RSA Talk: Political Turbulence and Social Media

The Auditorium at the RSA
The Auditorium at the RSA
Despite the many places I have been lucky enough to visit due to my involvement in the Co-Design project for the past year, I had not had the opportunity to visit London until now, so this trip was another exciting and new one. The other advantage of London, of course, was a less early start, making the walk through a slightly foggy Southampton for our 10:30 train all the more pleasant.
Standing dutifully with our breakfast Subway sandwiches Tom and I were confused when we were ordered a little more forcefully than usual to stand back from the yellow line at Southampton Central. It turned out this was more a security than a safety measure, as the next moment the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, walked past along with a trailing entourage. He was quickly ushered into first class before Tom and I were quick enough to ask any questions on behalf of the Co-Design group, but that did not prevent Tom from taking a sly “selfie” with the Chancellor in the background (to anyone who knows him, this will come as no surprise…!)
We arrived in London on a suspiciously efficient service from South West Trains, which we of course doubt had anything to do with the special guest, so we had time for a quick stop in Costa before making our way to the Durham Street auditorium at the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce. It was a lovely building, elegantly blending modern architecture and facilities with the original brickwork and tunnelling that is so quintessentially London. We were greeted at the door by a receptionist who presumably assumed we were not fellows of the society, but did not question this and dutifully showed us to our seats. The talk being on Social Media, Tom and I of course felt it was appropriate to tweet our enthusiasm, though the rather intimate 60-seat venue prevent us from taking too many pictures. Indeed the fast-paced and data-packed discussion somewhat hindered any ability we might have had to live-tweet anyway (and my fingers and brain needed a rest from the STAG Lecture yesterday!).
Making our way around the fantastic building
Making our way around the fantastic building
As I said, the discussion required both mine and Tom’s full attention, as it dealt with the entire political system, almost the world over. After an introduction from RSA Director Matthew Taylor, Helen Margetts began a rapid-fire summary of her new book, Political Turbulence. Beginning by debunking myths about the number of people online, and the decline of Facebook, the presentation quickly explained how “Clicktivism” (small acts of political participation online, liking a post or signing a petition for example) attends the ladder of participation model, favoured by political scientists the world over, dramatically. The bottom end of the ladder was our focus here. Where previously the lowest “rung” was signing a petition or attending a local party meeting, now you can “like” those who represent your political views, comment your own views and share relevant material to your friends at the press of a button. This is new and in the age before the internet and Social Media specifically, simply would not have been possible. Helen both in her presentation and the book, argues that these tiny acts of participation can scale up to mass mobilisations, the likes seen in the “podemos” movement in the Spanish political system, and in the Arab Spring. These mobilisations can quite obviously have massive effects, overthrowing regimes the world over, but the acts of participation can also have a smaller impact closer to home, with the example of petitions hosted on government a website forcing a U-Turn of the proposal to cull badgers.
Helen then handed over to her colleague Peter John, co-authored the book with her. Peter is a Professor of Political Science at University College London, and he explained how the extension of the model I mentioned earlier was affecting the political dynamic around the globe. Citing the example of the unrest in Brazil before the Olympics games this Summer, where the President asked who the leaders of the movement were, and was somewhat-worryingly told that there were none, it was simply mass unrest, Peter questioned the effectiveness of some of the most widely accepted pillars of the democratic system. The unstable nature of mobilisations, they propose, means a large number are unsustainable. But what have seen so far, and what we will continue to see, driven largely by this (what I have termed) hyper-engagement in politics and social issues in the online sphere, is political turbulence (yes, this is conveniently the name of the book, who’d have thought it?). The presentation closed before accepting over 30minutes of questions, with two questions:
  • Do we have the right political institutions to cope with turbulence?
  • Should we encourage a more open, less elite-focused politics, one more in tune with the newly-engaged? With so much to react against, and with less friction in the institution?
I highly doubt the presenters were expecting an answer to either of those questions as they sat down to loud applause, and they did not get one. Instead the very able chair Matthew Taylor, and the audience fired back with questions of their own. Many raised the point that some “nodes” (i.e people) in a Social network have more connections, more influence and thus any of their “tiny acts of participation” thus had more of an effect than those with only 5 followers on Twitter, for example. However, sticking firmly with her data Helen refuted that claim based on various experiments they had run during the course of research, and that it was in fact regular people who made the political twitter sphere “tick”. There were a huge range of fantastic questions asked, and “sticking by the data” remained a definite theme of both Peter and Helen’s responses.
There was a huge amount of material here, so it’s hard to give you my personal take on it. Part of me really wants to recognise the power of the internet and Social Media to make massive change in the political landscapes, but I am still unconvinced. I don’t doubt the huge power of Social Media after seeing movements such as the Arab Spring, but I do think the current political system constrains the impact of Social Media in a stable democracy. As one of the questioners asked, most of the petitions fail, and examples such as the badger cull were in fact dramatic outliers. I am hesitant to cast an opinion without seeing the data in the book, but the argument does seem to have potential. However, if I had one question to ask Peter and Helen, it would be around the age dynamic. Because convention would suggest Social Media is used primarily by younger people, or at least they engage with it at the most frequency, so does this stay the same during movements such as the Arab Spring, as surely a successful uprising relies on the support of most of the population? And sticking with the theme of age, I am keen to explore the ageing process. If the youth are the ones using Social Media for the tiny acts of participation, then they will be far more used to that as they get older, making the impact of Social Media in politics greater.
As you can probably tell, I can talk about this for a while, so I won’t bore you anymore. Anyway, I have Peter and Helen’s book to be reading so that will definitely keep me busy! Expect a review soon, and I would just like to thank Mark Gatenby for making us aware of the event and helping organise.
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