Glendon’s Centre for Global Challenges (CGC) and the graduate students of the Glendon School of Public and International Affairs (GSPIA) presented a conference on April 7, at the conclusion of the academic year, on the topic of social media’s role in current politics, social action and, in particular, its effect on the upcoming Canadian federal election.
Organized by GSPIA students and hosted by Masters of Public and International Affairs (MPIA) graduating student Alexandra Service, this full-morning dialogue consisted of an opening perspective and two panel discussions.
Panel 1, from left to right: Miriam Smith, Stuart Schoenfeld, Jonathan Rubin and Alexandra Service
The opening perspective was delivered by Breza Race, program director for education of CANVAS, the Centre for Applied Non-Violent Action & Strategies, an international network of trainers and consultants working worldwide to teach techniques of non-violent resistance. This was Race’s first visit to Canada, representing her organization founded in 2002, which evolved from a 1998 Serbian youth movement to overthrow Slobodan Miloševic.
Race explained that after the Serbian revolution, many groups from different parts of the world approached their team to ask for their methods of organization and resistance. CANVAS evolved in response to this need, with a small group of twelve trainers currently teaching all over the world, each one a former activist in his or her country. They present workshops to provide tools and methods for bringing about non-violent change. “In 2010, CANVAS ran over a hundred workshops for two thousand participants in fifty countries”, said Race. In addition to workshops, CANVAS also offers books and movies on non-violent action in many different languages.
“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”, explained Race. In fact, CANVAS now also offers courses at the University of Belgrade in methods of non-violent change and they have experienced successes in several parts of the world, notably in the Ukraine, in Georgia, in the Maldives, in Lebanon and recently in Egypt.
Right: L-r: Michelle Collins and Alexandra Service
“Strategies can be transferred”, concluded Race, “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.”
The first panel discussion, moderated by Alexandra Service, addressed the topic of “People Power and the Power of Social Networks”. The three participants were Jonathan Rubin, another student of Glendon’s MPIA program; professor Stuart Schoenfeld, Chair of Glendon’s Sociology Department and a member of the GSPIA’s teaching faculty; and professor Miriam Smith of York’s Social Science department who also teaches at the GSPIA. Schoenfeld stated that “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.” Smith commented that these movements are not always progressive, citing the examples of fascism and movements for and against women’s rights.
In discussing the emerging role of social media in social movements, Smith brought the example of Poland’s Solidarity in 1980, using video cameras which enabled ordinary people for the first time to see the events firsthand, involving 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”, said Rubin, “a growth rate of 45 percent from 12 million the year before. During Egypt’s revolution [this winter], 75 percent of users were between the ages of 15 and 35.”
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 commented 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.” Another example given by Smith was the rejection of a student from a Conservative rally, because she had posted her picture with the leader of the Liberal party on her Facebook page.
Questions from the floor asked about competing voices in communications, which can be opportunities as well as challenges for getting messages out; as well as how we get that necessary critical mass for action and how we can assure that it remains sustainable.
The second panel addressed the topic of “Social Media: A Weapon for Social Action?”, also moderated by Alexandra Service with participants Michelle Collins, a Glendon MPIA graduate and former journalist, Breza Race of CANVAS and Adam Shedletzky, co-founder of LeadNow, a Canadian multi-partisan network using technology to help people organize themselves and strengthen their voice.
Left: Adam Shedletzky
Race commented that social media allow everyone to participate, but though they are necessary, they are not sufficient for bringing about change, which requires people to act. “In my country [Serbia], young people are informed and engaged in political discourse because of historic events. And social media are the most immediate tools for being informed. ”
“When things are good enough, [as they are in Canada], even if not great, people are not riled up to act”, added 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 have become official players 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.”
Shedletzky affirmed that it is important to protect traditional media, which are publicly funded and accountable, and information is therefore more trustworthy. Contributors who have an agenda and may be spokespersons for certain organizations can act as ordinary participants in social media.
Alexandre Brassard, director of Glendon Research and course director in political science summarized the conference’s major points. Social media are most active in a social context, such as a federal election; collective actors – such as a political party or an NGO are needed for mobilizing people in Canada; human resources, communication tools and sharing know-how are essential; a society needs a common vision and shared values, as well as strategies and non-violent tactics, such as civil disobedience and boycotts.
“Social media’s risks are that they may be misused and may bypass democratic institutions and professional communicators, such as journalists. But social media can organize and mobilize individuals from the grassroots and have an equalizing effect, by giving everyone a voice.”
Article submitted by Glendon communications officer Marika Kemeny