What are social and political online campaigns?

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We aren’t entirely sure either… By Chandell Gosse

“It’s hard to put a pin on a moving target.” We’ve all likely heard this phrase before, but, aside from its military connotation, the sentiment itself was mostly lost on me. That is until I began framing a research project that aims to do exactly that—pin a moving target.

Over the past year and a half Dr. Anabel Quan-Haase, MA student Alyssa MacDougall, and myself, PhD student Chandell Gosse, developed a project that looks at social and political online campaigns. These campaigns have become a notable way to rally support and raise awareness for important social and political causes. While the name itself reveals a few key details, you might still be left wondering, what exactly are social and political online campaigns? Well, that’s the problem. That’s the moving target.

Let’s go back for a minute—when Anabel, Alyssa, and I envisioned the project and articulated the questions of most interest to us, things seemed relatively uncomplicated. At the time, the ALS ice bucket challenge had recently dominated social media, Kony 2012 was still a sore spot for many people, and accusations of “slacktivism” and “clicktivism” were scrawled across news headlines. Our primary research question seemed simple enough: do people who participate in online campaigns like these also participate offline, away from social media?

Of course, the first step in creating this project was to determine what we mean when we say “social and political online campaigns.” This isn’t rocket science: most people intuitively know what kinds of campaigns I am referring to. However, “you’ll know it when you see it” doesn’t constitute a definition and definitely doesn’t leave much room for measurement. This task forced us to attempt to discern the common features of social and political viral campaigns. Which features distinguished them from their offline counterparts? This was more interesting and more difficult than any of us had anticipated.

Spirited debates between Alyssa and I ensued. For example, my gut reaction was to exclude a campaign like Bell Let’s Talk* because I thought that “participating” in this particular campaign does not require any action outside a persons usual, everyday activity (e.g., texting). However, by making this statement, as Alyssa kindly rebutted, I was suggesting that sharing, tweeting, liking, or posting—all major components of social and political online campaigns—were not a part of peoples everyday activity. Of course, this is not true! The role of social media in the lives of users is ubiquitous. In fact, these campaigns capitalize on exactly this concept: their (arguable) effectiveness stems from their ability to insert themselves into the everyday activity of the user. This is to say that sharing, tweeting, liking, and posting are par for the course, and so determining which actions are taken outside of one’s usual, everyday activity is more complex with online campaigns than it is for offline campaigns. For example, we cannot say that posting or retweeting a particular message is outside of someone’s everyday activity within the context of social media users, however it is much easier to suggest that attending a protest, donating money, or boycotting a product is generally outside one’s everyday activity.

Eventually we landed on four broad guidelines:

  • The first guideline was very simple: social and political online campaigns rely on social media to insert their message into popular media and culture. This means that the primary form of message dissemination is through social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter.
  • Second, and perhaps most crucially, they receive a lot of attention (usually in the form of shares, likes, posts, tweets and re-tweets, for example, the ALS Ice Bucket challenge produced over 2.5 million videos on Facebook alone).
  • Third, they tend to have a short shelf life, even though they may be reoccurring and ongoing. This isn’t to say that campaigns don’t maintain followers, but rather that that general trend so far has been that once campaigns go viral they wane from the social media spotlight and the attention focused on said campaign decreases significantly. This feature was specifically important because of our interest in the term slacktivism.
  • And lastly, they focus on a single, very specific issue. This distinguishes them from elements associated with older and more traditional social movements, whereby people rally around common ideologies or political parties. Many of the social and political online campaigns break boundaries by resonating with people from each end of the political scale.

After we outlined the “definition” of a social/political viral campaign, we needed to decide how to work them into our survey. Part of this task involved deciding which campaign(s) our survey would focus on, which once again led to a spirited debate. We understood that the problem with focusing on one single campaign is the ephemerality of viral events. In other words, by the time the survey was created and data collection began the campaign would very likely be dead, over with, buried in the back yard next to Fido and Fluffy. To try and work around this problem, we decided on a list of campaigns that were very popular but also allowed participants to input the name of a campaign that was not on the list but which they had participated in—this enabled participants to customize their individual survey experience and reflect on a campaign that was recent or emerging.

This decision also bound us theoretically—by allowing for people to input their own campaign it was possible (though highly unlikely) that no two participants would comment on the same campaign. With this possibility in mind, the focus of our research became decidedly user-oriented and not about the campaigns themselves. This was fitting, given that our overarching questions concerns whether social media users who participate in online campaigns also participate in that campaign outside of social media. By allowing participants to optimize their survey we ran the risk of having lots of data about users, but little data about whether particular campaigns garnered more or less support outside of social media. This was all right, however, because although this is an interesting area to explore it is outside the parameters of this particular project.

If you want to learn more about this project you can read our letter of intent here. It’s important to remember, our four guidelines are not to be mistaken for defining features. To reiterate, the aim was to structure definitions in a way that allows core components of social and political online campaigns to be recognizable and to give shape to our project. In other words, the four guidelines allow social and political online campaigns, which are relatively amorphous events, to develop and depart from one another while remaining relevant to our project.

*For more information see Bell Let’s Talk



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