Critics Misjudged Power of Digital Advocacy

With the Canadians Against Proroguing Parliament Facebook group now over 200,000 members, my weekly technology law column (Toronto Star version, homepage version) looks at how its success provides the clearest indicator yet of how poorly the Canadian political community understands social media and digital advocacy.

When the Prime Minister announced he was proroguing parliament in the midst of the holiday season, political commentators applauded the tactic, confident that few Canadians would notice or care.  In less than three weeks, Christopher White, a university student from Alberta, proved the experts wrong, building the largest Facebook group in the country, one that's the focal point for national discussion and voter discontent.  

As the group began to take flight, it was surprising to see political leaders and analysts blithely dismiss the relevance of Facebook advocacy. Editorials pointed to other large groups to demonstrate the group's irrelevance, noting that joining a Facebook group was too easy – just click to join – to mean much of anything.

This represents a shocking underestimation of the power of digital advocacy, which today is an integral part of virtually every political or business advocacy campaign.

First, the criticism is particularly surprising since Canada has experienced this form of advocacy before and it has proven effective.  In 2007, the Fair Copyright for Canada group I launched grew to 90,000 members and was credited by some with convincing the government to more carefully examine its proposed bill.  The following year, a group opposing proposed changes to Ontario's rules for young drivers reached 150,000 members and persuaded Premier Dalton McGuinty to drop the amendments.  

Second, anyone who tells you that building a 200,000-person Facebook group is easy has never tried to do it.  Indeed, Stephen Harper, Michael Ignatieff, Jack Layton, and Gilles Duceppe, the four national party leaders, have less than 100,000 members combined on their respective Facebook pages.  

In fact, much like Facebook, the political parties all make it as easy as possible to become members.  In the case of the Conservative or Liberal Parties, completing a form with just your name and address along with a $10 payment makes you a party member.  Not a particularly onerous burden, yet party membership numbers are regularly trumpeted as evidence of popular support.

Third, attempts to marginalize Facebook users as outside the mainstream is difficult to reconcile with the fact that Canadians are among the most active social network users in the world.  Recent estimates found 42 percent of Canadians have a Facebook account with more than 50 percent under the age of 45 on the social network.

Fourth, the dismissal of social media as a useful tool for rallying support fails to recognize what marketers have long understood – word of mouth from a trusted source is always the most effective means of spreading a message. Political parties invest millions in ad campaigns trying to garner public support, but Facebook advocacy is potentially more effective because it's all about word of mouth.  Joining a group may require little more than a mouse click, but behind that click is a trusted network of friends and colleagues providing their personal recommendation.

Skeptics have pointed to rallies planned for this week as the litmus test for the effectiveness of the anti-proroguing Facebook group.  But with polls finding mounting interest in the issue, the battle has already been won suggesting it is long past time to cast aside doubts about the importance and effectiveness of digital advocacy.


  1. Chrystal Ocean says:

    It’s not just the political sphere that should come out of the Dark Ages. The digitization of telecommunications could be a great equalizer for the very poor. Yet in Canadian society, governments and for- and non-profit organizations still cling to 19th century assumptions and practices.

  2. My concern is the proprietization of communication
    The web is open, facebook is not. The web is free, arguably facebook is not. If politicians put their eggs all in one basket and embrace facebook it gives facebook more power and control. I wish tool adoption didn’t play a factor in how politics in Canada is going to be run.

  3. I’d like to know what the effect was on Tony Clement’s inbox. Seconds after his story calling Canadians worried about prorogation ‘elites’, the whole group page was awash in calls to email him. I suspect he’s still wading through the emails.

  4. Not to mention if the group is 200,000 strong, how many are either lurking there, or talking to their friends, it’s not just the number of people actually in that group, it’s how many people can those 200,000 talk to and interact with.

  5. Will social media eventually be the end of polls and referendums? Will we have government by social media? To me, that’s a very scary thought. Social media is a very powerful force that’s not fully understood yet. Government should be aware of what’t being said but basing policy on it may be allowing government by the loudest voices which is not the best model. We are in for interesting times.

  6. Captain Hook says:

    Kerry Brown saiz:
    “Government should be aware of what’t being said but basing policy on it may be allowing government by the loudest voices which is not the best model.”

    That’s right much better to have government by the biggest wallet, which is what we have now.

  7. I more or less agree, but
    with respect to the statement “Not a particularly onerous burden, yet party membership numbers are regularly trumpeted as evidence of popular support”. Comparing this to joining a Facebook group is a bit of a stretch… The difference being that the person joining the party is willing to pay for it; joining a Facebook group costs you nothing. What percentage of FB members have multiple memberships? I know at least one person with multiple memberships. In addition, is it possible to restrict the membership in a group to a geographic area (I don’t know)? Because of this, social media such as FB will probably always be considered to be less reliable, with the rationale:

    1) You can’t be all that committed if you aren’t willing to pony up a few bucks to support the cause; and
    2) Just how many of the members are actually affected by this issue.

    With respect to the last, a reasonable example is the “Get Stockwell Day to change his name to Doris” online petition started by Rick Mercer. There were lots of non-residents who signed it, some didn’t even know who Stockwell Day is. Rick may in fact have done this type of activism a disservice with the petition.

  8. Edwin Janzen says:

    Social networking has yet another benefit: its social interactions are conducted between friends, so political messages will be more easily trusted and thus adopted. Compared to traditional political techniques like knocking on doors, sending out mailers, cold calling, or writing op-eds for publications, political posts on social networking sites already essentially come with the “recommendation” of a friend – a significant advantage when you’re trying to get people to read an important article, sign a petition, etc.

  9. Brill Pappin says:

    Its not about how easy it is.
    What they fail to take into account, is that is not about how easy it is to click a button — it’s about public perception and societal direction.

    Yes. it *is* much easier to click a button and you can certainly get more people to do that than to show up at a rally…. however it’s not the button clicking or rally that is the end goal.

    We as a population may no longer be prone to armed revolution, but in this society, clicking a button shows immediately what we think and then brings us into contact with others who may be better at expressing that same opinion and solidifying our own.

    It’s as if Harper said we should all eat cake.

  10. Adam Sofineti says:

    @Kerry Brown
    “Will social media eventually be the end of polls and referendums?” I don’t think social media will replace referendums or other democratic elections. I do think though that social media can have a huge impact on the result of elections. We saw this in the past and we’ll see more and more of this in the future.
    Could social media replace polls? Yes, I do think it can and it will. As more and more people embrace it, the voice of its users will be more and more relevant and impossible to ignore.
    Should we, the citizens, or the Government be afraid of social media? No, social media is just a tool, a natural result of the evolution of the Internet, not worst than the email, or the telephone.

    Since he began his tenure as minority Prime Minister, Harper has abandoned his goal of a transparent and accountable Parliament.

    The current revolt over his move to prorogue the release of documents concerning the torture of Afghan detainees by neutralizing parliament with a phone call to Rideau Hall is only yet another illustration of a government that has taken the practices of secrecy, dishonesty, contempt, and power consolidation to frightening extremes.

    While Harper and members of his caucus may think that calling for a war crimes investigation is treasonous or somehow undemocratic, it is now plain and obvious that most Canadians now disagree. It seems in fact, most Canadians think that the opposite is true, and indeed increasing numbers now see Mr. Harper as arrogant, controlling, secretive, reclusive, cowardly, undemocratic or ‘out of touch’. There also growing numbers of us who now see Harper as having effectively hijacked democracy, and as a fugitive of the highest law of the land – Parliament. We see his acts as unlawful and feel as though our rights to answers are being held hostage by these few who appear to be hiding behind our brave men and woman, utterly perverting our democracy’s tradition.

    This move has sickened and outraged hundreds of thousands of hard-working Canadians. was created as a reminder of what our country is about. As movements to take our country back swell from coast to coast to coast, we are asking Canadians to remember what got us to this point. This site serves as a testament to the true history and values so many of share, the challenges we face, and our vision for the future. We believe that by coming together and sharing what we have in common, we can break down the barriers that confine and divide us.

    For us, this dark hour has become a time of reflection, hope and change. As hundreds of thousands protest and rally against the status quo, we can look forward to change in a new era of understanding.

  12. Robert Tombs says:

    Michael, this is an excellent article. What we don’t know is how big our group will grow but there era of people without a voice seems to be coming quickly to a close.

  13. @Captain Hook I never said the current model was better, just that governing by social media was different. I think eventually we will get to a point were social media will be an important tool for governments. Presently it’s too misunderstood. Out of the 200,000 facebook group members how many are Canadians? How many joined “just because”? There’s no way to measure the data.

    @Adam Sofineti I agree the voices will be hard for politicians to ignore. Is that really a good thing? Sometimes politicians may have to do unpopular things because what they are doing is right, misunderstood by many, but right. That’s why we elect them, to govern. If they do bad job we don’t re-elect them. As social media currently exists I’m afraid many politicians will bend to a loud voice that may not be the majority voice, merely the loudest.

    Note that I’m not talking about the issue of Harper proroguing parliament. I’m only talking about the issue of social media and how it may affect governments.

  14. Power of a dollar…
    I was mulling over the implications of the “digital” (text messaging mostly) relief contributions to the Haiti disaster. How it “amazed” many people, people that really didn’t have any idea what the digital age can bring about.
    Perhaps there *is* a way to unequivocally show the legitimacy of online advocacy. So, mostly tongue in cheek, here is an amusing idea.

    Lets set up a “contribution” text message number for one of our politicians. Perhaps, Tony Clement. Then use social networking to drive awareness, and recommend a small contribution (say $5) to the contribution number. Even make it tax deductible (with your telephone bill as a receipt). Only allow one fixed amount contribution per sending phone number. Just think about it, we “the people” could buy our very own politicians. Or to be more accurate, we could buy them back. Give the lobbyist groups a run for their money, literally.

    You could break this down into fairly small chunks, lets take the “Canadian” position on ACTA. Publicly present each item on the table with a “yes/no” response, tally the “dollar votes” (tax deductible!). Then go back to the ACTA table, and show where the “Canadian people have spoken – with their specific tax dollars”. Negotiate on behalf of Canadian people, right down to the specific issues on the table. Challenge every other negotiator at the table to show a similar kind of backing from their citizens.

    I know, there are lots of problems with the above – it was mostly an amusing thought. But there is a germ of an idea here somewhere.

  15. I agree with Edwin.
    “Fourth, the dismissal of social media as a useful tool for rallying support fails to recognize what marketers have long understood – word of mouth from a trusted source is always the most effective means of spreading a message.”

    In this day and age it’s hard to believe that supposedly savvy politicians aren’t cognizant of how fast word of mouth spreads in a network of friends on FB. FB provides a platform for members to quickly make their stance known on a range of issues through joining groups like the popular Canadians Against Proroguing group, and though it’s easy to join by clicking, just as Michael points out, that’s not a reason to discount this level of involvement.

  16. @Kerry
    I don’t think it’s so much governing by social media, but rather the awareness it allows the general public. We live in a democratic society. But, that doesn’t mean every decision is made democratically, even important ones that affect a large number of people. In a lot of the cases, people don’t say no to such decisions because they were never even aware of them.

    For instance, UBB is a big issue for Canadian ISPs, and potentially anyone in Canada who uses the Internet. Yet, how many people are aware of the UBB tariff? Even if they’ve heard of it, they probably don’t know what it does. But, once they learn about it, most of them tend to disagree with it and voice their concern. Making Facebook groups, sharing this on popular forums, blogs, etc. are very effective ways of sharing this information. Once people know about the issue, they can make a choice and make it heard. Of course, this spreading of awareness can also be used maliciously, such as the spreading of rumors and falsifications.

  17. I laugh at peoples belief in democracy. Give me an unlimited supply of money and I will pass any law that I’d like.

    The first law I will pass will be to do some population control: I’ll start with faking a killer flu epidemic so that I can inject you all with squaline… oh wait…

    That’s satire for those of you unsure…

    I have a good idea, to pacify the public even more we can start with Democracyville where people can pretend their votes matter and actually affect laws!

  18. Social media has an effect on the information gathering behaviors of society. Social networking at its core is not necessarily about inciting change. I don’t believe that is why the majority of people join social networking sites like FB. However, that does not discount the fact that social networking is becoming one of the premier avenues for the gathering of information. While social networking is not the ‘be all and end all’ of our news coverage it has certainly become a viable way of raising awareness. Even if you are not a member of social networking sites such as FB the coverage of groups like ‘Canadians against against proroguing parliament’ can be brought to your attention through other media outlets. Personally, I learned of the group via Jian Ghomeshi on his daily CBC radio show Q. Given the ability of social networks to now stretch beyond the social networking community itself, the impact has yet to be fully realized. Because of this I think there is good reason to speculate about how much influence social networking sites will have on not only politics but many societal issues in the future.

  19. Proroging Parliament
    Personally, I greeted the prorogation of parliament with cheers. It meant that several bad bills died on the floor and will have to begin the approval process yet again.

  20. contrary opinion says:

    armchair activism has the opposite effect
    the rise of armchair activism has taken some interesting turns, but let’s look at effectiveness.

    a good look at the actual effectiveness of facebook as an organizing tool, but with a caveat: facebook is a for profit company beholden to stakeholders, not users. (customer would be something of a stretch.)

    other ‘successes’ found tended to be far more vapid to be considered success. a renamed highway from 401 to hero highway. wow. save a fountain. i’m sure it’s a nice fountain, and representative of a success, but not anywhere near the level required to make changes in government. then we have an interesting case, but near facile as well:
    the telling quote:McGuinty joked that his own four grown children, all in their 20s, gave him a hard time about the teen driving restrictions.

    “When my own kids began to picket my own home I knew I’d overstepped,” he said.

    how about the also rans? bc hst campaign, prorogue campaign, ip issues and the crtc. just to scratch the surface.

    while it’s true that an effort at organization will go a long way in the digital domain, ultimately change comes from action, physical interaction to promote physical change, not armchair activism.

    that grocery store didn’t stock xxxx because of a facebook campaign, they did it for the dollars.

  21. Awareness.
    With awareness comes choice. Social media is phenomenal for spreading awareness. It’s immeasurably faster than street protests or activism or whatever.

    Having information spread about government activities (secret negotiations like ACTA, for example) that is not released by the government itself is bad for those who wish to exert their “rules” without our consent or knowledge. Because then people know, which defeats the whole “secret” thing.

    Since each person can only do what is in front of them, awareness and knowledge is really the most powerful force. Look at Iceland’s situation. They are exercising their entitlement to choose, rejecting the EU’s attempts to enslave them to a private bank’s debt. Because they are aware.

  22. Jack Robinson says:

    Misjudgement of Adverserial On-Line Oppositon? Wishful Thinking Kidz…
    While I deeply value and earnestly support sites like this and the often Quixotic fervour they inspire… my own experiences as a life-long advocate/combatant for Free Expression and Social Justice have taught me this:

    The Game is Fixed as long as we continue play by the shape-shifting, profit-engineered rules and regs that our Complicit Corporate Owners and elected-by-default Quislings in Power seek to mandate by Machiavellian design and subterfuge.

    Whether it’s Prorogation of Democratic Process or the backroom Global Cabal’s sinister threats of penurous Media-Sharing penalties that could potentially make criminals of us all… it comes down to targeted bullets at the ballot box… or shutting down the usage-bloated Crap Networks they’ve made us willing junkies to.

  23. Canada in the Global village
    According to Maclean’s Feb. 1 article “The people speak”.. Christopher White and his group are looking at all sorts of ideas as a continuation of the successful Canadians against prorogation venture. Good idea that he does not want it to just become Harper bashing. I lost a lot of respect for Macleans when a cover,feature story,8 pages of articles,16 photos was deemed to be the proper recognition of Harper as he tickled the ivories at that National Arts very contrived gala.I digress..
    I hope that the Alberta group considers adding this concern to its list. It was Marshall McLuhan I believe that decades ago coined the phrase the Global Village.There seems to be very little awareness,less care even about the fact that we, a rich country,perform very poorly among industrialized nations.Just one example. UNESCO(25 countries),OECD(14) singled Canada out as we finished 25 and 14 in child care(2008 surveys). In the UNESCO one we passed in one (1) of the 10 critera used. Add child poverty, the environment, our aboriginal record,transparency,;;the list goes on…and we bring up the rear. These or any of these problems seem doomed to never be addressed in any meaningful way under our first past the post election system(all leading countries but U.S.,UK and Canada have abandoned this years ago). Petty partisan politics will prevail. We cannot buy into coalitions even though many successful countries have them;basically they have this quaint idea that they are primarily working for their citizens,not to retain/gain power.
    We seem very unconcerned; pity, we should be doing much better.
    PS I found it amusing that in 2008 we beat Sweden in the final the Junior Hockey world tourney. At that time Sweden finished first in the UNESCO child care survey having passed in all ten criteria. And still turn out pretty decent hockey players.