Now that you need to pay for advertising to reach your audience, Facebook has become mainstream media. What should unions do?


The earlier, more optimistic days

The earlier, more optimistic days

The mainstream media is controlled by corporations and dominated by right wing views: we know that. The central message of almost all media – TV, newspapers, radio, magazines, online news sites – is There In No Alternative. Work! Buy! Consume! Die! This is the way things are: you can’t change it, so go upgrade your mobile phone so you can consume more of our nonsense on a shiny new device.

Most people know there is more to life than this, and millions of us around the world are trying to change things: we want to bring meaning back to life. We want democracy, accountability, justice, dignity and equality. We want excitement and inspiration, not manufactured pleasure curated by global brands. We want to assert that there are alternatives. But – unless we riot and break windows – we never get a mention in the media.

Until about ten years ago, our only way of reaching a big audience was to pay for advertising. To buy, from the media corporations, some messaging space. And it’s something we were doomed to fail at, because we can never outspend the major brands.

And then social media came along, and made it all different.

Don’t like the media? Be the media!

Suddenly, we weren’t just seeing the stories that the rich and powerful wanted us to see – we saw what our friends thought was important. They’d share information and we’d pass it on. Someone would write a short post, make a video or post an image, and it would spread like wildfire. We could connect directly with each other, and cut out the middle man.

We could also chose who to follow, and what information to receive: by following the pages of our unions, the campaigns, organisations and charities that we support. And it allowed our organisations to build and communicate to supporters without spending money on advertising.

It was a brave new political world that threatened to change politics for ever – and it certainly did shake up the status quo, from the 2009 election in Iran through to the Arab Spring, Occupy and the uprisings in Turkey and elsewhere. Social media allowed new political movements to form. It allowed dissent to spread like wildfire. Some techno-utopians even thought it would bring about a revolution in people power, a new era of democracy political engagement by citizens, with the corruption of politicians and corporations exposed.

Back when Facebook could start revolutions

Back when Facebook could start revolutions

Others were worried that this would create a filter bubble of confirmation bias, that it would trap us in a world where we’re never exposed to anything that threatens our worldview: leftists would only communicate with other leftists, and see their own views reflected back at them. They same would happen to people of other political persuasions, or those who are only interested in shopping. The subjective web meant that none of us would ever see anything challenging.

Despite this, we couldn’t ignore the opportunity, and flung ourselves into occupying cyberspace with a pro-union message. Social media was still owned by big corporations, but they were corporations in competition with the established media – at least they allowed us to communicate freely.

That has changed. Facebook has realised that its unique selling point is its ability to create the viral effect – and it’s decided to monetise this. If you’re running a campaign, and you want your followers to see you updates, you have to pay Facebook to show them.

At USi, we have over 6,000 followers on Facebook – yet less than 5% see most of what we post. This is a dramatic reduction in where we were just six months ago. Facebook also promotes and recommends the content of selected “media partners”. This means established news outlets find it much easier to get their content out there, and the alternative media is squeezed.

Facebook has made the shift from social media to mainstream media. It is no longer a place where sharp, exciting campaign messages can go viral organically. We’ve reached the stage where a successful campaign needs to employ a PR company to design graphics and come up with a Facebook strategy, and then pay Facebook to deliver it.

This puts campaigners in a difficult position: many people put all their eggs in the Facebook basket. This is never wise with social media, which is ephemeral. But even those with a diverse social media profile will find that a major source of engagement has been squeezed.

So what do we do?

In the short term, we need to continue to use Facebook. It is still the most widely used social network. We can explain to our followers that Facebook is restricting their view of our content, and that liking and sharing helps to counter this, and helps to get the message out to more people. We can encourage people to see liking and sharing as a political act of solidarity with campaigners trying to get an important message out, rather than just a pavlovian response to stimulus. We might even need to spend a bit of money on advertising – after all, Facebook is still relatively cheap, and we need to get our message out there.

But longer term we need to seriously revisit our strategies. We cannot rely on corporations to manage our communications infrastructure for us – we will always be playing catch up, always trying to switch to the cool new social network where all the kids are now.

We need to develop our own campaigns and communications infrastructure: web conferencing, social networks, membership systems, email campaigns, petition sites and more. We’re best off doing this together.

Let’s start the conversation.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial License.
Author avatar

Walton Pantland

South African trade unionist living in Glasgow. Loves whisky, wine, running and the great outdoors. Walton did an MA in Industrial Relations at Ruskin, Oxford, and is interested in how trade unions use new technology to organise.

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