Using Facebook for union organising and campaigns

If you’re using Facebook for your organising, you need an exit strategy.

For a lot of unions, online organising starts and ends with Facebook. Many union communicators are fairly uncritical of Facebook, and seem to think it’s important to get people to ‘like’ your union’s Facebook page. Clearly Facebook is important, because many of your members are there. But Facebook is not a neutral space. As Jonathan Franzen eloquently writes in the New York Times,

A related phenomenon is the transformation, courtesy of Facebook, of the verb “to like” from a state of mind to an action that you perform with your computer mouse, from a feeling to an assertion of consumer choice.

It’s an excellent article that deserves to be read in its entirety. It questions our embrace of techno-consumerism, and asks what it means for love, passion and genuine engagement with the world. If this is too philosophical for you, consider some of the practical problems:

  1. Privacy. The problems with Facebook’s privacy are well documented. There’s no way that you, as a campaigner, can guarantee the security of your members’ and supporters’ info.
  2. Political pressure. Political campaign pages that are too controversial get taken down by Facebook. The ideology of Facebook is to promote consumer choice. They are happy to provide politics as an option for political consumption, but anything that seriously challenges power is removed. If all your contacts are on your Facebook page, you could lose your entire campaign.
  3. Conversions to action. OK, so people like your Facebook page. But what does this mean in the real world? Are they going to turn up to a meeting or rally? Are they going to write to an elected politician on a union issue? Or will they continue exercising consumer choice with Pavlovian clicking? This is an issue with all social media, but I think it’s worse with Facebook, which seems to especially encourage a distracting, discursive experience.
  4. What are you promoting? Are you promoting your union, or Facebook? By asking people to ‘like’ you on Facebook, you’re suggesting that Facebook is a suitable platform for political engagement, and a good place for trade unionists to meet. You need to think about whether you want to do that.

Despite the popularity of Facebook, many people don’t use it. I am not on Facebook, for what I believe are very good reasons. I find it extremely frustrating when I get invited to participate in a campaign – by visiting a Facebook page. Often there’s no other way to engage. It is extremely bad practice to create content that only users of a particular service can access, and it leads to a ‘splinternet’, with different communities inhabiting different services.

Despite the above, I believe it is important to have a presence on Facebook, simply because of the power it gives you to reach people. If you are going to create a Facebook page for your union, Alex White has some pointers here. But I think that while you should use Facebook, you should be encouraging your members away from the site and onto places that are controlled by your union or campaign. Unions need to develop user-friendly campaign websites – like this and this, for instance -though they’d be improved if they allowed people to engage.

Encourage your members to share your own content on Facebook, by all means. There are Facebook share buttons at the bottom of this post, and Facebook drives a lot of traffic to this website. But if Cyberunions existed on Facebook only, we’d be restricting ourselves to a particular audience, and encouraging people to join Facebook if they were interested in our ideas.

Control your own data. Set up your own website, and use social media to promote it.

5 thoughts on “Using Facebook for union organising and campaigns”

  1.  The reality is that unions need to go where members (and potential members) are. Unions don’t sign up new members or organise existing ones by insisting that the members come to them. They house visit. They site visit. They call them on the phone.

    And yes, they use the social networks that members use.

    We can’t insist (in fact, it would be a fundamental mistake) that union members should use small, insignificant and feature-poor social networks like Union Book on the grounds that Union Book (et al) are ideologically pure. Of course Facebook is a business. Of course they aren’t union friendly. But newsflash. Unions deal with non-union friendly businesses and environments all the time. We deal with it. We overcome hurdles. We don’t throw up our arms and say “its all too difficult” and try to set up something new.

    I think its fairly clear that unions using social media need to consider why they are using it and what they hope to achieve.

    The kind of straw man argument that Facebook promotes “clicktivism” or “slacktivism” is largely disproven by numerous non-profit organisations who successfully promote their activities using social networks (e.g. 350.org).

    Some other posts about the usefulness of mainstream social networks that your readers may find interesting include:

    http://alexwhite.org/2011/01/is-clicktivism-ruining-left-activism/

    and http://alexwhite.org/2011/03/facebook-likes-and-the-commitment-and-consistency-principle/

    Or download my e-book: http://alexwhite.org/2010/12/social-media-for-unions/

    1. You’re misreading me. I am not arguing that unions should abandon Facebook for an ideologically pure alternative. I am arguing that they should have an exit strategy, and shouldn’t rely on it for organising.

      I frequently get emails inviting me to union and campaigning events. When I click on the invite link, I get a link to a Facebook events page. This is extremely bad practice, as it means I need to sign up with Facebook in order to engage with the union. @banditelli on twitter was recently asked “do we need a website at all, when we have Facebook?” It’s precisely this that I want to warn people against.

      As for the truism that “everyone is on Facebook”, I’m not, and I think most of the members of our union aren’t. People are leaving Facebook:

      http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2011/jun/13/facebook-growth-slows-for-second-month

      Also, unions need to be very cautious of using Facebook. A day after I put this post up, the news came out that Facebook had added facial recognition software. It’s just a matter of time before we start seeing disciplinary cases of workers who were tagged without their knowledge or consent at political demonstrations or other situations that might compromise them at work. As it is, we see lots of Facebook-related cases.

      I still think it’s a good idea to have Facebook ‘share’ buttons, and to have some presence on the site, but we should aim to get supporters off it and on to our own site as much as possible.

  2. Sure, a plan B is definitely needed, and it makes a lot of sense to have a ‘layered’ campaign with the anchor for the hard core being something controlled by the campaigning union.  But for the kind of casual contact with members that the bulletin board by the coffee machine used to be, the members have spoken Facebook is it.

    At least for the foreseeable future.

    For a couple of thousand words expanding on the above see:

    http://ourtimes.ca/Talking/article_87.php

  3. Come on then, cyberunions! Control your own data! Get rid of this disqus thing and let people comment directly to you, without this private company standing in the way and demanding people switch off parts of their browser security. If you need help, I’ll be posting something on http://www.news.software.coop/ tomorrow to describe how to do it with wordpress and you know where to find me.

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