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How do social media and digital platforms change the logic of advocacy?
The Internet and social media form key parts of interest group advocacy strategies: today, political influence is increasingly inseparable from – or even dependent on – the presence that actors hold in digital arenas.
A logic of presence therefore underlies digital advocacy strategies, as organizations and interest groups compete for presence on social media and in political debates as a means of trying to gain influence over political decisions.
Let’s see specifically how digital advocacy can be implemented. There are three strategies, or policies, that can be identified:
Digital access policy can be understood as the process in which groups and actors seek direct contact with politicians and decision makers to discuss a particular topic using social media or other digital platforms. Such activities can be seen as strategies to amplify access (or lack of access) to policy makers or decision making. Digital access policy is not primarily aimed at informing or influencing decision-making, but rather at showcasing a group’s potential for influence.
Digital information policy refers to the public presentation of information – such as the values and political goals a group pursues – at strategic decision points. Getting your message across is obviously important, but being visible, regardless of your message, is equally or even more important, and can be seen as a political act in itself.
The politics of protesting differs from information politics in that it involves explicit attention-grabbing actions and practices to escalate conflict. Social media and digital platforms – which organize petitions, electronic campaigns and more advanced forms of mobilization coordinated with other organizations – are used to personalize protest campaigns.
These dynamics have been studied by two professors of Lund University, Sweden, Gabriela Scaramuzzino and Håkan Johansson.
The thesis supported by Scaramuzzino and Johansson (2019) is that digital technologies and social media platforms have not only changed the means of advocacy, but also the logic that determines the overall motivations of these activities.
The use of digital tools has been the subject of research by both interest groups and social media scholars. The former focus on how, why and with what effects groups use strategies of political influence, understood as a set of tactics to achieve a certain goal, usually understood as influencing a decision-making process. In the social media literature, however, visibility and presence are an end in themselves and are essentially subordinated to the goal of political influence.
In practice, interest group studies tend to consider advocacy as a means of influencing decision-makers, while for social media scholars the goal of digital advocacy is to increase visibility and presence. The novelty introduced by Johansson and Scaramuzzino is that they suggest that at the basis of the digital advocacy of interest groups there is a combination between the desire for political influence and visibility. The non-mutually exclusive “logic of influence” and “logic of presence” inform how, when and why actors engage in digital advocacy.
The article by Johansson and Scaramuzzino is based on a netnographic research on two interest groups particularly active in Sweden: an industrial union (IF Metall) and the Swedish movement for the rights of sex workers.
Let’s see the results of their work.
Scaramuzzino and Johansson demonstrated that social media is used not only to gain access to wider networks of influence but also as a means of emphasizing access or lack of access to such contacts. They also found a form of functional differentiation, whereby certain social media platforms are used to reach particular types of actors. Twitter, for example, is mainly used to establish contacts with political decision-makers, influencers and journalists. Other social media is for reaching a wider audience. Digital access politics is then used to spread political messages and to try to attract political supporters.
The spread of online platforms and social media has changed opportunities and tools for political advocacy. Websites, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, blogs and forums have become key discussion spaces, prompting both politicians and advocacy organizations and public affairs professionals to engage in new ways of interacting.
While a logic of influence presupposes a key message, a logic of presence is oriented towards promoting “who one is” rather than “what one represents”.
The importance of considering the influence of digital platforms stems from the fact that gaining a political presence has become the primary purpose of digital advocacy strategies, as it informs how, when and why actors engage in digital access, digital information and in digital protest politics. Advocacy groups are certainly engaged in trying to influence governments, public officials and the general public, but such advocacy activities are subject to a general logic of presence as a political act.
An interesting and further food for thought is the process of democratization of the political space that the diffusion of digital platforms brings with it. Social media can be used by so-called “visibility-deprived” groups: since traditional media have the power to decide what to show and how to present situations and problems, often some groups can be excluded – or limited – from spreading their messages. Digital platforms instead create a level playing field in which groups can create their own visibility on their own terms and decide the content of the message that is communicated. Even with regard to protest activities, digital platforms and the Internet have allowed many groups to arise spontaneously and to engage in actions of this type, even in contexts where official communication is severely limited.