Power in social media

I recently got into dispute with an American lady who contradicted my view that social media are the primary preserve of the elite. She confronted me after the large group discussion and said that access to social media tools were universal in the US. I asked about street homeless people, undocumented workers in the shanty towns near the American-Mexican border and those in the far backwoods of Alaska but she stuck to her guns and let me know in no uncertain terms that in the Land of the Free, everyone can tweet.

Homeless and Hungry by Ed Jourdan CC FlickrExclusion online

Despite her arguments, I still hold that our easy assumption is false that ubiquitous and pervasive mobile hardware makes the online world available to everyone. I find that the barriers to effective online participation are equally pervasive and remain pretty intractable. Figures suggest that more than 20% of the UK population are functionally illiterate with over 100,000 pupils leaving school each year without the ability to understand more than the simplest sentence. In hyper-diverse Southwark, this is exacerbated by those whose first language is not English and who have never managed to achieve facility in English as a second language. On top of these issues about language, many people lack competence and confidence with the technology itself and it becomes clear why a significant proportion of the community are shut out from social media.

Fours Powers

But my mind was drawn back to this theme by a blog piece on Duncan Green’s From Poverty to Power. He was challenged by an speaking invitation to explore the relationship between power, development (he worked at the time as Head of Research for Oxfam GB) and social media. His post summarises his thoughts about power and social media in the world of development – do go have a read! I found this linking of conceptual worlds provoking and thought it would be good to explore – as a draft and as a way to stimulate other people’s reflections – how power and social media intersect in community organising.

Duncan takes as his kicking off point the ‘four powers’ model of power. In summary the four are:

  • Power over: the power of the strong over the weak, including the power to exclude others.
  • Power to: the capability to decide actions and carry them out.
  • Power with: collective power, through organisation, solidarity and joint action.
  • Power within: personal self-confidence, often linked to culture, religion or other aspects of identity, which influences the thoughts and actions that appear legitimate or acceptable. (Excerpt from Quick Guide to Power Analysis from Oxfam)

A Man checks Twitter on an iPhone by Steve Garfield CC FlickrArching between worlds

For the community organiser, power is a central concept and one that I use daily to help keep me aware of how I am using my own power, how others around me are acting and to help me analyse the context in which we are working. In the world of social media, I don’t see much discussion of power and how social media power is used, so that seems where a greater awareness might be useful. I suppose the question is how is power – positive and negative – exercised in the use of social media? How are the elite able to exert ‘power over’ the majority and how might social media play a role in developing further ‘power within’ and ‘power with’?

Power within

Duncan suggests that he’s seen little to link social media with ‘power within’,

that lightbulb ‘get up, stand up’ moment when an individual becomes aware of their identity and rights – is often the first step on the path of social and political change. It can come through conflict, education, conversation or through old technologies such as community radio

This is the moment of animation for the citizen, that they have a role in the wider community and can engage with other people to express their dreams and frustrations. Could (or does) social media have a role in awakening individuals to their situation? The most prevalent form of digital media is of course TV and radio, (mostly) broadcast media with only limited social application. However many have gained from the TV schedule real insight into their identity and rights and used rightly by the broadcaster, such consciousness can become a springboard for action. (Here I am reminded of the documentaries of Adam Curtis’ ‘The Century of Self’ (2002) and ‘All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace’ (2011))

Power with

When he turns to ‘power with’. he is more positive:

newly awakened people finding common cause with their fellows through social movements, faith-based organizations, trades unions, political parties etc etc. In this effort to build collective organization, IT can play a role, whether by facilitating access to information, or lowering the costs and barriers to organizing

The many times that Twitter and Facebook are mentioned in relation to the Arab Spring seems to make the connection true. The reality is however that many years of hard work training in non-violent direct action and community organising had preceded the emergence of the movements that swept across north Africa and the Middle East in early 2011. True, social media were an immediate means of street-level organising but the main strategy, people, skills and tactics had for many been identified years before.

Occupy London by givingnot CC FlickrThat said – and so some caution spread about claiming too much for social media in fermenting revolution – the use of free means of near instant peer-to-peer communication certainly delivers new opportunities for organisers. In the study of digital organising I am just starting with Thom Townsend and Mark Corbin of izwe, I am keen to explore the potential of online tools to help enhance the face-to-face encounters with citizens that remain at the heart of organising.

Clearly getting sympathetic engagement from across the country or world gives anyone a boost and linking with others facing the similar struggles can provide real practical support and advice. Creating an interactive and creative network online can be a key way to progress in tackling the issues you face in the fleshly world. These weak ties are crucial to being able to draw on resources beyond your immediate friends and family but they are not the strong tie relationships that will stand shoulder-to-shoulder with you under pressure. (See the work of Mark Granovetter on interpersonal ties.)

Power over / Power to

Duncan Green says, ‘power over / power’:

involves aware, organized people expressing their needs and demands, and exercising some form of control over those in authority, first by putting the right issues on the table, and then getting the decisions and resources that are needed. Overall, I think this is where IT has most to offer…

There is little doubt that social media helps to increase transparency and accountability as power-holders know that their every action comes under immediate dispersed public debate. Duncan also points to alerts to human rights abuse, crowd-sourcing information and sharing market information with poor farmers. The capacity to raise the temperature of debate quickly by adept use of Twitter has brought some key issues to public attention when otherwise the mainstream media might well have not picked them up.

A decade of mobile telephony by AutomaticDefence CC FlickrBut we also know that social media can be used to “…move everything in the wrong direction – strengthening elites, enhancing a culture of surveillance and control, excluding poor people and communities…” Too often in the UK, power elites use social media to shape a ‘false consciousness’ of the issue, for example around the impact of immigration or the inevitability of austerity. Part of my motivation for taking an active part in digital organising is to counter the misconceptions and misinformation about community-led action put out by those in powerful positions of influence.

The excluded majority

Finally it is worth noting that the conversation that happens each night between the ‘twitterati’ about that night’s TV or the chances of England in the Ukraine, is still held between a minority. Popular subjects and inclusive language do not in themselves encourage the majority of our society to venture online for such pursuits. Most of those I have met at the doorstep regard the world of social media as pointless. And of course they are right. Facebook and Twitter do not do the shopping, bathe the kids or bring in the money. These are the daily priorities of so-called ‘normal people’, not pressing buttons on keyboards and guiding mice across a screen!


Quick Guide to Power Analysis from Oxfam Download from the PowerCube below

The Power Cube http://www.powercube.net/from the Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex. This website brings together thinking and research into power over three decades at IDS into a simple but powerful summary. The resources to make use of the concepts and approach in participative ways are diverse, rich and practical.

Lisa VeneKlasen with Valerie Miller (2006) A New Weave of Power, People & Politics: The Action Guide for Advocacy and Citizen Participation http://www.justassociates.org/ActionGuide.htm

Ruth Mayne and Jim Coe (2010) Power and Social Change NCVO Available at http://www.ncvo-vol.org.uk/sites/default/files/UploadedFiles/NC586_12b_power_social_change.pdf
This pdf book is an excellent report exploring power in different aspects
of the work of the non-profit sector.

Valerie Miller, Lisa Veneklasen, Molly Reilly and Cindy Clark (2006)
Making Change Happen: Power – Concepts for Re-visioning Power for Justice,
Equality and Peace
Available at http://www.justassociates.org/publications_files/MCH3.pdf
Deeply thought out, this is a superb reflection from a feminist perspective on
the nature and exercise of power.

Henry Tam Against Power Inequalities: reflections on the struggle for
inclusive communities
Available from http://democracymatters.info/docs/API_book.pdf
This pdf book is a tour de force of academic study made really readable and
relevant to activists. Henry Tam places our struggles with power in a global
historical context and makes a strong case for a different way of handling power

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3 Responses to Power in social media

  1. alright mark. I think it’s been interesting how twitter and facebook have helped mobilise campaigns purely through some very important ‘micro interventions’. For example the Work Programme, recently launched with the stated aim of ‘helping’ people back into work, was quickly challenged by those actually enrolled on the programme .
    They tweeted some of their experiences which directly contradicted the rhetoric, with very human stories of unsupervised, unskilled and demoralising workplace experiences which appeared to be set up for the benefit of the companies involved rather than to help them. This quickly forced some concessions. I wonder if this involvement of those *actually affected* (rather than those politically ‘concerned’ or sympathetic) was a factor that has so far kept it from becoming a fairly traditional lefty ‘defend the welfare state’ type thing (with it’s fairly traditional lefty habit of ‘speaking to power’ through symbolic actions rather than building actual power? The activities of Boycott Workfare (http://www.boycottworkfare.org) with some fairly innovative tactics, including rolling workfare pickets, using social media to harangue and debate with workfare providers ,seems to be a step forward from the usual ‘pop out saturday afternoon and hand out flyers quietly to a disinterested public’

    The interesting thing about this is how will this online network continue to translate into real world activity and can it build real lasting and powerful relationships beyond that of traditional left activism ?

    • Mark Parker says:

      Thanks for this Steve. I think you are right to identify the Boycott Workfare campaign as a good example of mixed media counter-power.Many on the left were rightly appauled by the wholesale adoption of American models of free work for benefits. However the methods used have been quite interesting, using social media as one element of a wider campaign to try to shape the debate. Their re-framing of the language around the scheme has helped to open up sympathetic audiences beyond the traditional left-wing ones. I suspect that the withdrawal of some firms from support of the programme has been a direct result of the reframing of the programme by its opponens. Social media has played a role but not a dominant one in this challenge to the government’s control of framing; it will be interesting to see whether others now adopt a similar tactical mix.

      You identify how this is not the norm within the Left, where symbolic opposition seems to have become standard c.f Union march 26 March 2011 against the Cuts. I want to see a transformed relationship between citizens and the local state as one step on the way to a new democratic settlement. Only when the Left becomes once more attuned to creating power amongst citizens themselves will we see such a future becoming possible. Community Organising offers one promising route to that future and I agree the link between online networks and the reality on the ground will be a real test of the Boycott Workfare coalition.

  2. An interesting discussion is definitely worth comment. There’s no doubt that that you ought to write more on this subject matter, it may not be a taboo subject but typically people do not talk about such subjects. To the next! Many thanks!!

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