Social Media and Mobilisation Reading

Philip N. Howard et al., ‘Social Media, Civic Engagement, and the Slacktivism Hypothesis: Lessons from Mexico’s ‘El Bronco’’ in Journal of International Affairs, 70(1), 55-73.

An article that debates to what extent social media can result in meaningful mobilisation of people. Although it is speaking about political engagement, with a case study on a Mexican state governor candidate, I think it raises points that can be applied more broadly to the role of social media in creating activism.

  • Slacktivisim hypothesis: if citizens use social media for political conversations, those conversations will be fleeting and vapid – supposition that if internet or social media use increases, civic engagement decline

Pro-slacktivism hypothesis:

  • Most political and activist groups are still in the dark on how best to mobilise people
  • Main difficulty arises because citizens’ decisions about how much to participate in a cause depend on how they perceive the efforts of the leader/organisation
  • Among advanced democracies, social media seems to have resulted in only modest forms of activism, such as petition signing or sharing political content from affinity groups over networks of family and friends
  • Content shared over social media relating to politics usually consists of short messages shared by people with short tempers in short conversations – conversations are often anaemic, uncivil or polarising
  • During major political events/when an issue is a particularly topical, social media users will use platforms to learn about and interact with issues, but they tend to acquire new knowledge that is favourable to their preferred viewpoint – digital echo chamber
  • Social media use causes people to turn their social networks into ‘filter bubbles’ that diminish the chance of exposure to new or challenging ideas
  • Questions how much new information can be found? On the other hand, topics and subjects you are interested in are easier to find e.g. facebook events
  • Now the importance of social media is clear: multiple examples of traditional social movements that have scored impressive victories through their effective use of social media, as well as new social movements that have originated online and become stable civil society actors
  • Complicated by the growing problem of algorithmic control over social media messaging: automated programmes can be used to activate citizens or to discourage their engagement
  • Evidence that young adolescents’ use of social media – in conjunction with the intent to participate and the consumption of TV news – creates a virtuous circle of civic engagement

Anti-slacktivism hypothesis:

  • Studying how an independent candidate from Mexico won the race for state governor through using social media to communicate with the public and eschewed traditional media outlets – triggered sustained public engagement well beyond election day
  • Demonstrates that social media can be used to sustain a large quantity of civic exchanges about public life well beyond a particular political event
  • Pro-democracy protests: activists and protest leaders say social media was essential to the organisation of the protests
  • When a leader and citizens are comfortable using social media, the impact is positive for both kinds of political actors
  • If candidates for elected office and the public use social media for political conversation, they can create new patterns of civic engagement that can last for months beyond an election
  • I think this can be translated into a climate change context: if leaders of groups, e.g. XR, can engage the public then they can maintain civic engagement that can last for months beyond a high-profile/high-turnout protest

One thought on “Social Media and Mobilisation Reading

  1. This is an interesting case study that reflects how social media can be weaponised for political activism AND apathy. Perhaps the question that needs to be asked is fundamentally, how much do human beings care about each other, and how much of that care is shaped by the institutions around us? With social media usage in conflict with the problem of algorithmic control as you mentioned, as well as traditional institutional powers capitalising on their larger resources to emphasise specific messages, how can the masses respond in ways that are meaningful and that resist the structures of power that facilitate slacktivism?

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