Article by Ben Peterson, originally published on his personal blog leftwin.
If you speak to some activists, they’ll tell you that it’s a time of change. From the union office to the rally in the street, a new way of doing things is on the rise. The hard times for the left are coming to a close. There’s a new sheriff in town. The “social media campaigner” is here.
Or so the story goes.
Social media campaigning and “messaging” are now central to discussions on the left. Analysis of the political situation increasingly plays second fiddle to “framing” and media talking points. For example, at the recent Council of Trade Unions (CTU) conference the keynote speaker wasn’t a leader of a movement reflecting on a successful campaign. Rather, the key speaker was international language and communications consultant Anat Shenker-Onsario, on messaging. “Digital campaigning” is at the core of influential conferences such as Campaign Bootcamp and Step It Up.
Discussing social media is not a problem in itself. It is self-evident that unionists, environmentalists or anti-TPPA protestors should seek to be as effective as possible in communicating their ideas.
However, the focus and emphasis on media campaigning covers a deeper and more problematic political perspective.
Strategy must come first
The union movement is a good example. In Aotearoa/New Zealand, union membership has shrunk significantly since 1991, when the then National government brought in anti-union legislation. The union movement has steadied, but struggled to regain its influence.
As the economy changed towards service industry jobs, the union movement was slow to adapt, initially believing that these industries were too difficult to organise. This has now changed, with Unite and FIRST union actively campaigning in hospitality and retail respectively.
Both these unions seek to use effective messaging in their campaigns, but this is only effective due to the strategic choices of these unions. Media campaigning is only significant after identifying the shape of an organising campaign. For both of these unions, social media campaigning is part of their drive to organise and mobilise these workers.
Unite’s first campaign was #SuperSizeMyPay. It is impossible to understand this campaign without understanding the centrality of the organisation and mobilisation of union members and supporters. The campaign’s strength was built both before the media event, and was used to stimulate greater organising after. The media work was savvy, but it came after the strategic political choice to organise in fast food. Focusing on media messaging misses this important point. It also sidesteps a discussion on why significant parts of the union movement were convinced that organising young workers was not possible.
The same applies for the climate movement. Effective messaging is obviously important, but messaging to what ends? Is the solution to lobby politicians and fossil fuel companies? Or does the movement adopt a strategy of community mobilisation? The endpoint of one is a cup of tea and a chat in a corporate board room. The other might be a community blockade. The focus on media campaigning at best distracts from these vital discussions. At worst, it implicitly takes a side in these strategic debates and reinforces some of the problems that leftists need to overcome.
Movements of people, not “change corporations”
Having media as the central focus of campaigning can be at odds with the emancipatory project of the left.
The basis of a radical left project is ‘the people’. In short – the world is not run by or for the billions of ordinary people who populate the planet. Instead, a small financial and political elite runs the political and economic institutions that define our world. The solution is to reverse this situation and build new, more democratic institutions. This strategic analysis is built around one central assumption – the power and potential of working people to run their own society.
Social media campaigning often runs counter to this idea. The social media campaigner creates online content and hopes other people ‘retweet’ or share their content on Facebook. Most people are therefore only passively involved. People are encouraged to share content, but have no way of being involved in creating that content themselves.
Focusing on “effective messaging” reinforces this dynamic. A select few professionals drive a campaign. They are the ones with the media training. They decide on the message, and find graphic designers to make the content. For those outside the professional bubble, the scope for involvement in strategic decisions is non-existent.
This has a flow-on effect to other aspects of political organisation. Fundraising money is channelled away from maintaining a meeting space, printing for mass distribution or upskilling a range of volunteers. Instead funds go towards providing wages for professional spin. Organisations adopt organisation models with a board of directors, or even a CEO, instead of an organising committee accountable to regular membership meetings.
Ironically, this form of organising ends up mirroring the kind of institutions that we are organising against. It is a political perspective of creating “change corporations”, and like other corporations, ordinary people are not participants. Instead they are reduced to political consumers of the change-corp’s political product.
Campaign Bootcamp was a good example of this process. The camp was pitched to young people wanting to “make change”. It had a strong focus on online campaigning tools and media messaging. For the record, it is admirable to set out to provide training for young people to be better political activists. However, the perspectives put forward at the camp were likely to reinforce an elite conception of progressive politics.
In the first instance, the suggested cost was $1200 per attendee; this was later clarified that it would be for those who were paid to go by their employer. This may work for an up-and-comer in a wealthy church charity, but a young person working in a service industry job was not likely to be able to convince their employer to foot the bill. After being challenged, the organisers changed the fee to $800 for those working full time and $400 for students or unemployed.
On top of the cost of attending, organisers required “ideal participants” to “have a minimum of one year’s experience working on social or environmental issues”. If this wasn’t enough, there were interviews to vet potential participants.
Taken together this paints a fairly clear picture. For Campaign Bootcamp, change is a professional process. The ideal person is someone who is young, educated, with a disposable income, and who either works for an NGO or wants to do so. Beneficiaries, high school dropout fast food workers, or even people who have not yet been involved in activism need not apply.
A left perspective.
The real problem is that this approach moves away from our strengths. The corporations that unionists or environmentalists find ourselves organising against will always have more money and resources. They will always be able to pay for the best PR and advertising, or commission the most studies.
A strategy that aims to create an elite group of trained media campaigners gives up our biggest strength – people. Our strategies need to focus on mobilisation and organisation of this base. Being effective in our messaging is important, but we need to encourage a more active involvement than simply asking people to ‘like’ and ‘share’ on Facebook.
Building real organisations where participants have active involvement and control over the direction of the campaign is possible – in fact it is how unions and environmental movements came about. The long tradition of organising meetings and active participation of members in their organisation needs to be continued. This kind of organisation gives movements the real roots and strength that can change the world. Online campaigning alone cannot substitute for the power that comes from the people.