Misplaced Doubts About Facebook Advocacy

With the anti-proroguing Facebook group now past 100,000 members, there is still a surprising debate about the merits of online advocacy.  Blayne Haggart rightly points out that we've seen this before in Canada and it is somewhat surprising that there is such doubt that this form of advocacy can be effective.  Experience suggests that it can – Canadian examples such as Fair Copyright for Canada or Young Drivers Against New Ontario Laws demonstrated that social media is a remarkably useful tool for bringing together tens of thousands of people with a common view.  While some dismiss Facebook group membership as too easy (and therefore not representative of much), the ease with which people can be educated about an issue, express an opinion by joining, and ultimately asked to do more is a feature not a bug. 

None of this is to say that Facebook or digital advocacy alone will change the decision to prorogue.  It won't.  But in tapping into the underestimated exasperation with political leaders who think that the public could care less about political games, it holds the potential to keep the issue alive in the public's mind.  Polls already suggest that may be the case and if the people behind the Facebook group can maintain the momentum by branching out both online and offline [update: launched today in an effort to go beyond Facebook], this could go on for awhile.  For what's worth, I discussed digital advocacy in an @Google Policy talk in June 2008. 


  1. agree
    People who criticize Facebook advocacy groups miss the point: the group is a tool, a first step, to organize events and action.

    This isn’t a simple “I love Nutella”-type group… it’s a catalyst and call for accountability from our so-called leaders. I’m so disillusioned right now with Canadian politics, and this latest stunt has pushed me over the edge. I’m glad this group exists so that I can find out where I can join the rally in my locale.

  2. It’s absolutely foolish to overlook what’s happening on the facebook sites. After all it’s virtually uncharted territory. The interesting thing about this latest movement using the social media site is, not only that it is being used as a political action catalyst, but that many of the people using the site have noted that they have never taken any kind of political action before in their lives. I think that they are finding out that they can indeed participate and digital tools are going to make it easier and easier for them. I think that it is also bringing a political ‘kitchen table’ back into the picture – along with the ‘I love Nutella’ sites. I think it’s providing a tremendous learning opportunity for the younger voters who feel very comfortable communicating digitally. I think politicians are unwise to ignore the impact of Facebook as a political tool. I leave you with one last quote from one poster on the Facebook site – ‘I never knew Canadian politics could be so exciting!’ That gives me hope.

  3. Facebook polls prevent duplicate voting but let outsiders participate
    The best thing that most commentators overlook is that unlike polls, which are skewed towards people who a) actually answer the phone with often bogus caller ID and b) still have a landline phone, Facebook participation like this is more social AND less prone to poll jacking. It’s too time consuming to create a bunch of new identities to “vote” on a certain issue, although I do wonder how many of these people joining are from inside Canada.

  4. Letters and Signs and Facebook
    Peaceful protest never changed anything. If a couple of hundred angry people show up at Harper’s doorstep, then, even though no physical violence need be involved, he will feel enough of a personal threat to realize that his actions must be reversed (much as Jim Prentice did in Calgary).

  5. If it engages citizens, it’s worth it.
    Harper’s so out of touch. Prorogued when he didn’t anticipate that the opposition parties would “gang up on him” when he tried to eliminate the $2.50/vote (?) public funding. Prorogued again when the detainee issue got too hot.

    He may be the smartest man in the room but, he does need glasses.

    I’m glad he won’t survive the next election.

    PS. re: ” … who think that the public could care less about political games …”

    It’s ” .. could NOT care less …”. If they could care less, it means they care at least some.

    Pet peeve … sorry.

    Captcha “duties” & “miseries”

  6. Catalysing some more
    Additionally, it should be noted that facebook may bring awareness to an entire group of people, who, otherwise, could not be bothered to check out political news. That’s 100 000 people that only need to talk to 10 people to make it a million people aware of the issue. When polling time usually comes around, I hear a lot of comments along the lines of, they’re all the same, they’re all crooks. However, with this type of increased visibility and sense of responsibility, maybe we’ll get to see higher numbers of electoral turnout.

  7. People! Beware of two-way mirrors!
    Political and other social networking activists beware – adding your name to groups and petitions and causes is a great way to signal to interested intelligence and other law enforcement agency types that they might want pay greater attention to you. Politicans and government may or may not listen to your online advocacy, but it’s always out there in perpetuity for the rest of the world to view, harvest, and form (incorrect) conclusions about you, your associations, and your intentions. You decide if the two-way social networking mirror is really worth it.

  8. Social Web Applications Software Engineer
    The full spectrum of Canadian policy knowledge goes from not caring not knowing, to people who can make change happen on a grand scale through influence. It behooves us to make sure that even the most unengaged can learn a little more as easily as possible. There will be greater awareness (for some) and concrete actions (for others) through something as simple as a Facebook group. Only good can come from that. And from skeptical pundits ? Only more apathy!

  9. Conveniently inconvenient
    If this were 100,000 pro the proroguing it would make news…
    I know that employers look to Facebook as a tool now for looking into the history of their potential employees. I guess that if you are being openly social on these types of networks you can no longer expect to be private. Whats that term where we only support or listen to that which supports what we already believe? Ignorance?

  10. Franki
    Yes, you’re absolutely right – we definitely live in the age of Big Brother. And I actually lost a little sleep the other night because I felt torn by some of the more offensive comments and in fact I recall seeing one bodily threat which I did not wish to be associated with. I feel that there are issues to be ironed out in this new communications format which need to address privacy, individual responsibility for what is posted and censorship of discussion. However we can’t live in fear and if we don’t speak up – who will? It’s the same if you write letters to the newspaper. You’re always putting yourself out there in the public realm. But we can’t all cower at home especially if we call ourselves a democracy. There is a time to stand up and be counted and I think this is one of those times. Courage mon ami!

  11. Ottawa rally
    I just got back from the Ottawa rally organization meeting. At least 150-200 engaged citizens showed up for the meeting, and at least 100 stayed to organize themselves into subgroups. They are off to a very good start.

  12. Two-way mirrors vs living your life openly and freely
    Leslie, I recognize that it’s deeply paradoxical: we are in the midst of a great transformation to individual participation and empowerment and freedoms, yet the future is not as bright as web 2.0 utopianists would have us believe – the brighter the light, the darker the shadows. Of course we must live our lives openly and fully, associate with whoever we want, and stand up for what we believe in, and to constantly evolve and grow as human beings, but in this day and age of total recall we must do so with great caution because of the negative impacts on privacy, unseen discriminations (Kafka anyone?), and even outright persecutions that may visit us later as a consequence. The sad thing is that few of us – me included – are equipped to properly understand and evaluate the consequential risks of those impulsive online actions we take today – who can? I’ll continue to work behind the scenes to effect better change in our world, because I believe that I have much more to lose than to gain by going public. Mary Anne Radmacher once said: “Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying, “I will try again tomorrow.”

  13. Afraid?
    Very true, sometimes, trying again tomorow is the right choice.

    However, not participating in what you beleive in, not standing up and showing your support for causes just because an employer might potentially find out; is not a way to live. Honestly, if an employer feels so strongly against something you beleive in.. do you really want to work for them? The employers that will check facebook pages and profiles are the same ones that would of gotten backround checks or other personal infromation befopre hiring you. The truth is, if you’re using facebook to find that perfect employee, then you’ll end up with a bunch of mary sue’s that all think alike. How is that going to be good for buisness?

    If they’re not carefull, they’ll soon start bumping into staged facebook pages. Tell me, how is that going to help them.

  14. Yeah, afraid… sort of
    Very good points. I agree. Jeffrey Rosen observed in his 2004 book The Naked Crowd that surveillance induces conformity. Sometimes that’s desireable – we’re more likely to wash our hands in a washroom if we are surveilled. Sometimes that can be undesireable, such as when it chills freedoms of speech and movement, and stifles individuality. Perhaps this is just the age-old individual-vs-collective tension updated in the internet era of ubiquitous, diffuse and longitudinal surveillance? You’re not a terrorist, but you’d better not behave like one either, just in case…

    Just to bring it back to the original discussion topic, I’m unlikely to add my name to any online petition that may come back to haunt me in unexpected ways. All political parties today – especially the Conservatives – now engage in extensive profiling of citizens for outreach, recruitment and fundraising purposes. I wonder what they do with the profiles of citizens who are openly hostile to their policies, especially once they are in power? t best, ignore them. At worse, well, we’ll probably never be able to connect the dots and to know 🙁

  15. Political hypocricy
    The democracy deniers will shift gears from “show me 2,000,000 facebook names and maybe then I’ll pay attention” to “only hard core trouble makers organize and attend protests”. It will not matter how large the rallies are. They will be dismissed by Harper, his apologists and some in the media. Don’t let it get you down.

  16. Interesting discussion. I think that because of the kind of profiling and targeting of citizens deemed ‘activist’ or labeled ‘politically unfriendly’ to the ruling power in any society, can definitely have negative consequences. I suggest that if you want to see what others can find out about you – google your own name. I was surprised to find out that when I wrote letters of support for various environmental causes – they showed up right away under my name. Granted I do have an uncommon name so I’m thinking of changing my name to Jane Doe. Just kidding. However I must say that I share concerns regarding profiling. I think back to Trudeau and the War Measures Act not so very long ago. However it’s to prevent abuses of power which could threaten our freedom to communicate openly that we must sometimes lose our anonymity and declare ourselves in support of important issues like these. It does little good to be a closet supporter. But I certainly understand your concerns.

  17. North of 49 says:

    Franki’s concerns are real, but…
    There’s a flip side too. Not all employers are the same, and some would certainly be interested in one’s commitment to democracy, or other kinds of activism. Imagine applying for a position at, say, the David Suzuki Foundation, if you had never spoken up about the environment? They’d question your passion, and rightly so.

    What Joel said applies as well. If standing up for democracy scares off a potential employer, would you really want to work for them in the first place? For me, the resume and interview are as much a test of the employer as they are of me; they’re each opportunities to test the employer’s mettle, values, core beliefs and integrity and see if they’re compatible with mine. (I know that in our current economy that sounds awfully risky, but if you can’t hold onto your principles in the worst of times, what kind of principles are they, really?)

  18. Laurel L. Russwurm says:

    we need electoral reform
    If we don’t stand up for what we believe in, it will not get better. Stop paying attention for five minutes and they come up with things like A.C.T.A.

    It doesn’t matter if you sign your name. They will be able to find you. Bell Canada has deployed Deep Packet Inspection which makes them capable of looking at anything unencrypted we put online. (Thank you CRTC.) They say they won’t but…

    For many years there has been a growing disaffected populace who don’t vote because it doesn’t seem to help. The problem is that’s it has left our country in the hands of a small percentage. If everyone voted for the one they thought would do a good job, or failing that, the one who’ll do the least harm– things would change.

    The only reason Prime Minister Harper prorogued parliament was because he leads a minority government. If it was a majority government he could simply have thumbed his nose at his critics and gone on. I LOVE minority governments for 2 reasons:

    1. They must co-operate with SOMEONE in order to govern, so they tend to do the least harm, and
    2. The only governments who even pretend to listen to citizens anymore are minority governments.

    Having frequent elections is probably far less expensive than any majority government’s patronage. Get out and vote. For ANYBODY.

  19. Jack Robinson says:

    The Perils of On-Line Activism in a New Rome Republic
    While I was enticed to this thread by Mr. Geist’s astute analysis of the relative effectiveness of Social Networks’ on-line activism upon legislatively partisan, hard-wired agendas… some of the commentary above regarding the potential price ‘outing’ yourself in the Web Wars could have upon our individual Safe Citizen statuses not only make me cringe… but implies that the Big Chill from The Hill goes far beyond climate change.

    The Blue Meanies have always tried to surpress dissent in any and all forms of public discourse. That they can now access, archive and exploit virtually anyone’s digitalized ditz in a potentially punitive fashion is a slam-dunk given to all but the Reality Challenged.

    My advice: Stay off-line if ya got no spit, spine nor stomach for the Freedom Fray.

  20. is slacktivism so slack?
    I’ve heard joining Facebook groups for political change called “slacktivism” since it doesn’t require anything of the participants more than a mouse-click.

    Is that mouse-click count for a whole lot less than a scribbled signature on a piece of paper?

    Besides the FB groups allow participants to remain engaged after their initial interest, to become aware of protest opportunities, or what others are doing in light of the problem.