When people don’t trust their government to act in a way that they feel is transparent, accountable, or in a manner that promotes the general welfare or public values, they can form together and let their feelings be known. Decreased levels of trust take the form of civil disobedience, policy advocacy, and mass protests.
In Here Comes Everyone, Clay Shirky eloquently writes about why pre-social media/internet scandals (he focused on sexual abuse scandals in the Catholic Church) and movements did not impact the organizations they same way that they currently do due to the use of many-to-many communication channels (social media, email, etc.). These tools allow people to identify people who would otherwise not be known, to join together to push back on organizations and institutions. At times this can be effective, like in the case of the Catholic Church abuse scandals that occurred in Boston where people demanded that the Church be more open in its governance and accountable to its congregants. At times, these moves also fail, as seen in attempts to change the government in Turkey, for instance. I see two overarching issues at play: acquiring a critical mass and maintaining energy behind the movement.
Social media has made it much easier to inform people about events, protests/marches, and groups formed around a common purpose. However, slacktivism (just liking and sharing information) is a problem. Social media platforms are great for spreading information, but then there needs to be action. Where are you going to meet? What time? What is the rallying call? The key is the off-line action. Part of this includes boycotts and making phone calls. Part includes showing up and letting your voice be heard and your presence known. For this to be successful, you need an active, vocal, and engaged group of people. A large group. Which brings us to the second point.
A lot of people may care about an issue, but is there enough energy and passion behind that issue to get them to become active? And of there is, how long can this energy be maintained? Part of the maintenance related to the salience of the issue and the connection with the members of the group. Part relies on the coverage of the movement by outside sources, as was seen in Turkey when the media fears the government. Movements still rely on traditional media to inform those who are not connected with the groups through social media. Traditional media also lends an air of legitimacy.
So why am I writing about this? As a social scientist, and one who studies how governments and nonprofits can leverage social media (as well as other online technologies) I am fascinated by the Trump administration and how groups are forming to resist some (if not most or all) of his actions. Moreover, critical mass and energy are usually obtained by individuals who are being personally impacted by an organization or a policy. As noted by an opinion piece today in the Chicago tribune by Eric Zorn, the large protests that we are currently seeing are by individuals, many of whom are not personally impact of Trump’s executive orders, are rallying on behalf of others who are because of a shared value system. We saw groups quickly form in response to the Trump Administration’s Executive Order regarding travel restrictions on individuals from Iran, Iraq, Lybia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. We also saw a similar movement called the Women’s March in response to the possibility of what a Trump Administration could mean for women’s rights – a very large protest that took place in multiple countries. This is the power of social media. But too often, the force of these movements are fleeting.
As I have noted in a previous post, I am not a fan of “the sky is falling” hysteria. I do currently see an individual who is riding very close to the edge of operating in a legal manner and promoting transparency. In the end, it comes down to government – at all levels – operating in a way that promotes the public’s trust. With regard to the new administration, so far his supporters love what he is doing. However, there are words of caution from conservative and libertarian journalists such as David Brooks and John Stossel, as well as those on the opposite end of the political spectrum like Thomas Friedman and Robert Reich (of course).
We, the people, need to sort through the dizzying pace at which information, distractions, and sideshows are playing out and stop to think: 1) is this true, and 2) why. Is it true: do some research on sites that disagree with the premise of the story. What is the ‘other side’ saying? Make an informed opinion.* Then think, why is this newsworthy, and how does it impact our country/state/country/city/town? What are the implications? If I agree, what should I do? If I disagree, what should I do? Social media is not only spreading the stories like wildfire, but it is also a platform where like-minded people can meet and turn their concern into action. After sorting out facts from alternative facts, then it is up to each individual to decide how he or she wants to get involved, and hopefully, the actions of the different movements will force more transparency and accountability for the policy decisions of our elected representatives. This is being a responsible citizen.
Social media is not only spreading the stories like wildfire, but it is also a platform where like-minded people can meet and turn their concern into action. After sorting out facts from alternative facts, then it is up to each individual to decide how he or she wants to get involved, and hopefully, the actions of the different movements will force more transparency and accountability for the policy decisions of our elected representatives. This is the only way to rebuilt trust between government and citizens.
* An excellent slide show on “How to be a Smart Consure of News”