Comment: Iain Duncan Smith, £53 and the power of social media
By Brie Rogers Lowery
It happened so quickly. Dominic Aversano was sat at home listening to the now-infamous "I could do it if I had to" line from the work and pensions secretary. He tweeted about it, considered it and went to Change.org to start a petition. In 20 minutes, 400 people had signed. By midnight it was 100,000 strong and leading the national news.
It's an incredible moment for him and for politics more broadly. We live in a social age and this is a fascinating example of how politicians can be held to account for their words and actions. There's lots of chatter about how this has taken off – and why it's done so more than other potentially more worthy campaigns. For me it's clear: the 'ask' is accessible, not particularly ideological, it's clear and creative. Crucially in the social media context it's shareable – easy to explain in 140 characters. It speaks to people's innate distaste for hypocrisy and with less than 100 words and a few clicks, Dominic has achieved what politicians strive for – he's captured the national mood.
This morning's news has been dominated by people speaking about what life is like for those on benefits. It's inspired conversation from all sides of the spectrum and, understandably, some criticism. Some argue that it's not enough: that it's 'clicktivism' and a distraction. I think they miss the point.
Sometimes the best thing that 'professional' campaigners can do is stand back and let people get on with it. Agree with it or not, 150,000 people (and counting) are, in their own way, trying to hold Iain Duncan Smith to account for what they see as a dismissal of how the poorest in our society live. Who knows what the outcome will be – the coming weeks and days are likely to see a response of some kind or the other – but Dominic's put this on the agenda and good luck to him.
This is an example of what might be a power shift in the political process, but it doesn't always happen on this scale. We have thousands of petitions started every month on Change.org. Some amount to nothing. Some take off but don't win. More than 40 have actually won on the site since last September alone, just in the UK. All of them are driven by real people, their passion for their cause and social media.
Take Stacy Stafford. Last year Glasgow Council told her her severely disabled son was to lose his place at school in the wake of cuts. She started a petition, 7,500 signed, the press covered it, she won. She was a person without any political power – no public affairs agency and no PR people. Just her story, a Change.org petition and a Facebook page. Jayne Linney, repeatedly told by ATOS that she couldn't have her disability benefits assessment recorded, did the same. Just 1,000 signatures led to MPs getting involved and the decision being reversed. Earlier this year when campaigners heard that Mary Seacole was to be scrapped from the national curriculum, 35,000 people petitioned the Department for Education on Change.org. The campaign won.
It's easy to dismiss all this as 'clicktivism', as though, nowadays, the on and offline worlds are separate or something online has less value than its offline equivalent. But it's actually working. Rather than just shouting at the radio, Dominic Aversano was able to do something, and whatever your views on welfare reform, the petition is remarkable.
What do politicians do about it? The smart ones embrace social. They engage with online campaigns. The basis of social media is sharing and interaction and the best politicians have grasped that. Here is a real opportunity for those making policy to hear about the real lives of millions affected – and the voices of a concerned electorate. But it should be exciting too – politicians can, theoretically, get closer to voters than ever before, and it seems strange for them not to embrace that opportunity . There was a lot of talk before the last election about the 'new politics' – well Dominic's petition might well be part of it.
Brie Rogers Lowery is the UK director of Change.org
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