The campaigning power of the internet

Protesting against the status quo, lobbying politicians, campaigning against organisations, cause-related fundraising and political campaigning have flourished in line with the accessibility of internet communications.  Whether to inform, to mobilize or to bring about direct action, the abundance of communication tactics now available enables anyone to run a powerful online campaign.  From local campaigns, such as a group of residents campaigning to save a beloved field from development, to international organisation raising awareness of a specific issue such as fracking, the internet can have a major impact on planning proposals.

As an innovative, informative, interactive, and a creative tool, online communications (specifically as a result of Web 2.0) have enabled increasingly sophisticated campaigning tactics which are almost certain to mature as technology advances.  At little or no cost, a single individual is able to send a powerful message to likeminded audiences, the traditional media, and ultimately the public at large, with significant consequences.

It would vastly understate the power of the internet to describe ‘online campaigning’ as a single tactic.  Most offline tactics can be replicated online and thus the presence of the internet immediately doubles the tools available to campaigners. 

So what defines online campaigning as opposed to the offline campaigns of the last century?

  • Research and analysis:  automatic alerts services, website analytics, social media monitoring are just some of the tools available to online campaigning which would take considerable time, effort and expense offline.  Furthermore, the power of the web to quickly locate planning applications, local authority planning documents, government or pressure group documents and identify potential supporters considerably benefits campaigners.
  • Ease:  the internet is becoming increasingly mobile, intuitive and accessible and thus significantly more user-friendly than offline alternatives. Taking part in a campaign in opposition to planning proposals online can be as simple as receiving a link via email and clicking on a hyperlink.  Consequently those who may not have previously supported a campaign can do so with minimal effort.
  • Versatility:  despite its worldwide presence, the web has an extraordinary ability to be tailored to individuals’ needs.  While offline campaigns tend to focus on a selection of tactics, often based on practical considerations, the internet enables individuals to be targeted according to the communication tactic that most suits them personally, be it a text, image, report in PDF format, link to Instagram, Facebook, Twitter or YouTube. Again, this increases the likelihood of an individual supporting a campaign.
  • Dissemination:  the capacity of messages to ‘go viral’ is phenomenal.  A single email, Facebook post or YouTube video has the potential to be seen by millions within just minutes of having been posted. Messages posted within specific networks have the benefit not only of reaching millions, but of reaching the specific target audience very efficiently.
  • Information:  unlike their print equivalent, documents can be posted on websites at little or no cost and in considerable numbers.  Effectively there is no limit to the amount of information a campaign may include. Planning applications and local authority planning documents can be accessed at the touch of a button.
  • Speed:  one of the greatest advantages of online communication, the speed by which a message can be communicated online is considerable.  This results in campaigns gaining support extremely quickly. 
  • Cost:  at little or no cost, there is no limit to the number of online campaigns, resulting in campaigns existing where they may not have done previously.
  • New balance of power:  largely as a result of low cost, the internet breaks down the perceived asymmetry between public bodies and the general public.  Often individuals or small scale campaign groups are more agile and less risk averse than larger organisations and as such are more effective in executing an online campaign.
  • Mobilisation and co-ordination:  the internet facilitates contact between individuals who share common interests and enables them to co-ordinate joint actions.   It also has the potential to facilitate the formation of new political and social forces which may previously have been hindered by practicalities and resources.  Powerful communities of interest can be formed regardless of geographical and social constraints.
  • Different dialogues:  with internet communication offering dialogue in the form of one to one and one to many, the appropriate form of dialogue can be selected and used effectively.  Furthermore petitions could be considered a form of ‘many to one’ and as such are a particularly powerful voice.  Common to each of these forms of communication is two-way dialogue, which enables campaigns to grow quickly, also offering opportunities for more proactive developers to enter into dialogue with potential objectors.
  • Debate and discussion: it follows, therefore that debate and discussion can occur more easily on the internet than elsewhere.  Online communication is an ecosystem founded on interconnected conversations and in many cases a campaign can benefit from positioning itself on an existing platform, such as that of a popular local website or blog.
  • Individuality:  despite the potential to collate support, many internet-campaigns are initiated by an individual, because of the efficiencies afforded to them.  A single point of view, if well timed and irrespective of the weight of popular opinion, has the potential to form a powerful campaign.  Similarly, the internet enables campaigns to take place on a ‘hyperlocal’ level, as the next section demonstrates.
  • Low key:  today’s activism need not be led by powerful personalities or instigated with great panache; in fact many online campaigns are anonymous.  This brings about a lack of accountability which can distort a campaign and present difficulties for the organisations to whom the campaign is aimed.

It goes without saying that online, campaigns are potentially more sophisticated, informed, effective, efficient, adaptable, egalitarian and flexible than those that went before them.  However, the use of the internet brings about new issues and concerns, one of which is the potential for misinformation.  While the internet increases the opportunity for access to information, transparency and accountability, most websites lack the editorial filter that is an important part of professional news generation.  It becomes the responsibility of users themselves to assess the veracity of information found online, but where this fails to happen, inaccurate information can be spread too easily.

Furthermore, campaigning has not shifted from offline to online:  offline campaigns remain, and they remain successful (often because they are supported by online campaigns).  This presents additional challenges to developers and therefore a need to understand how online campaigning works, understand the appropriate time to engage with a campaign, and do so effectively.

Extract from Public Consultation and Community Involvement in Planning: a twenty-first century guide.

Penny Norton’s third book Communicating Construction: insight, experience and best practice contains some of the most recent thinking on consultation and will be published in early 2021.

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