Glendon conference tackles role of social media in politics

What is the role of social media in politics and on social action, particularly with the upcoming Canadian federal election? That was the topic of an April 7 conference mounted by Glendon’s Centre for Global Challenges and the graduate students of the Glendon School of Public & International Affairs (GSPIA).

Breza Race, program director of education for the Centre for Applied Non-Violent Action & Strategies (CANVAS), an international network of trainers and consultants working worldwide to teach techniques of non-violent resistance, delivered the opening perspective. Founded in 2002, CANVAS evolved from a 1998 Serbian youth movement to overthrow Slobodan Miloševic. It currently has 12 trainers, each one a former activist in his or her country, delivering workshops all over the world to provide tools and methods for bringing about non-violent change.

From left, Miriam Smith, Stuart Schoenfeld, Jonathan Rubin and Alexandra ServiceRight: From left, Miriam Smith, Stuart Schoenfeld, Jonathan Rubin and Alexandra Service

“Workshop modules focus on a variety of topics, such as developing a vision for tomorrow, analyzing power in society, finding your pillars of support, a discussion on obedience and fear, methods and tactics of non-violent action, a cost/benefit analysis of activities, introduction to propaganda and targeted communication, tools for branding, and using new media,” said Race. CANVAS even offers courses at the University of Belgrade in methods of non-violent change.

“Strategies can be transferred and every new group adds to the general knowledge-base, [of non-violent practices]. But oppressors learn from these as well, and it is clear that revolutions can’t be exported,” she said.

Michelle CollinsLeft: Michelle Collins

Following Race’s opening, the first panel looked at “People Power and the Power of Social Networks”, moderated by master’s of public & international affairs (MPIA) graduating student Alexandra Service. The panellists were MPIA student Jonathan Rubin, Professor Stuart Schoenfeld, chair of Glendon’s Department of Sociology and a member of the GSPIA’s teaching faculty, and Professor Miriam Smith of York’s Department of Social Science who has also taught in the GSPIA.

“Social movements are networks of organizations, which have broader scopes than changing a regime or changing the source of power. Social movements imply a policy change, a fundamental change in the way we live, involving hundreds of organizations and many people,” said Schoenfeld. Smith noted that these movements are not always progressive, citing the examples of fascism and movements for and against women’s rights.Adam Shedletzky

Left: Adam Shedletzky

In discussing the emerging role of social media in social movements, Smith pointed to Poland’s 1980 Solidarity in which video cameras, for the first time in history, enabled ordinary people to see the events first hand and in that way involved a much larger group of participants and witnesses. Rubin outlined the use of social media such as Facebook as important primary sources of communication in major political events.

“A total of 21 million individuals use Facebook in the Arab world, a growth rate of 45 per cent from 12 million the year before. During Egypt’s revolution [this winter], 75 per cent of users were between the ages of 15 and 35,” said Rubin.

Schoenfeld added that social media can provide a safety valve in pressured situations and a liberating sense of shared community. “Youth are obvious users, since it is their future that is on the line and they are ready to be mobilized.”

Smith said that even non-violence has issues of power, and messages sent out on cellphones and Facebook can be used as a means of control, as well as a means of building collaboration. Electronic interaction can be tracked by regimes to know who the troublemakers are. “We tend to think that the development of new media is all good, but [as an example to the contrary], since 9/11, there is more monitoring and surveillance than ever.”

The second panel, also moderated by Service, looked at “Social Media: A Weapon for Social Action?” and was comprised of Glendon MPIA graduate and former journalist Michelle Collins, Race and Adam Shedletzky, co-founder of LeadNow, a Canadian multi-partisan network using technology to help people organize themselves and strengthen their voice.

Social media allows everyone to participate, but it is not sufficient for bringing about change, which requires people to act, said Race. “In my country [Serbia], young people are informed and engaged in political discourse because of historic events. And social media is the most immediate tool for being informed.”

“When things are good enough, even if not great, people are not riled up to act,” said Shedletzky. “Voters don’t feel that they can change things and therefore tune out, and there is a breakdown in social trust between individuals and the political system. But, in fact, more young people are voting now than ever before.”

“Social media has become an official player in politics, most recently in the current Canadian election,” said Collins. “But there are risks, since anyone can post information and democratic institutions may be sidestepped. When politicians announce new measures at media events – as has recently happened – no official discussions take place.”

Submitted by Marika Kemeny, Glendon communications officer