Political Facebook groups: Micro-activism and the digital front stage
First Monday

Political Facebook groups: Micro-activism and the digital front stage by Jose Marichal



Abstract
This paper seeks to expand our understanding the dynamics of political SNSs by means of a content analysis of 250 politically oriented Facebook groups. Using Google Translate, I examine Facebook groups from 32 different countries in 23 different languages. Using grounded theory (Glaser and Strauss, 1967) and Goffman’s (1978) work on dramaturgy, I develop a theory of a digital front stage that helps explain how and why Facebook users create groups. This digital front stage is maintained, I argue, through the use of four sets of signifiers (expressivity, identity, signifiers and text length). Because Facebook is a nonymous (as opposed to anyonmous) environment, actors can seek to construct “hoped for possible (political) selves” (Markus and Nurius, 1986). Political Facebook groups allow for the performance of these “possible selves” through the formation of idealized political identities. In the conclusion, I discuss the implications of SNS applications like Facebook groups for the future of digital citizenship.

Contents

Introduction
Facebook and Micro–activism
Presentation/performance on Facebook
Impression management online
Facebook and political presentation
Methods
Findings
Conclusion

 


 

Introduction

With over one billion worldwide subscribers, Facebook is becoming an increasingly important part of daily life around the world. As of August 2013, Facebook has 620 million daily visitors and 9.2 billion page views a day making it the second most frequented site on the Internet (Alexia.com, 2013). A May 2013 Pew survey found that 72 percent of people in the United States use some form of social media and over 90 percent of those used Facebook (Duggan and Brenner, 2013). While we may be arriving at “peak Facebook” in the U.S., Canada and Britain (Majoo 2012), its global use is still expanding. In October 2012, Facebook amassed one billion worldwide users (Socialbakers.com, 2012). While the United States has the most users (164 million in February of 2013), the next five nations in terms of users are from developing countries: Brazil (65 million), India (61 million), Indonesia (48 million), and Mexico (39 million) (Socialbakers.com, 2013).

The growth of social networking sites (SNS), like Facebook, has caused many to rethink how we understand political activism and citizen engagement. Much of the debate of Facebook’s possibilities for activism takes place between the poles of “useful tool that can lead towards effective social change” (Joyce, 2010) and “self–indulgent medium that promotes slacktivism” (Morozov, 2011). Morozov (2011) refers to the ease with which individuals can create and join communities of interest as slacktivism. He suggests that this ease of membership and identification detracts from more serious and coordinated efforts to affect social change. The positive feeling associated with affiliating with a movement might satisfy one’s need for social connection without them engaging with formal political power. This slactivism can be seen as counterproductive if viewed as an external meddling in a nation’s affairs. In referring to Iran’s Green Revolution of the late 2000s Zuckerman (2010) contends:

there’s a case to be made that the actions taken by U.S. supporters of the Green Movement were counterproductive — they added credence to the regime’s case that U.S. and U.K. forces were attempting to topple the Iranian government and that the Green Movement was an external, not grassroots, domestic force. There’s also a case to be made that there’s nothing online activists could do in the face of a determined repressive government and that we shouldn’t have expected any change to come from online activism.

Not everyone agrees that Facebook breeds slacktivism. Facebook has been regarded as a revolutionary tool that has changed the structure of social movement mobilization. The Iranian Green Revolution, the Arab Spring revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia and the worldwide Occupy movements in 2012 all used social media to some degree in their movement building efforts. Hirschkind (2011) notes that Facebook aided the Arab spring revolution by linking together Egypt’s networked public sphere. A Facebook group entitled We are all Khaled Said that told the story of an Egyptian businessman murdered by police had over one million followers (Zhao, et al., 2008). Similarly, in Tunisia, Facebook helped spread the story of Mohamed Bouazizi, a fruit vendor who immolated himself after being harassed by police (Khondker, 2011).

Joyce (2010) challenges Morozov’s view noting that the mere presence of Facebook in a country is more than a vehicle for slacktivism. In her view it serves as latent potential for activism. In repressive regimes, Facebook use by dissidents causes dilemma actions for repressive regimes which must choose between blocking the application and being viewed as repressive and allowing the application to exist and giving dissidents a rhetorical and organizing space for challenging the state. While not a panacea, Facebook and other social media tools gives activists an imperfect weapon for countering repression. Similarly, Earl and Kimport (2012) found that social networking applications were effective at both increasing the volume of mobilization efforts (what they call supersize effects) through lowering transaction costs for collaboration and were also effective at creating new forms of mobilization through use of the technology (what they call theory 2.0 effects) like distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks. Christensen (2011) argues that slacktivism, to the extent it exists online, does not replace more traditional forms of political participation.

 

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Facebook and Micro–activism

While the slacktivism question is important, the problem with framing political activity on Facebook along a slacktivism/activism continuum is that it prioritizes activity that is intentionally designed for instrumental action. A post on the Sierra Club’s Facebook page means something different than a Facebook user not affiliated with a movement creating a page about an environmental topic. Much of the political activity that takes place on Facebook is more nuanced, less focused and strategic than the activity of professional movement organizations.

In this paper, I argue that we should think of most political activity on Facebook less as intentional efforts to promote social and political change and more as a discursive performance designed to express a political identity. Svensson (2009) refers to this desire to express identity through discourse as a form of expressive rationality independent of instrumental or communicative modes of discourse. Rather than view talk as serving an instrumental political purpose, Svensson emphasized the importance of talk as collective identity formation. Perhaps what is most valuable about Facebook as a political medium is not its mobilizing potential, but the spaces it provides users to present and manage identity on SNS sites.

The latter might not be intentionally designed to produce social change, but still constitutes a political act and can have a mobilizing impact. Because of this, I argue that the political activity of everyday users should be thought of as a small–scale form of activism, or what I call microactivism. I define micro–activism as one–to–several forms of politically oriented communication that reflect micro–level expressive political performances. These performances are not necessarily geared towards mobilization like more traditional forms of digital activism but this does not invalidate their political purpose. Examples include the formation of political Facebook groups, re–tweeting of articles of political interest and sharing politically relevant videos on YouTube [1]. Micro–activism, as I define it, differs from other forms of activism in both its scale and its intent.

This paper seeks to expand our understanding of microactivism on Facebook by means of a content analysis of 250 politically oriented Facebook groups. Using Google Translate [2] I examine Facebook groups from 32 different countries in 23 different languages. Using grounded theory (Glaser and Strauss, 1967) and Goffman’s (1978) work on dramaturgy, I develop a theory of expressive political performance that helps explain how and why Facebook users create groups. This expressive political performance is maintained, I argue, through the use of four sets of signifiers (expressivity, identity, signifiers and text length). Political Facebook groups provide users with the space for expressive political performance that helps users present political identity to others. Because Facebook is a nonymous (as opposed to anyonmous) environment (Zhao, et al., 2008), actors can use the space to construct and present “possible (political) selves” (Markus and Nurius, 1986) that can serve as the basis for more formal political activity. In the conclusion, I discuss the implications of SNS applications like Facebook for the future of citizenship, both online and off–line.

 

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Presentation/performance on Facebook

To understand micro–activism on Facebook requires a broader discussion of self–presentation online. Presentation, whether front stage or back stage, presumes a desire to be seen in a positive light vis–à–vis the intended audience. Arkin (1981) identifies two ways in which this is done: acquisitive self–presentation where individuals seek to emphasize positive elements of themselves and protective self–presentation where users avoid behaviors that would invite disapproval (Ellison, et al., 2006). A number of factors determine how individuals present, including individual personality characteristics. Goffman (1978) suggests presentation is structured by spaces which provide sensory cues, or frames that instruct us on appropriate ways to perform (Goffman, 1978). This information is sent back and forth between parties until a “working consensus” emerges on which behaviors are appropriate and which would meet with disapproval.

This working consensus is driven by context. Goffman’s argues that individuals have two main contexts in which they operate — a front stage that is part of a broader performance and a back stage. Goffman defines a front stage as “that part of the individual’s performance which ... functions in a general and fixed fashion to define the situation for those who observe the performance” [3]. Put simply, the front stage is where we keep up appearances while the back stage is where we “do the work” to keep up appearance. It is a place to which one can safely retreat from a front stage presentation that is heavily dependent upon norms and expectations ... “the back region will be the place where the performer can reliably expect that no member of the audience will intrude” [4].

Goffman notes that an essential component of all presentation is the expressive equipment used as part of the performance. This performance consists of several elements or “expressive equipment” including:

  1. The setting — “items which supply the scenery and stage props for the spate of human action played out before, within or upon it.”
  2. Appearance — “those stimuli which function at the time to tell us of the performer’s social statuses.”
  3. Manner — “those stimuli which function at the time to warn us of the interaction role the performer will expect to play in the upcoming situation.”

This expressive equipment takes on a unique dimension on social networking sites. Absent are the signs and signifiers that characterize face–to–face interactions. In its stead are “digital signifiers” which include text, images, avatars, social networks, testimonials, etc. (boyd and Heer, 2006). In this sense, an expressive political performance represents they ways in which micro–activists perform public identities in the absence of traditional signifiers that characterize identity maintenance.

 

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Impression management online

A number of scholars have applied Goffman’s impression management framework to the Internet (see Hogan, 2010, for a detailed list). A main debate in this literature is whether different spaces on the Internet constitute a front stage or a back stage. Facebook would seem to allow for both. The ability of Facebook users to send personal messages to friends, as with e–mail, provides elements of a backstage. Even on the seemingly “front stage” newsfeed, Facebook can be used as a backstage where an individual can put aside their professional roles and ”let his/her hair down.“ For example, a teacher can express (within reason) frustrations about grading or student tardiness without fear of reprisal. Through photographs, icons, symbols and so on (comments, likes, etc.), users can receive cues on appropriate behavior.

Despite this, Facebook also contains elements of front stage performance. Because people outside of your personal network can see your posts, users need to be wary of latent audiences that can view posts and impact impression management. A key feature of Goffman’s theory is the idea that presentations differ depending on the audience. Social media, however, subverts that relationship by creating “collapsed contexts” where all of your social circles can view your Facebook “performance” (Marwick and boyd, 2011).

Because online contexts differ from face–to–face communication, some argue that Facebook presentations are not analogous to an off–line performance at all. Hogan (2010) draws a useful distinction between performance spaces where actors are engaging in a time bound performance that includes an audience and exhibition spaces where individuals submit artifacts to show to each other [5]. Although Facebook does have a chat function that allows for real–time communication, Hogan (2010) argues it is more characteristic of an exhibition space because the audience is not bound and online content can be “remixed.” Zarghooni [6] uses the term “detached self–presentation” to describe impression management on Facebook. It differs from off–line performance because of the ability to “inspect, edit and revise” [7].

 

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Facebook and political presentation

Political affinity is one way individuals can connect with others. Facebook has undertaken initiatives to encourage political activity online. In 2007, Facebook launched the Causes application which allowed non–profit entities to create pages that users could add to their personal profiles. Morozov (2011) used the Causes app as an example of slacktivism, noting that while many users affiliated with a specific cause, few actually contributed to these efforts. Hart and Greenwell (2009) noted that 25 million of the roughly 200 million Facebook users affiliated with a cause.

Why would so many take advantage of this Causes app? I contend it is because there is a strong individual need to perform political identity. Political presentations are part of the process of political identity formation. As Raab (2009) points out, our political performances contain elements of both idem or sameness and ipse or individuality via differentiation [8]. We seek to be recognized by others for our distinctiveness while at the same time seeking to be identified as part of a group. Political performance requires the creation of clear in–group/out–group boundaries with clear and commonly understood expectations about appropriate behavior. Cohen (1994) argues that the private self reappropriates a public identity when we choose from available categories (gender, nationality, ethnicity or religion). Facebook provides a place where individuals can both shape these community norms/expectations and signal to others their identification with them. Identifying with a public cause helps in presenting a self that can be affirmed or legitimated for one’s public choices. As such, performing a political identity is an important public statement of affiliation with and/or opposition to a set of categories. This identification can be thought of as a small-scale form of activism.

While there may be elements of “back stage” behavior in political presentation on Facebook, political performance on the site is inherently front stage. Facebook users are making political identifications to communities that are, more often than not, based on social proximity and not communities of interest. As such they are engaged in political performances that may receive unwelcome pushback or reprobation from their strong tie networks. Eliasoph (1998) notes that everyday talk about politics is a subject that most Americans avoid because of the potential to upset someone in your social network.

For the rank and file user, taking the opportunity to create a separate political Facebook page or group can also be an effort to go beyond familiar audiences while not entirely excluding them, a process of audience expansion. In this instance, a front stage approach provides a helpful orientation towards understanding why individuals create specific political presentations. While creating a Facebook group is only one of many ways in which individuals can perform a political identity, it is arguably the most compelling. According to the most recent Facebook data, the average user was “connected to 80 community pages, groups and events” (blog.facebook.com, 2011). Facebook provides what Zhou, et al. (2008) call a nonymous (as opposed to anonymous) environment from which to construct identity. While there are many aspects of online interaction that can have a back stage quality, Facebook differs from other online forums in that it is predicated on the user revealing themselves to a network of others. Consequently, it is not a space where one can engage in back stage “identity tourism” (Nakamura, 2001). For these reasons, I refer to it a form of micro–activism — not quite a full–flegged effort to affect social outcomes, but neither a passive political act.

 

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Methods

To better understand micro–activism on Facebook, I conduct an inductive qualitative content analysis of a sample of politically oriented Facebook groups. Content analysis of the 250 Facebook groups revealed four aspects of identity maintenance that constitute what I call an expressive political performance vis–à–vis online political activism. A digital–front–stage provides us with a conceptual framework for assessing how micro–activists online perform political identities on SNS platforms. My goal is to highlight how an expressive political performance (Goffman, 1978) is created by micro–activists to construct an idealized political identity.

I chose to study Facebook groups because the ubiquity of the social networking application makes it a central forum for the specific forms of micro–activism in which am interested. I conducted a content analysis of 250 politically oriented Facebook groups. When an individual browses groups on Facebook, they are provided with a drop down menu that provides users with different genres of groups from which they can browse. One group includes the category “general interest/politics”. Facebook presents users with 550 political groups from which to browse.

Facebook groups grew exponentially in the late 2000s [9]. The social networking application provides citizens with powerful tools for expressing their political views and aggregating interests around issues of common concern. A Google query of Facebook groups conducted in August, 2010, yielded 397 million hits. The Web site allfacebook.com (http://allfacebook.com/), which tracks Google’s indexing trends, reported that Google had indexed 620 million Facebook groups in February of 2010 [10]. The same Web site reported that Google had indexed 52 million groups in October of 2009, a 12–fold increase in a matter of months (allfacebook.com, 2010).

While it is next to impossible to determine the percentage of these sites that are political or activist in nature, it is not far–fetched to presume that they rank in the tens of millions. A 2013 Pew survey found that 39 percent of U.S.–based Internet users used the site for political purposes (Duggan and Brenner, 2013). The ubiquity of Facebook, coupled with the ease with which a group can be formed, makes this tool a convenient form of political expression.

From this group of 550, I randomly selected 250 of them. Facebook customizes the search results based on groups to which you already belong. As a result, a selection bias may have resulted if I had used my Facebook account to collect data on the groups. Instead, I created a new Facebook account without any friends or group affiliations. This was intended to sidestep Facebook’s tendency to customize group searches based on a member’s existing group profile. Additionally, I was able to avoid any bias in sample selection that might inhere in my personal Facebook social network.

I then analyzed the content of the group main page. Included in this main page was a description of the group and any news updates the group creator(s) sought to include. Because this page is the first page one sees when browsing or searching for groups, it reflects the main purpose of the group’s formation. It illustrates a digital version of what Goffman (1978) calls the front stage, or the role we play when others are observing our behavior. Content analysis has some limitations when compared to conducting in–depth interviews with regard to analyzing the motivation(s) for the creation of a group. First, it does not provide the interviewer the ability to pick up on non-verbal cues that contextualize individual responses. Secondly, content analysis data does not allow the interviewer to ask follow up probes intended to allow respondents to expand their answers on individual subjects. However, content analysis data allows for rich accounts at substantially lower cost than in–depth interviews and avoids problems of response rate and self–selection bias. However, future follow up interviews with creator(s) of these groups would allow for richer data collection.

Analysis of the 250 group descriptions revealed elements of an expressive political performance that fall along four distinct axes: expressiveness, target, tone and length. Using these coding categories, I coded the text on the main Facebook group page using Qualrus, a qualitative software package. Response lengths ranged from one word to 5,433 words. The responses were analyzed using a constant comparative method (Glaser and Strauss, 1967). This method is often used in qualitative analysis to uncover common themes in data. The advantage of a constant comparative method is the ability to adjust analytical categories as new theoretical concepts emerge.

 

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Findings

I argue that many micro–activists create political Facebook groups as an expressive political performance to perform their “hoped for (political) selves.” When Facebook users create a new group, they not only seek to raise awareness about a political issue, but they also take part in meaning–making processes about their roles and responsibilities via those they encounter. By providing users opportunities to reveal a political position or an opposition to a candidate, SNS sites help encourage the formation of political identities that may force users to reflect more deeply on themselves as civic beings. It allows them to try an activist identity “on for size” and it allows users to “offer themselves” as political subjects to interested others. The analysis led me to highlight four distinct dimensions of an expressive political performance (expressivity, identity, signifiers, length).

Dimension 1: Expressivity

Svensson (2009) identifies three forms of political discourse: instrumental, communicative and expressive. My analysis revealed all three forms of discourse in political Facebook groups. However, overwhelmingly, the vast majority of groups seemed to have been created to express political voice rather than to seek an instrumental outcome or to foster dialogue. This corresponds to work Feezell, et al. (2009) have done on the content of wall posts in political Facebook groups. They found that two–thirds of wall posts on Facebook groups were opinion–based and, of those, very few were “quality” opinions (i.e., substantiated by evidence).

One way to reframe the information posted on political Facebook groups is to view them as expressive performance. The content of these groups should be seen as an intersubjective process, determined in large part by micro–activists performing political identity. Group creator(s) with expressive purposes for creating a group and providing information are less concerned with the validity of that information and more interested in how the information assists in identity management.

Surprisingly, few sites were created for the purposes of fostering dialogue. Of the 250 sites analyzed, only two were expressly created for the purpose of “creating dialogue” between peoples: one was created to dialogue issues affecting Moroccan youth and a second sought dialogue about the direction of the Italian Democratic party.

Often groups were formed to advocate for or against a policy position. Many times these groups didn’t ask visitors to take further action. In some instances, expressiveness often was reflected in the apparent need to conduct a defensive performance of political identity. A site called “Legalize Marijuana @ Serbia” promoting a site called vutra.org, contains a set of arguments in Croatia seemingly designed to anticipate possible objections to a site/group that advocates the legalization of marijuana:

Vutra.org NOT promote the use of cannabis, or ANY DRUGS!

Vutra.org a website launched by a group of enthusiasts in order to contribute to the fight for the legalization (or decriminalization) cannabis — a ... .

For decades a lot of people are mistaken, because an opinion formed on the basis of prejudice and (unintelligible) ... .

Our view is that everyone should decide for themselves and their actions, and to take responsibility for them ... .(translated from Serbian).

In this instance, the creator(s) of the group seems acutely aware that the position they are advocating is controversial and associated with a deviant behavior. As a result, they are presenting an identity to visitor of “truth seekers” encouraging visitors to get past “prejudices.”

Other groups were not advocating socially deviant positions but were rather providing evidence to support a narrow policy issue. This example of the proposed closing of a nuclear power plant in Spain required explanation for visitors. In the description of the site, the creators call for:

... the government to reverse the capricious closure decision. For an energy policy without ideological prejudice. Because rates will rise. Because CO2 emissions will increase. Because we have to import electricity. Because many families will lose their livelihood. Mr ZP, forget for a day demagoguery and explain clearly to all the Spanish what will actually involve the closure of a Spanish nuclear plant that serves as global references for their good performance, reliability and safety. (translated from Spanish)

Despite the plea, there is not call to take further action. A few sites were instrumental in purpose in that they suggested “next steps” for visitors to take. This suggests a more formal or conventional view of an “activist.” These actors sought direct social change through their actions rather than simply performing an activist identity by raising awareness about an issue. Such sites often asked individuals to sign petitions or to go to a specific Web site for more information. For example, this Facebook group sought the impeachment of Argentinian President Christina Kirchner. The group description asks visitors to write a formal letter to the “Commission on Impeachment of the House” and provides clear steps on how to do so.

These groups are also engaged in constructing a political identity, even if that identity construction is instrumental in nature. However, these groups fall in line with what we conventionally think of as political activism. Other forms of instrumental group formation asked for visitors to engage in off–line activity (boycotts or buycotts or strikes). Examples of such action included calling for a protest day to save the British National Health Service and a “counter strike” against a proposed public service union strike in France in 2009. An example of a boycott action included a boycott of the 2008 Beijing Olympics because of human rights violations. One micro–activist for example called for a buycott of Catalan–made products:

I always try to buy products labeled in Catalan. If we all do the same, there will be more. YES stop consuming products that are not labeled ... . There are supermarkets (I do not propaganda) that their products are labeled exclusively in Catalan (translated from Catalan).

Other sites provided detailed instructions on how to show solidarity with the Iranian protesters during the country’s Green Revolution. This site provided more detailed instances of “hactivism” that could be employed to show support.

  1. Show your support by changing your profile picture on Twitter to the color green by clicking Settings >Design>Change Design Colors>Background>009933. (This may seem trivial, but Iranians have said every bit of support matters in keeping them going)
  2. Help conceal Iranian activists who are on Twitter from the secret police by changing your location to Tehran, Iran and your timezone to Tehran (GMT +3:30).
  3. Set up proxy servers to help ensure that Iranians can stay connected to the outside world — http://extrafuture.com/2009/06/15/how-to-set-up-an-anonymous-proxy-for-iranians-using-squid-on-mac-os-x/

While many of these sites emerged in the analysis, many more sites were created without a discernable instrumental purpose. Instead, they seemed to be created simply to “announce” a position. This turn towards expressive politics fits with Goffman’s dramaturgical approach. The nonymous nature of SNS sites allows individuals to manage a political identity in a popular and convenient online venue. Rather than articulate these views in private, group creators sought to put these views out for public consumption without any corresponding call for visitors to take action.

Often sites would seem to call for action, but then not provide “next steps” for visitors to take to bring about the called for change. For example an Italian–based group called “We withdraw the Italian ambassador in Israel” calls for a change in policy, but doesn’t provide on the description page how the group will go about affecting that change. It could be that the group creators don’t know how to go about bringing about the desired result. But it could also be that the creator(s) want to “perform political activism” by making a public call for a policy change.

This group was created to demand the return of our ambassador from Tel Aviv ... racists of all kinds are asked to stay away, we are not anti–Semitic anti–Zionists. (translated from Italian)

The narrative allows the creator to assert a policy position on an issue that potentially has made the group’s creator upset. The group allows him/her/they to signal that upset to a sympathetic audience of others. At the same time, they are asserting their public voice, their “hoped for possible self” that takes positions on issues of concern.

Often times discourse on the Facebook groups adopted a rant–like quality with little connection to taking action formal policy position. One example is a U.K. group entitled: “STOP SHARIA LAW BECOMING BINDING IN THE UK!! BRITISH SOIL= BRITISH LAWS!!!” In the description of the group, the author simply expresses anger at a possible discussion had by the government:

The wonderful Labour Government is in talks to bring in Sharia Law. I THINK NOT!! Our legal system and law and order is in a dire situation as it is without having another countries law brought in! It’s damn insulting! I’d rather have a new GOVERNMENT though! If the Sharia Law was brought in it would be used by people to get out of situations by jumping between Sharia Law and UK law. No one would know what the true law was no more. It’s always been one rule for us and another for immigrants that come into this country. The segregation gap is bigger than ever!!

The purpose of this site was not to provide information about specific policy decisions (although the group creator(s) does include links concerning Sharia law). The main point of the group appears to be to reveal this position to a public. From a dramaturgical perspective, the SNS provides a setting that gives the impression that one is “fed up” and “taking action.” Whether the “taking action” occurs in practice is secondary.

Other groups simply asked visitors to “support” a current or historical public figure. These sites asked nothing of visitors, instead using the platform as a means to express gratitude or to “honor” a political subject. This honoring may simply be what it purports to be. In one instance, a group called “Ronald Reagan” was created for:

... all people, Republicans and Democrats alike, who love Ronald Reagan. The fact is that he was the single most greatest president of our time. His policies, beliefs, and actions led America to flourish in his time in office. I do believe that he could get us out of these bad times if he were here today. I also believe that no matter how many years pass, his legacy will live on forever, and President Reagan will always have an impact. God Bless!

It very well could be the group creator simply wants to express gratitude for a public official they cherished. However, the creation of a Facebook page is a very public expression of gratitude. As a performance, it connects the creator of the group to the subject of the group and those values the subject signified. Creating or joining this group says very specific things about the members.

Similarly, some groups were created to express support for an idea or a movement. This site called “ARGENTINA SUPPORTS POPULAR RESISTANCE HONDURAN” is designed to convey solidarity with a fellow nation going through turbulent times:

This group invites all Argentines to join the cause of the Honduran people, supporting their protests and demonstrations against the coup. As Argentines do not ignore a Latin American people that ... is experiencing what we sadly know. (translated from Spanish)

There is no call for the Argentinian government to intervene or otherwise lend support. The group creator(s) is simply publicly making a statement of support. It is impossible to know (without asking) the reason for this show of support, however it again points to performative elements of Facebook group formation.

Expressive discourses also emerged around opposition to a position or candidate. In this sense, the performance was tied to a specific incident, person/group or policy. Most of those group pages addressed a specific policy. Examples of Facebook groups designed to protest a specific action include. This U.K.–based group called “Have you really forgotten already? Stop the Tories” is described as a site for:

all those who haven’t forgotten how bad Tory governments are and are terrified by what is seemingly an inevitable Conservative win at the next election ...

In all these instances where Facebook groups were created, citizens focused their attention, even for a brief moment, upon performing as a political self in a public forum. Deciperhing the motivations for the formation of these groups was not always easy. However, the presence of the SNS site allowed for an additional space to “perform politics.” While not the direct activism sought by some, it is creating more spaces for politics to seep into everyday life. Performing micro–activism may help solidify engaging in politics into an individual’s sense of what it means to be a digital citizen. Whether the intended aim is to produce immediate political effects, it injects public issues into “everyday politics.”

Dimension 2: Core identity: Resistance/legitimation

The majority of Facebook groups examined suggested an expressive rationale for their creation. However the subjects of expressiveness varied in interesting ways. Castells (1996) argues that the radical transformation brought about by the network society (flattened hierarchies, just–in time production, flexible labor pools, etc.) has created a legitimacy crisis for nation states that find themselves incapable of effectively managing these networks. The complexity and fragmentation of the network society creates tension concerning one’s place in the social structure. As Castells points out:

In a world of global flows of wealth, power, and images, the search for identity — collective or individual, ascribed or constructed — becomes the fundamental source of social meaning. [11]

Castells (1997) argues that social meaning is achieved through the development of one of three types of identities: legitimating, resistance or project identity. The analysis reveals examples of the first two identities. I will address each in turn.

1. Legitimating identity

A legitimating identity, rationalizes the activities of the groups in power and allows them to extend their dominance over social actors (Castells, 1997). The formation of these types of identities is supported by the infrastructure of the transnational capitalist class, consisting of “those who own and control the major corporations and their local affiliates, globalizing bureaucrats and politicians, globalizing professionals, and consumerist elites.” [12]

Given the nature of SNSs to create alternative discourse spaces (Dahlberg, 2006), one might presume that legitimating discourses are rarer on social networking sites. However there were instances where individuals created pages that fit Castells’ description of supporting a “transnational capitalist class.”

Groups that targeted legitimating subjects ranged from pages supporting neo–liberal candidate such as one supporting the re–election of Colombian president Alvaro Uribe entited simply “SI A REELECCIÓN DE URIBE.” (Yes to the re–election of Uribe). To sites that opposed candidate viewed as “communists.” One Mexican–based group opposed the expansion of a value added tax and a U.S.–based group pledged to “stand 1 million strong against the stimulus.” However legitimating subjects were much less frequent group targets as compared to resistance subjects.

2. Resistance identity

Those whose are or perceive themselves to be excluded by the logic of dominant groups develop a resistance identity (Castells, 1997). The struggles often take religious or nationalistic overtones: “God, nation, family and community will provide unbreakable, eternal codes around which a counter–offensive will be mounted.” [13].

A significant number of sites were built to express solidarity with a nation, group or cause. Facebook groups appeared to be particularly attractive to nationalist groups seeking to signal solidarity. An example is a group called “Wherever I Stand, I Stand With ISRAEL.” The site provided a long list of charitable aid Israel provided to nations around the world. One group was simply called “PROUD TO BE FRENCH.”

A U.S.–based group called “I Support the Students sent home for wearing the American Flag” served as a site for citizens to express collective outrage over a school in California’s decision to send students home for wearing the American flag on a traditional Mexican holiday.

For those of you who support the students in California for getting sent home from high school for wearing Red, White, and Blue on Cinco De Mayo, Please join this group and help us get the word out about this disgrace to America!

Another example was the U.K. group “Lets make Saint George’s Day a massive celebration!” The group sought to solidify English identity through the promotion of a holiday.

Its time for a change, so are English people proud of who they are?

Are you proud to be English or if your not English proud to live in England?

A small minority take offence to Saint George’s Day, I say boulderdash to them, this is England, this is our country, if you don’t like it then tough as we will celebrate our day.

The reference to “our country” in the description of the group signals a keen interest in forming a resistance identity opposed to multiculturalism and globalization. In both the “St. George” and the “Flag” groups the creator of the group is adopting the role of rallying a national identity group to take pride in their heritage.

A key concern for many political scientists is to enhance the quality of deliberation among citizens. From this perspective, Facebook groups miss the mark. In the above example, the creator of the site is less interested in discussions regarding multiculturalism and more interested in expressing in–group solidarity.

One Turkey–based group called simply ATATURK under its description simply provided a 2,100–word biography of the Turkish leader. Under the “news” section after the biography begins a section that calls on “Turkish Youth” to: “Turkish Youth! The first task of the Turkish Independence and the Turkish Republic, is to forever preserve and defend.” This group is engaged in resistance identity from the other end of the spectrum. The group calls for preserving a secular Turkey against those who call for a theocratic state.

Dimension 3: Signifiers

A distinct dimension of political identity performance deals with the signifiers one uses to express tone through words on a screen. One criticism of the role that the Internet writ large plays in the political process is that it often leads to an impoverished dialogue. This leads democratic theorists to celebrate the democratic possibilities for ICTs while decrying its actual effects.

However there were several ways in which signifiers were used to signal varying types of political identities. One obvious way that group creators managed their political identity was through punctuation and capitalization. This group for example, was formed to oppose the raising of rates for parking in a Slovenian Town: “WE strongly against introducing Pay parking!”

Another U.K.–based group called “ITS NOT RACIST TO WANT THE BEST FOR OUR COUNTRY” highlights how the use of capitalization signals the intensity with which the group creator’s views are held:

YOU SHOULDNT BE MADE TO FEEL LIKE A RACIST COS YOU WANT WHATS BEST FOR OUR COUNTRY, IE JOBS FOR BRITS DEPORTATION OF UNECESARY FOREIGNERS, SUPPORT OF BRITISH LADS FIGHTING ABROAD, THE WAR ON TERROR SHOULD BE BROUGHT TO OUR STREETS AT HOME, PULL OUT OF AFGHAN AND POLICE THE TOWNS AND CITIES OF UK, THATS THE ONLY WAY TO FIGHT HOMEGROWN TERRORISM. F**K POLITICAL CORRECTNESS ITS JUST HOLDING US BACK WHILE PEOPLE COME TO OUR COUNTRY AND USE IT AS A WEAPON AGAINST US.

The use of expletives can also be thought of as a signaling device intended to convey anger and hostility towards a group or policy position.

The insult was another device used to convey anger towards a subject. One Italian group opposed to the communist party in Italy was titled “The toilet is ALWAYS AT THE BOTTOM LEFT.” A Facebook group page called “Traitors: FOR D ’ITALY” expressed opposition to Gianfranco Fini, a former coalition partner of Italian prime minister Berlusconi. The page creator uses insults to convey his anger at Fini, presumably for breaking ranks with the Italian President.

Gianfranco ... no, you are not a schizophrenic but only a low–level whore, heartless, nor flag, nor ideal.

Other times, expressiveness focused on almost lyrical mechanisms for supporting a position. A group in Turkey called “No turban to (Turkish)”, attempts to be descriptive in making its point

young girls who enjoy the wind in your hair around your forehead warm smile of the sun will disappear when the child lost his brain washes away that time of innocence, they imprisoned the beautiful head or freedom would be a piece of cloth attached to the name of the shackles.

While the evocation of images gets lost in translation, the descriptive nature of the appeal highlights stark differences in how Group creators in different countries use language to perform political identity on Facebook. Often group creators used poems or songs. An Italian group called “Children can come out, the Communists are gone” contained a lyrical homage to the Italian Prime Minister.

There is a big dream
Who lives in us
We are people of freedom,
President we’re with you
Thank goodness that’s Silvio

In addition to lyrical devices, some groups used satire. One groups was formed to support for the rock singer Lemmi for Prime Minister of England. Another supported Walter, a ventriloquist dummy used by comedian Jeff Dunham, as a presidential candidate. The use of humor in these groups conveys a sense of absurdity towards the political process. It signals a critical, yet playful, performance of a political self.

Dimension 4: Length

Groups ranged on the length of their descriptions. One group called “anti–war” contained the single word “why?” in the description of the group page. Pithy page descriptions were common among the groups studied. Often groups formed in support or opposition to an public official were shortest. An anti–Hugo Chavez group called “Odio a Chavez” (I hate Chavez) had a page description that “ME ALTERA HABLAR DE EL.” (It agitates me to talk about him).

The pithiness of support/opposition sites held across cultural contexts. The group “Resignation as President Georgi Parvanov of Bulgaria!” contains the description “This is a group (unintelligible) cause I want the resignation of the President.” An Indonesian group supporting former President Gus Dur had a similarly short description.

The pithiness of this group’s description has to do with the fact that practically all those who would be interested in the group know the public official in question. Visitors to the group “Odio a Chavez” know who Hugo Chavez is and have fully–formed opinions about him. The page thus is intended to signal solidarity with those whose opinion of Chavez are negative.

Often the pithiness represented the formality of the page. Sites that were created by a political campaign often featured a brief bio of the candidate or no bio at all. The group called “Alex Sink for Florida Governor” provided a good illustration of formal political groups. The description of the group read “Building on the promise of change. Alex Sink 2010.”

By contrast, the group “REAL FACE OF PKK” (Kurdistan Worker’s Party) provided a 3,572–word essay on the shortcoming of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party according to the site creator. Sites that sought to bring public awareness to a cause tended to have the longest responses. Group pages that exceeded 1,000 words in length included a group called “Herceg–Bosna PROUD HEART” that summarized the effort to make the territory of Herceg–Bosna a nation state. Other longer sites recounted the Kurdish myth of Newroz and described Greek opposition to the name Macedonia. Each of these sites dealt with issues of ethnic/national identity.

 

++++++++++

Conclusion

This paper seeks to extend our understanding of Facebook’s impact on activism by looking at the formation of political Facebook groups. An analysis of 250 politically oriented Facebook groups reveals very few instances of groups whose explicit intent was to encourage further action. Most pages simply were expressions of political opinion. I argue that these groups constitute expressive political performances that are a form of micro–activism. These efforts to present political opinion to a group of interested others may or may not lead to traditional forms of activism. Even if they do not, they still constitute an effort to engage in a political performance that includes an audience. As such, it is appropriate to think of the formation of these groups as small–scale form of activism.

Many criticisms have been lodged against the use of SNS as digital activism. The broad critique can be characterized by Morozov’s (2011) notion of slacktivism where users are able to “feel” like activists by liking a group or retweeting a post. Morozov notes that the ability to perform small–scale type of activism distracts from the hard, on–the–ground work of movement activism. Gladwell (2010) argues along similar lines, noting that Facebook does not promote the strong ties necessary to sustain social movements.

This view of activism online however, pays too much attention to instrumental politics and too little attention to politics as a meaning making process. There is intrinsic value in providing a nonymous space where micro–activists can perform their “would be selves.” By using what Goffman calls expressive equipment users can conduct political performances. In this work, I identify four dimensions of expressive equipment of Facebook: expressivity, identity, signifiers, length.

Expressivity refers to the type of discourse used on the site. As Svensson (2009) notes, expressive rationality as a form if discourse is not aimed at starting a dialogue or at achieving an instrumental end. Expressivity is an increasingly central part of political life around the world. Increasingly, these political performances matter because of the changing nature of politics. Over the last few decades, we have seen an increased blurring of public and private life where politics and politicians are evaluated according to the norms of private life (Sennett, 1996; van Zoonen, 2005; Meyrowitz, 1985).

Additionally, users can play with different forms of political identity. Castells (2006) has a useful distinction between project identities that seek to transcend boundaries and categories and resistance identities that seek to reinforce them. These different types of identities are a form of expressive equipment that users can adopt in an effort to create “hoped for possible selves” (Markus and Nurius, 1986). That Facebook is providing this venue is ironic given Mark Zuckberg’s view of eliminating the distinction between a front stage and a back stage. Kirkpatrick (2010) highlights the transformation nature of the Facebook ethos as told to him by the site’s creator:

You have one identity ... . The days of you having a different image for your work friends or co–workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly ... Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity. [14]

Indeed it could be possible that instead of eliminating the distinction between “front stage” and “back stage” identities, Facebook actually enables more spaces for performance of different types of identities. The use of Facebook can be a vehicle to promote a nationalist or ethnic identity within a safer space than proclaiming an allegiance in an off–line public forum.

From a citizenship perspective, having more spaces to perform political identity helps bind politics to everyday life. It is important to have political spaces online, particularly in an era where digital attention is short. Rather than hold these micro–activists up to the standard of formal activists, we might think of their participation in the political process as somewhere between a full–scale digital activist and a disengaged, atomized citizen.

Viewed this way, Facebook provides a useful space to “park” feelings of alienation and disgust. Through signifiers like tone, punctuation, language or capitalization and length, users can express emotions in a way that they may not be allowed to in other venues. For example, the use of coarse language on a Facebook group might serve as a “pressure valve” for the group creator such that their off–line behavior is more muted. Similarly, the ability to use length in an online political performance (e.g., a “manifesto”) might allow the site creator an unprecedented ability to convey political views or feelings that are not heard through conventional channels. More research is needed to understand the connections between online performances and off–line political behavior.

Because of this, micro–activism can also be fraught with challenges. Performances of political identity that involve creating or reinforcing distinct in–group/out–group divisions can lead to more engagement but can also lead to more polarization. Indeed, few political Facebook groups observed in this analysis focused on developing on cross–cutting dialogues (Mutz, 2006). Instead, these groups were polemic, either opposing or supporting a group/idea/cause. Only two out of the 250 groups studied involved any calls for deliberation of dialogue.

This emphasis on expressivity over deliberation is a hallmark of our modern politics. Over the last three decades we have witnessed an increased blurring of the private and the public. Candidates emphasizing their “one of us” attributes but also citizens viewing the political solely through the lens of the personal. Sennett (1996) forewarned of the dangers of removing the “formality” of politics, the “masks” that allowed for calm, rational public deliberation. Instead, our politics is increasingly about the personal and the emotional. Van Zoonen (2005) refers to this as a process of intimization where private feelings and emotion become the stuff of public politics.

Our efforts should focus on instilling habits of micro–activism that lead to performances that balance expressivity and deliberation. In addition, political talk online should be structured such that they break through what Pariser (2011) calls the “filter bubble” of content aggregators that inhibit your exposure to contrasting points of view. The “filter bubble” might help you affiliate with groups you support, but it doesn’t help with finding instances to have “cross cutting” conversations that ultimately lead to healthier more vibrant democracies (Mutz, 2006).

The possibility of what McCluhan (1965) presciently called retribalization brought about by global connectivity redoubles the need to examine microactivism online. Scholars of social movements often define digital activism “up” by focusing on it being practiced effectively by a select few (Joyce, 2010) or define it “down” by regarding everyone and every political act as digital activism. It is worth further reflecting upon middle–level acts of political participation online that do not carry with them goals of full–scale activism but requires political engagement in a deeper and reflective way. This paper is a first step in that direction. End of article

 

About the author

Jose Marichal is an associate professor of political science at California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks, Calif.
E–mail: marichal [at] callutheran [dot] edu

 

Notes

1. The term micro–activism appears in a handful of writings throughout the last decade. Blood (2000) uses micro–activism to describe small–scale, decentralized, less formal activist organizations. Drache (2006) applied to term micro–activism to a broader, pro–democratic shift in world power relations brought about by globalization and information technology. In both cases, however, the micro refers to the size of the actor engaging in the activism, whether it be an activist organization (Blood, 2000) or previously marginalized individuals (Drache, 2006). In my formulation of micro–activism, the term refers to the size of the audience being reached and the level of social transformation sought by the political engagement.

2. Google Translate applies “statistical learning techniques on billions of lines of text to build a translation model” (Google Translate FAQ, 2008). Chen and Bao (2009) found that when translating from Chinese to English, Translate was more effective on translating one sentence titles than on translating more context dependent descriptions of events. As a result, they caution using Translate for descriptive passages. While their caution should be heeded, their findings are of limited applicability since none of the 250 groups descriptions I examined were written in Chinese. The vast majority were in romance languages.

3. Goffman, 1978, p. 32.

4. Goffman, 1978, p. 113.

5. Hogan, 2010, p. 377.

6. Zarghooni, 2007, p. 17.

7. Zarghooni, 2007, p. 4.

8. Raab, 2009, pp. 227–228.

9. While Facebook topped the one billion account mark in 2013, the company undertook a process of purging spam accounts. This process brought the number to under one billion user accounts, however Facebook’s annual Q# report found that Facebook was back up to 1.15 billion worldwide accounts (Socialbakers.com, 2013).

10. These numbers reflect the most recent data on the number of Facebook groups. While the emergence of Facebook Pages may have diminished the use of Facebook Groups, I could find no quantification of this trend.

11. Castells, 1998, p. 223.

12. Sklair, 2002, p. 144.

13. Castells, 1997, p. 66.

14. Kirkpatrick, 2010, p. 200.

 

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Editorial history

Received 2 April 2013; revised 2 September 2013; accepted 17 September 2013.


Copyright © 2013, First Monday.
Copyright © 2013, Jose Marichal.

Political Facebook groups: Micro–activism and the digital front stage
by Jose Marichal.
First Monday, Volume 18, Number 12 - 2 December 2013
http://www.firstmonday.dk/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/4653/3800
doi:10.5210/fm.v18i12.4653.





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