Two weeks ago I joined about 200 people standing outside Parliament demanding that the controversial Digital Economy Bill get a democratically fair debate rather than rushed into law without scrutiny during the pre-election process known as the Wash Up.
The Digital Economy Bill has been drafted largely by corporate content providers attempting to protect their industrial business models and includes measures to disconnect alleged copyright infringers without any judicial oversight. Other impacts include forcing open wifi providers, such as cafes, bars, libraries, etc, to close their networks or face crippling penalties if someone downloads copyrighted material. The Bill also gives unprecedented powers to the Government and State to block and censor websites it (or big business) doesn’t like and take over domain names where it sees fit.
On Tuesday afternoon and last night the campaign for and against (but mainly against) the Bill reached its climax as Parliament gave it its second an third readings in the House of Commons. Both the debate itself and the past few weeks of vociferous campaign activity has offered a fascinating case study of what a digitally empowered politics looks like and might even give us a glimpse of what we can expect to see after the General Election in terms of online political campaigning and edemocracy.
So I thought I’d take a look at some the ways in which the Digital Economy Bill campaign has played out online and offline. Before I do this, however, it’s worth noting that it would appear at first analysis that traditional, mass media campaign techniques have also played a significant part in driving the campaign, even around such a digital issue as this one.
The first interesting insight to emerge is the way in which both sides of the debate have attempted to influence the Bill’s content. The tactics can be boiled down to classic ‘behind closed doors’ lobbying (largely carried out by the content industry) versus open, crowd-sourced lobbying conducted by grassroots online activists. While the former tactics relied on private meetings between key industry figures and Ministers, the latter used only the web to publicly identify MPs and key influencers and co-ordinate mass lobbying efforts that included the voices and opinions excluded from the top-down, industry approach.
The tactics of online activists came to the fore during yesterday’s debate when Twitter was used by hundreds of digital-savvy Tweeters to report the parliamentary debate in real-time – with thousands more contributing throughout the debate.
The results are nothing short of astounding. At the culmination of the second reading debate the official hashtag for the Bill – #DEBill – was the 6th top-trending topic on Twitter worldwide. In the space of 24 hours during Tuesday’s debate a total of 17,749 tweets were sent with the #DEBill hashtag (and research evidence shows that hashtagged content is only a fraction of the total relevant content).
The BBC’s Rory Cellan-Jones correctly blogged yesterday that the #DEBill’s Twitter backchannel had “a real sense that many people outside were connecting with the Parliamentary process for the first time”.
Compare this online outpouring of expertise, deliberation, knowledge and passion with the number of MPs that actually turned out to debate the Bill on its second reading. Only around 3% of elected politicians, as you can see below.
The second insight from the #DEBill campaign is how campaigners used social media to fundraise. A great example of the power of tapping into passionate networks to achieve shared goals in a short space of time came when 38Degrees and the Open Rights Group joined forces to raise enough cash to pay for a series of newspaper ads.
Within five days, £20,000 had been raised using Twitter, email and blogging to drive donations.
While it’s not the first time campaigners have used the Internet to raise money (others such as The Atheist Bus Ad campaign and Obama both had wider mainstream media and marketing campaigns to support them) I believe the #DEBill example is ground-breaking for two reasons.
Firstly, as far as I am aware it’s the first major fundraising success for online political campaigners, 38Degrees. In case you’re not familiar with 38Degress, they are aiming to be a UK equivalent of MoveOn, the US political activism organisation. Worth noting is that based on MoveOn’s pioneering model, 38Degrees exhibits a classic example of organisational hybridity; something I’ve blogged about before.
This essentially represents a new Internet-enabled form of organising that allows campaign groups to switch rapidly between organisational models and thus achieve a wide variety of aims through a wide variety of networks. 38Degrees’ ‘campaign methodology’ sums this up neatly with the idea that they are “people-powered and multi-issue”
The other observation about the fund-raising campaign is that just as happened with the Obama campaign, once funds had been raised using social media and peer-to-peer networks, in order to reach the intended audience of MPs and policy-makers, the cash was then ploughed into newspaper adverts in The Guardian and The Times. Another great example of the movement building capacity of the Internet being converted into traditional mass reach media to have a perceived effect.
The final insight into what a digitally empowered politics could look like has only really emerged over the past 24 hours, after the first parliamentary debate wrapped up late on Tuesday.
By mid-morning Wednesday a number of creative and powerful tools had sprung up to re-energise the anti-Bill campaign’s momentum ahead of the third (and final) reading.
These tools ranged from campaign videos mashing up speeches from the debate to reinforce anti-Bill messages (see the video at the top of this post) through to the incredible www.didmympshowupornot.com a site created that allows the public to check if their MP attended the debate and providing links what to do next if they didn’t.
Other cool sites that have appeared overnight include the debate content aggregator, Debillitated and What DEBill? which encourages people to sign-up via Twitter to an online declaration of their intent to refuse to accept the Digital Economy Bill if its passed.
Our very own Chris Applegate has also created an awesome mash-up in the aftermath of the #DEBill’s third reading that lets people thank MPs who voted against the Bill. The site shows you which constituencies opponents of the Bill are contesting and suggests you help out with your nearest election campaign.
However, despite all these emergent forms of political campaigning and edemocracy in action, it’s likely that the Digital Economy Bill will become law very shortly indeed.
It’s small comfort that there’s a wealth of great social media case studies being born out of such an ill thought-out piece of legislation. And it’s worth remembering that some of the great examples outlined here of how social media can be used to campaign for greater democracy, such as the video embedded at the top of this post, could in the future lead to sites like YouTube being blocked (as it is already in Iran) due to the creative re-use of copyrighted content. Sad times.