Yesterday, The Globe posted an interesting piece about a Nanos poll showing Canadians - including younger Canadians - question how much influence political Facebook groups should have on any government.
The problem with the piece lies in the headline: " Facebook forums shouldn't sway government, young Canadians say." It suggests that online activism - or social media in general - isn't credible with the public. This, however, isn't what the poll showed. Indeed, the poll says little about the credibility of Facebook, particularly compared to other forms of political activity. It does, however, say a lot about social media's dramatic growth in influence over the past five years.
Critically, the poll didn't compare forms of political activity. If one had done a similar poll asking whether Canadians believe a demonstration should sway the government, or if direct action - such as when Greenpeace hung a banner from Parliament - should alter government policy, would the numbers have been dramatically different? I suspect not. Governments have electoral mandates - something Canadians broadly agree with. Most political activity, both on and offline, is designed to shape public opinion and ultimately, people's decisions at the ballot box. That is a threat influences government.
Consequently, it may not be the medium that matters as much as the number of people involved. Do people believe the government should pay attention to a 1,000 person rally? Likely not. Should they pay attention to a 10,000 person Facebook group? Likely not as well. But at a certain point, with large enough numbers, almost any medium matters. Would people think that the government should reconsider a policy in the face of 10-million-person petition? Or a five-million-person Facebook group? Possibly. What about a 500,000-person march? Even this might prompt respondents to reconsider their response.
More interesting is how split Canadians appear to be over political groups using Facebook "to share ideas, information and to help mobilize their activities" (30 per cent have a positive view, 30 per cent have a negative view and an enormous 40 per cent are undecided). Here is a technology few Canadians knew existed five years ago, and it is already viewed favourably by a third of Canadians as a way to engage with political groups. As people become more familiar with these online activities I suspect comfort levels will rise, since many people often don't initially understand or like new technologies. This survey shows us online political organizing is moving into the mainstream - perhaps even more mainstream than a protest or a petition.
Ultimately, The Globe article jumps to a negative interpretation of Facebook too quickly. This is understandable in that traditional news organizations are still coming to grips with social - and digital - media. But by allowing us to self-organize, connect to one another and to our politicians, social media is enabling a different and very powerful type kind of social cohesion and democratic expression.
So should Facebook influence the government? The prorogation debate shows it already can. But do people believe Facebook should be less influential than other (more traditional) forms of political activity? In this, the survey reveals very little. Indeed as Nik Nanos, the pollster who conducted the survey, adds at the end of the piece (and in contrast to the title): "we still haven't come to grips with what [Facebook groups]really mean."
David Eaves is a public-policy entrepreneur, open government activist and negotiation expert based in Vancouver
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