treatment). It is no surprise that Clinton supporters would want to define the third debate in terms of Trump’s most extreme and offensive comments, and memes, like the Janet Jackson one pictured above, do precisely that.

And even though memes are seemingly ephemeral viral moments in pop culture, they do have a lasting power to frame larger political events – indeed, #BindersFullofWomen is probably the ONLY thing that people still remember about the second Obama-Romney debate of 2012. While political memes are often entertaining and silly, their role in the agenda-framing process should not be dismissed or taken lightly. For instance, thanks in no small part to the outpouring of memes and hashtags, “nasty woman” is now being talked about as a major flashpoint for feminist mobilization around Clinton in the final weeks of the campaign. So let’s not kid ourselves, even as we kid around with memes – viral politics is serious business.

Facebook’s Rainbow Profile Pictures: The ‘Slacktivism’ Debate Rages On

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Every time a symbolic online campaign goes viral, a new round of debate ensues over the value of so-called ‘slacktivism,’ and Facebook’s recent gay pride rainbow profile picture craze is no exception. Amidst the flood of think pieces that appeared in response to the rainbow images, two articles in the Washington Post caught my attention in particular. First, there’s Caitlin Dewey’s slice of digital optimism, in which she makes a case for why these symbolic actions may be subtly, yet meaningfully, persuasive. While reading this piece, I heard echoes of my own research on the 2013 red equal sign profile picture campaign, which posited that the peer-to-peer agenda-setting dynamics of these symbolic actions cannot be easily dismissed.  In Dewey’s article, UW professor (and professional colleague) Philip Howard offers the key pull-quote: “Openly declaring your support for gay marriage or dissatisfaction with modern policing [on social media] can create a brief moment where people who see the image have to think about the issue.” Dewey then follows: “And if they don’t have a clear opinion, or see that image many times, it could — potentially! gradually! — shift their social views.”

Indeed, this is precisely the sort of logic that was invoked by a number of interviewees in my red equal sign study, and while the extent of such proposed effects is still very much an open question, it’s nice to see these ideas being given serious consideration in the mainstream media. As I point out in my article, the ‘slacktivism’ discussion has become overly focused on how online symbolic actions may relate to other (typically offline) forms of political participation–either empowering people to do more by boosting their identification, or convincing them to do less because they feel like they’ve already done their part–and this ends up side-stepping the thorny question of viral political persuasion altogether. Personally, I don’t think there are any easy answers to this question, and I balk when my research is used to unequivocally ‘prove’ that symbolic online activism ‘works’ (as it was in this Christian Science Monitor opinion piece from 2013). However, I am pleased to see that the issue of peer persuasion is edging into the public conversation about online political expression, particularly since it has been brushed aside by so many critics (as well as many academics in my field, quite frankly).

Another piece in the Washington Post, an op-ed written by LGBT activist Peter Mosk0witz, has gotten considerably more attention and has seemingly risen to the top of the blogosphere heap. In the piece, Moskowitz repeats the typical ‘slacktivism’ critique that online actions become a weak substitute for ‘real’ activism, citing a 2014 study which found “that people who make these token displays of support often do it simply to boost their own public images without making any real sacrifice to benefit the cause.” This research report, subtitled “How the Social Observability of an Initial Act of Token Support Affects Subsequent Prosocial Action,” is a prime example of what I’m talking about above. Once again, the focus is on how taking a symbolic action online will influence future political behaviors. While this line of research is not without value, it conveniently avoids the issue of what symbolic online action may be doing (or not doing) as its own distinct phenomenon. Even the use of the term “token support” here to describe this symbolic activity suggests that the researchers are unwilling to entertain the notion that it might have real-world consequences in and of itself.

On the other hand, Moskowitz offers a more convincing critique of the Facebook rainbow profile picture campaign when he brings up the issue of political self-segregation on social media, i.e. the fact that most people who post about their political viewpoints are likely to have online connections that already agree with them, and that those who don’t agree with their views are likely to simply block them. This issue of digital ‘information cocoons,’ in the words of Cass Sunstein, is crucially important to explore moving forward. Facebook itself famously tried to mitigate these polarization concerns earlier this year with an internal study purporting to show a diverse and cross-cutting political conversation on the platform, although it has since been raked over the coals as sloppy and self-serving research.

The most controversial and talked-about aspect of Moskovitz’s op-ed, however, is his argument that straight allies should not be waiving the rainbow flag on Facebook because they do not fully understand the LGBT struggle and its history. In his view, the campaign is a form of co-optation that weakens the movement and its symbols: “When millions of people cloak themselves in a symbol without understanding what it means, they dilute that symbol’s power.” Moskovitz’s argument has since been pilloried on the right as an example of victimhood culture run amok, and on the left as an example of how some activists turn away valuable allies over petty squabbles. I have my own reservations about the idea that political symbols should be reserved for some but not others. However, I do find Moskovitz’s discussion about the ’emptying’ of the rainbow symbol to be quite interesting, and I sympathize with his concern that political symbols are often circulated online as trendy memes without much thought about their meaning and history. A major theme of my ongoing work on viral politics is that we need to become more thoughtful and reflective about the symbolic political material that we choose to forward to others, precisely because these symbolic expressions can be consequential. While I disagree with his conclusion that the Facebook rainbow pictures are somehow obscuring the multiple struggles that the LGBT community still faces (in fact, I would argue the opposite), I believe that these kinds of serious conversations about the deeper meaning of viral political content are incredibly important to have.

Creepy Uncle Sam: Republicans Try Viral Video Strategy to Fight Obamacare

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With the Affordable Care Act (AKA Obamacare) going into effect on October 1st, Republicans have ramped up their attempts to undermine the legislation. In addition to Congress forcing a government shutdown, conservatives have turned to viral marketing strategies to try to shift public opinion against Obamacare. The most high-profile of these efforts involves web video ads released online by a group called Generation Opportunity, funded by the Koch brothers. As explained in this piece for Time, the ads are intended to convince young adults to opt out of Obamacare so that the program will lose out on a crucial source of funding and thus fail in the long term. However, the ads having been getting the most attention for their outrageous gross-out humor, which is, of course, the lingua franca of the YouTube generation.


The ads, featuring a masked “Creepy Uncle Sam” character who threatens unsuspecting young patients with comically horrifying gynecological and rectal exams, mark an important shift in tone for American political advertising. In an earlier post, I discussed how the 2012 Obama campaign used internet-style pop culture humor to get their message across to a new generation of voters who tend to tune out more formal types of campaign messaging. Of course, the Republicans don’t want to be left behind, and the “Creepy Uncle Sam” ads signal how they too are now trying to latch onto the zeitgeist and create digital content that is entertaining and novel enough to inspire social sharing. So far, it looks like Generation Opportunity has succeeded in ‘going viral,’ with each of its video ads topping a million views on YouTube. In a sure sign of viral success, the liberal group The Other 98% has responded with an online parody that asks viewers to “opt out of Koch propaganda, not Obamacare.”

What I find particularly interesting about all of this is how the internet has freed the agents of political communication to try things that were seemingly never possible in broadcast television or other media. To put it simply, these ads are pushing the envelope of taste. I’ll leave it to other commentators to deconstruct the potential homophobic (and even racist) undertones of ads that compare Obama to a rectal-probing rapist, but suffice it to say, this is the kind of humor that one would expect from South Park rather than from a policy-minded political group. However, as political advertising moves online more and more, we can expect that its creators will do whatever it takes to capture public attention an inspire viral shares on Facebook, Twitter, and other social platforms. The fact that these videos may be too risque for prime time TV is precisely the point – in a Wild West web environment where content is almost completely unregulated, shock is the rule rather than the exception, and audiences expect to see something that they can’t and won’t see anywhere else. I wonder, though, if there are any limits as to how far online political advertising will go in terms of skirting the lines of taste, or if these sorts of strategies could potentially engender a backlash. For now, it seems that all previous limits are off the table, and that the political classes are willing to be gross, weird, or just plain ridiculous in order to get jaded young voters to listen to their message.