Social Media Has Changed the Advocacy Landscape Forever

By Jacob Lane • November 11, 2019

Political advocacy has changed significantly over the past two decades. In years past, massive political movements have relied on in-person rallies and ground-floor advocacy. However, today you see advocacy organizations heavily relying on social media services such as Facebook or Twitter to engage their supporters. As the years continue to progress, these platforms increasingly influence how citizens and advocacy organizations engage politically online through the technical features and policies they choose to implement.

How Social Media Came to the Forefront of Modern Advocacy

With the emergence and continual development of the internet, a door was opened for a new form of political advocacy. Before long, social media giants like Facebook realized that they had created much more than just a social network for keeping up with friends; they had also created a platform perfect for the sharing of political information, expression, and participation. Today, citizens in many societies, but especially in the United States, take for granted the instant availability of political news and opinions through desktop and laptop computers, smart phones, and tablets. They have internalized the opportunity to participate in electoral and issue campaigns through these devices and social media services.

The Impact of Social Media Today

Proponents for increased inclusion of social media in political advocacy portray these services as innovative tools for informing and mobilizing communities in an advocacy effort. When used effectively, social media aligns well with the principles of community psychology by enabling individuals to participate in dialogue about social issues, collaborate on change efforts, and establish a sense of community. These tools can enhance supporters’ advocacy engagement and can help sustain efforts in the midst of inevitable challenges.

Engaging supporters often begins with awareness and interest in a cause and their increasing interest drives the desire to actively contribute. For instance, joining a Facebook group or following a Twitter feed enables an individual to learn more about an issue and increase their interest in supporting a cause.

Furthermore, core supporters can enhance information distribution when they share their messages about the cause beyond the reach of the organization and among personal social networks. Information shared outside the organization’s network significantly increases the likelihood that new supporters find and join the cause. Additionally, easily accessible messages on social media feeds that encourage the audience to reflect on the sociopolitical forces underlying community issues can promote critical awareness, an attribute that often encourages citizen participation and empowerment.

The Drawbacks of Social Media Advocacy

Despite the beneficial ways in which activists can use social media, some scholars and community practitioners have raised concerns about how and when to leverage these tools in their work. They argue that social media services can increasingly influence how citizens and activists engage politically online through the technical features and policies they choose to implement. Changing these features and policies, sometimes disrupts the work of activists and advocacy organizations. Such disruptions can have significant political advocacy consequences, particularly if the changes become widespread and systematic.

An example of this occurred earlier this year when Twitter announced that it would no longer allow political advertisements on their platform, arguing that social media opens the door to misinformation being quickly spread to the public. While many hailed Twitter CEO, Jack Dorsey for the decision, there is still an underlying consequence. Even if Twitter enacts its policy neutrally, barring political ads favors incumbents over newcomers and grassroots organizations. Lesser-known politicians and advocacy groups must now turn to television or print advertisements, which are more expensive, or try their luck gaining traction organically.

How to Effectively Implement Social Media into Political Advocacy

Political movements relying solely on social media are extremely unlikely to be successful. Successful political action efforts still need a developed ground game with an extremely dedicated core. Offline strategies such as throwing events, protesting, or face-to-face community building are still vitally important to any cause’s chances of survival.

However, natural changes in traditional contact information (home addresses, telephone numbers, email addresses) can hinder the impact of offline strategies. It is critical to remember to keep up with current contact information as much as possible, either through purchased or shared voter lists, by making contact information updating easy and accessible. Social media tools can help overcome the challenge of keeping up with changing constituent information by increasing the number of available channels for communication. When used to support political advocacy efforts, social media can bolster outreach by spreading information about a cause, reinforcing relationships among supporters, promoting participatory dialogue between group leaders and supporters, and strengthening collective action through increased speed of collaborative communication.

Overall, social media should be used in combination with traditional offline advocacy approaches to enhance the effectiveness of a political advocacy effort. Successful intertwinement of these was seen with the Occupy Wall Street movement, which utilized Twitter to solicit donations for ground-level needs, to extend the reach of information shared during meetings, and to allow  virtual participation among those not able to attend events.

Over the last decade, the rise of social media has changed advocacy forever. The medium has grown to become more involving, demanding, and harder to control than traditional media. In short, after years of declining results in old channels, organizations and candidates have finally come to terms with the fact they must fundamentally rethink how they connect with their target audiences. However, one must always be aware that technology and social media are two industries that are constantly changing and evolving. You will need to keep evaluating your advocacy social media plan to make sure that you are maximizing your reach and meaningfully engaging your audience.

About The Author

Jacob W. Lane is a government affairs specialist with Naylor Association Solutions. Reach him at [email protected].