I’ve joined numerous Facebook groups to protest against or campaign for causes, and I’ve noticed the mainstream media using the number of people who’ve joined such groups as evidence of popular pressure on the powers that be – whether it’s to preserve the local maternity ward, to fight silly copy-protection of books that are out of copyright, or to pressure the government into updating the customs limit from 1976.

People demonstration against the Gaza war, Oslo, january 2009. CC licence, http://www.flickr.com/photos/palnordseth/3365425614/

Obviously people find it easier to join a Facebook group to make a political point than to march the streets. Perhaps it’s actually more effective, too. Right now, it’s entirely possible that you get more press, and thus more national notice for a Facebook group with 2000 members than a demonstration of 500 people. And it’s a lot easier to get 2000 people to join a Facebook group than to get 500 people to show up at a particular time and place with banners.

Actually, the traditional kind of demonstrations – the first of May demonstration for all matters of importance to workers and social-democrats, and the eighth of March demonstration for all matters of importance to women – have been in stark decline for decades. The only physical demonstrations that have been successful in Norway in recent years are about very specific issues: the war in Iraq, for instance, or the attacks on Gaza, which is what the people in the photo above are protesting.

Perhaps politics no longer has many of those big issues that drew crowds in days of yore to fight for the womens’ vote, against segregation in the US, for the eight-hour-day and workers’ rights. Perhaps today’s politics, at least in Norway, largely exists as many small issues. Which can’t really be dealt with in a monolithical manner by marching the streets with banners.

Rather than poo-pooing the presumed laziness of all those Facebook users who join groups to fight for their causes, perhaps we should look at this as a perfectly valid and effective way of being politically active in today’s world.

I’d love to see a study of this. There are lots of research questions you could work with to understand Facebook politics more clearly. What are the relationships between Facebook campaigns and the mainstream media? Or, what is the history of how regular people protest or campaign for issues? The workers’ and womens’ movements of the late 19th and early 20th century may be the most familiar, but no doubt there are many others. What of earlier protests? Were they impossible because of a feudal society? Obviously more contemporary “smart mobs” protests and campaigns would be relevant. A case study of one or more actual campaigns would be fascinating – who started the group? Was it connected to other online or offline campaigns? To political organisations? How did the group grow? How was it picked up by the mainstream media? Did that feed back into the social media discussions? How did politicians and bureaucrats respond? Did they directly mention the campaign on Facebook or other social media?

If you know of work on this already or if you write something about, let me know!

20 thoughts on “joining a facebook group as political action

  1. Jana

    RT @jilltxt: Is joining a Facebook group a more effective political action than marching in the streets? http://jilltxt.net/?p=2367

  2. David Brake

    You should note that(as far as I can tell) the new Facebook interface no longer alerts people automatically to groups that their friends join which may make this a less effective tool.

  3. Luca

    Do mainstream media really use the numbers of FB groups as an evidence? It’s interesting since we had a late spread of the FB phenomenon here and at the moment media are still focused on FB itself instead of watching what’s going on IN FB. Anyway it’s really an interesting point since the civic engagement is changing and this is part of this process.

  4. Jesper Laugesen

    check out http://virkeligheden.dk/ (in Danish) – Anders Colding-J¯rgensen conducted an experiment, created a group called something like “say NO to the demolition of [REPLACE name of much-loved monument here]”. No actual plans of demolishing this monument actually exists. In 14 days, it has grown to more than 27.000 members (!).

    His objective is different; examining why people join groups, but it may also give some insight to your questions

  5. Rhodri ap Dyfrig

    A group has just emerged in my town (Aberystwyth, Wales) based around the local issue of town centre redevelopment.

    It was started by an individual, and very rapidly grew to 1,600 memebers. She has then managed to get her voice into the local press, and I believe is organising action in the street as a result of the group.

    It has been used to provide access to documentation about the plans, which would have been difficult for people to find otherwise.

    The question is how many of those 2,000 members live locally, and how many are willing to take the next step and form a working group to push the campaign forward.

    The group is here: http://www.facebook.com/home.php?#/group.php?gid=71235025419 and now also on Twitter http://twitter.com/aberystwyth_

    David’s point is interesting. Youtube slowly faded out ways of adding videos to groups. Although still there, groups are much less visible now. Are Facebook groups going the same way?

    Facebook groups are also an excellent way of getting into people’s inboxes. One of Obama’s web strategists recently said that Twitter, Blogs, and his own social media sites were all aimed at one thing getting people to register emails, then using those emails in a way that would get people contributing in terms of knocking doors community organisation or other non-visrtual activities.

  6. Kjerstin

    Interesting questions. I’ve just been writing about the ongoing academic demonstrations in France, and I’m struck by French academics’ eagerness to take to the streets, compared with the rare and feeble attempts at demonstrations one can see in Norway. I can’t really imagine Norwegian academics marching under police guard week after week, like they do in France. People tell me that in France you have no choice, nobody will listen if you don’t take to the streets. If you get the same publicity (or more), i.e. the same effect, in Norway just by starting a Facebook-group, that would explain a lot, I guess.

  7. Jeff

    If anything pursues this research topic: Argentina would be fertile ground for studying a link between Facebook groups, political expression, AND demonstrations. Plenty of active FB political groups among Argentine FB users and plenty of demonstrations. Not uncommon to see a 10,000 person march in Buenos Aires, more often from leftist groups but the right-wing gets mobilized, too.

  8. […] NB! Turns out my colleague Jill Walker Rhettberg has also been thinking about this issue – she called for examples in a blogpost earlier this week, and got some good comments. In one of the comments, Jesper Laugesen brings attention to a current Danish experiment undertaken by the “internet psychologist” behind virkeligheden.dk,¬† Alex Colding-J??rgensen-that I was also fooled by (i.e. believed it when saw group).¬†Colding-J??rgensen created a Facebook-group based on a “fake cause” (the demolition of a very famous fountain on Cph’s high street, Storkespringvandet) and managed to gather more than 27.000 group members in a very short time. All part of his experiment. Read more about¬†the experiment¬†here (in Danish). […]

  9. Lisbeth Klastrup

    Hi Jill, funny how we sometimes start paying attention to the same things around the same time :).
    I just started a small experiment of tracking the growth of a Facebook group and online petition following mainstream media attention regarding the possible obliteration of a Danish public service radio channel. Posting progression on my blog, however in Danish only, be interesting to hear what you think about this case.

  10. Jill Walker Rettberg

    What a lot of fascinating comments and examples, thank you guys! Sounds like there are definitely cultural aspects here – France and Norway are different. Also interesting how Facebook’s relative popularity in various countries probably makes a difference, and perhaps the population and the media’s “maturity” or level of familiarity with social media. And whether or not members of a group are actual local, “relevant” people. Definitely an interesting area to follow.

  11. […] The last couple of days I have been following and commenting (in a previous blog post) on the use of online media, especially Facebook and an online petition,¬†in the battle to save one of the few DK public service channels “P2″¬†that play jazz and classical music. It¬†turns out my colleague Jill Walker Rhettberg has also been thinking about¬†use of Facebook for political mobilisation¬†- she called for examples in a blogpost earlier this week, and got some good comments. […]

  12. Bente Kalsnes

    Great blog post, Jill!

  13. Bente Kalsnes

    Ah, I clicked submit before I was finished. What I was trying to say, is that there are some interesting experiments going on in this political field. A friend of mine, Anders Waage Nilsen, is testing whether support for a political issue in social media (in this case Facebook) is equivalent with regular signatures. http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=56525242665&ref=nf

    He has proposed an aerial cableway (hope that is the right name – taubane/svevebane in Norwegian) from Bystasjonen til Haukeland in Bergen. The aim is to get 300 members. So far, the group has 395 members. I haven’t asked him what will happen next, but I’m sure he will report about it on his blog, where he has written about the idea earlier: http://waagenilsen.wordpress.com/2009/03/15/en-god-ide/

  14. carl christian

    Tried to answer you tru twitter the other day on this – guess it got lost in the stream (you¥re not supposed to read anything there anyways)
    But i have actually worked on these issues you are adressing, and finished my master thesis “Om nye mediers betydning for politisk aktivitet og deltagelse” right before X-mas.
    What i did was to measure possible connections between a facebookgroup, a on line signature campaign, bloggers, mass media articles and the participation from the politicians. All related to last years debate on the EU data retention directive in Norway. I have made it available at my blog: http://carlchristian.net/2009/02/19/masteroppgava-mi/
    …and most likely Bora (bora.uib.no)… in 3-9 months time i guess…

  15. Susana Tosca

    Hej Jill!
    I have a student that wrote a really good paper about this kind of “participation”, being rather critical about it. I can send you her address if you are still interested.

  16. […] Over at her blog jill/txt, Jill Walkter Rettberg wonders about political activism on Facebook: […]

  17. Palpitt

    Un groupe de 2000 membres sur Facebook fait-il plus de presse qu’un rassemblement de 500 personnes ? http://jilltxt.net/?p=2367

  18. Kristian Risager

    @anderscolding det interview var da fint nok, omend lidt poppet. Jeg kom på sporet af @jilltxt , der har skrevet http://jilltxt.net/?p=2367

  19. Jennifer Maitland

    I am researching a complementary topic for my MA in Comms dissertation and would be happy to share the results of my research when complete. If you can, please take my survey to help.

    There is also a Facebook page you can join.

    The subject of my research is: Did Web 2.0 Help to Globalise the 2008 American Presidential Election? If so, what effect did the globalised election have on the rest of the world? thanks, Jennifer

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