Demos Daily: Plugged In

George Floyd’s death at the hand of the Minneapolis police has sparked large protests around the world, targeting police brutality and systemic racism. The instant and global organisation of large-scale protests often relies on social media. But with lockdown measures still in place, many people use social media not just to organise demonstrations, but as a primary platform for their activism. On Blackout Tuesday, Instagram users around the world posted a black square and no other content in solidarity, viral videos by black activists quickly inform large networks, and calls to write to your MP as well as resources on anti-racism get circulated far and wide within minutes.

The important role of social media in modern activism was described in a 2018 Demos report called Plugged In, which found that 64% of young people consider social media platforms an essential part of achieving social change. Read the executive summary below, and the full report here.

Executive Summary

The report presents new evidence for the power of social platforms to mobilise young people into social action.

  • Nearly two-thirds of young people (64%) see social media platforms as an essential part of achieving social change, and over half of 35-50 year olds agree (55%).
  • Young women are nearly twice as likely to use social media to campaign on issues important to them (19%) than young men (10%).
  • Approximately half (55%) of young people in the UK believe social media makes positive offline change more likely to happen.
  • Half of young people who report using social media to communicate with community groups, charities and campaign groups do so on a daily basis.

The report reaffirms the centrality of social media platforms in the organisation and experience of our lives.

  • 91% felt social media had a net positive impact on them and their community.
  • 7% of young people reported using social media to communicate directly with politicians or political groups in the past twelve months. Extrapolated to the UK population, this equates to approximately half a million young people communicating with political groups online. Of these people, half are in direct contact every week.
  • Young men were twice as likely to report using social media to communicate with politicians or political groups than young women (10% vs 5%).

The power of social media is a force multiplier: through a review of the academic literature on social action as organised or coordinated online, through 15 interviews with campaign groups and with input from a half-day forum, we conclude that when used for good, social media platforms can be a powerful tool for positive social change, and when used for ill, they can cause considerable damage.

Interviewees:

  • Identified the power of social platforms to reach new audiences and provide platforms for new voices, particularly those traditionally excluded from a platform.
  • Credited social media with providing new routes into social action for previously excluded or under-informed groups, and of new ways of organising and raising money outside of traditional organisational structures.

However, interviewees also:

  • Were highly critical of their vulnerability to abuse through social platforms and the ability of platforms to police their spaces.
  • Raised concerns about the extent to which social media allowed sustained and long-lasting social action.

Social action can be encouraged, strengthened and measured through social media and other digital platforms.

  • The affordability and accessibility of social platforms have created new civic organisations that are able to successfully operate outside of traditional organisational structures.
  • Attitudinal, fundraising and offline meet up data all have potential in providing social campaigners with metrics by which to measure their success.

However, there remain significant concerns about:

  • The misuse and abuse of social media by actors attempting to disrupt positive social change through social media platforms, including the spreading of misinformation and hate, and in particular in regions where platform oversight is weaker.
  • The impact of algorithmic content curation on the types of messaging and, consequently, the types of groups that find their voices.
  • The risk of an ‘activism gap’: the exclusion of causes and campaigners for whom social media platforms are hostile or unusable.

In light of these findings, Demos recommends:

Measure Digital Community Health

The DCMS should incorporate a measure of digital community health into the yearly Community Life survey, measuring the extent and impact of social action and the quality of community interactions and cohesion as they appear online.

Research and modelling could be supported through co-working with social media platforms (though would not be contingent on this), and would likely take the form of a pilot study in towns and cities in the UK.

Ensure digital literacy is a core component of statutory PSHE

The government should adopt the recommendations made in the 2017 report by the Select Committee on Communications and ensure digital literacy is a core component of the PSHE syllabus in schools; modules tackling citizenship, democracy and human rights ought to include the notion of digital culture and citizenship.

Improve Platform transparency

We recommend social media platforms improve transparency of their platforms in two ways.

Alongside GDPR compliance, platforms might consider extending the levels of data immediately accessible to their users. Currently, we believe data provided by social platforms is difficult to interpret to an average user. An ‘at a glance’ breakdown of how and why content and advertising is being shown to them on the platform. Where possible, this should be standardised across platforms: GDPR requests provide a likely framework for this.

Transparency at an individual level should be complemented by platform-level transparency. Recent attempts to get an overall view of what is happening on a platform have been patchy: frustrated by platform reluctance and reduction in API access. At a minimum, we recommend a simple heuristic: that which is public on a platform ought to be accessible through an API.