Facebook Activism, Redux

The blogosphere and pundits are all atwitter over the Facebook group, Canadians Against Proroguing Parliament, trying to figure out what it means that over 80,000 people have signed up to this group in only a few days (it had only 20,000 members when I joined on Monday). Almost all of these comments have treated this group as if it were something novel.

It’s not, and the potential effectiveness of these groups has already been settled. Those of you interested in copyright might remember that in December 2007, a similar Facebook uprising panicked this same Conservative government was panicked into postponing its copyright reform legislation.

In Fall 2007, the Conservatives were preparing copyright legislation that would, among other things, implement what opponents have called, exaggerating somewhat, made-in-the-U.S. legislation. University of Ottawa Law professor Michael Geist starts up the Fair Copyright For Canada Facebook group to protest these measures and calling for public hearings into copyright reform. The group goes viral.

Based on Geist’s Facebook group’s suggestions, but with no central organization, members start sending letters to MPs and showing up at their offices. My favourite was the Kemptom Lam-organized meetup at then-Industry Minister Jim Prentice’s riding’s Christmas party, where they “respectfully” (as Lam told me) presented their concerns. Lam’s account of the party, and Facebook activism, here, is basically a how-to to use Facebook politically.

MPs, faced with actual live voters concerned about an esoteric issue like copyright, panic, since they (and the government) have no idea how deep this groundswell goes.

The government, facing tough votes on Afghanistan and still unsure of how weak the Liberal opposition is (eventual answer: quite), decides that discretion is the better part of valour and tables the legislation until June 2008. This delay is enough to sink the legislation permanently when an election is called a few months later. Furthermore, public hearings into copyright reform, the group’s main demand, were held in the summer of 2009.

The Great Copyright Facebook Uprising of 2007 succeeded in affecting government policy. Its success was due to several factors, some of which may be difficult to replicate this time around.

Who are these people? The first lesson from the copyright debate is that if people are signing up to support an issue that the week before they didn’t even know existed, then politicians should pay attention. That over 60,000 people are members of Canadians Against Proroguing Parliament demonstrates that Canadians, despite what MPs and pundits have claimed, are worried about what the suspension of Parliament means for our democracy. This is no small achievement.

What are their tactics?

Politicians are susceptible to old-school means of communication, like letters, meetings at MP’s offices, and protests. Facebook, as many have observed, is most potent as a means of organizing locally people who otherwise would never have been able to get together, while maintaining national linkages. This is exactly what happened with copyright. I would be surprised if the most active people on the Proroguing Parliament group didn’t know this and act accordingly.

The patronizing dismissal of these groups, in both cases, as unrepresentative of average Canadians is beside the point. Politics is a game of activists, and if people are concerned enough to visit their MP’s office, they’re probably concerned enough to vote. While MPs have yet to develop a rule of thumb like they have with snail mail as to the number of voters represented by every Facebook joiner, these joiners certainly represent voters. This alone makes Facebook groups important.

What are their goals?

The copyright activists were criticized for not being specific in their demands: after all, who could object to “fair” copyright? However, Geist’s call for “fair copyright” avoided a potential schism among copyright reformers by simply calling for Canadians to be heard in the debate. It also had the benefit of being realistic.

Calling on MPs to “get back to work,” especially in the middle of hard economic times, is a stroke of genius. It may not actually get MPs back to work, but if it makes it more politically difficult for a Prime Minister to prorogue Parliament in the future, then it will have done some real good for the country.

What are the ground rules?

This is likely to be the most difficult part for Canadians Against Proroguing Parliament to come to terms with and also shows the difference between protesting legislation and confronting institutional problems.

Copyright activists were able to delay the copyright legislation by taking advantage of the fact that, with a relatively weak minority government that depended on opposition members for support, MPs could be threatened with defeat should they defy the popular will.

Effective political pressure of the type deployed by copyright activists has a wonderful way of focusing a politician’s mind. While Conservative MPs are unlikely to be swayed by any current protests, the other parties may be tempted to score partisan points off Stephen Harper, portraying him as an undemocratic dictator-lite.

This will be useful as far as it goes, even if it leaves unaddressed the fundamental problem that our parliamentary rules allow any Prime Minister to ignore the will of Parliament; it’s just more obvious in a minority situation. Unfortunately, there still seems to be little appetite for real parliamentary or electoral reform, in the country and among the political parties.

Like those in the Fair Copyright for Canada Facebook group, Canadians Against Proroguing Parliament benefits from strong, passionate interest, and has the ability to translate this strength into on-the-ground pressure on MPs. Unlike the copyright fight, these newest Facebook activists have little leverage over Conservative MPs, and only superficial leverage over Liberals, who will benefit from Harper’s expansion of executive power once they return to the throne. As a result, they face an uphill battle to get Parliament to reconvene on January 25.

With luck, this current Facebook uprising will finally put to rest the question of whether Facebook groups can matter politically. Of course they can, but it depends on the skill of those using them. Canadians Against Proroguing Parliament have all the tools they need to be heard; all they have to do is use them. If they raise the political cost to future governments of suspending Parliament arbitrarily, they will have achieved something real.

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