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Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Digital Democracy (Published by Cumhuriyet, Eng Ed 2/2011)

Obama, then a relative unknown, first won the US Democratic candidacy and later, the presidency with an unprecedented level of on-line donations and viral support.  How he accomplished that has to do with a multi-layered communication strategy that leveraged social media from web sites to You Tube to Facebook.    He was able to get his grass roots supporters to do the viral marketing which multiplied the campaigns effectiveness.   Obama may be a good example of the power of social media which has become a standard tool for political campaigning.   Political use of social media is an under utilized wild card in Turkey.   If employed properly, it offers the upside of a few percentage points of support before the upcoming elections.

Ten years ago, it used to matter what country, city and neighborhood you are from.  As Turks in living in the USA, we hang out with other Turks, gravitating toward people with whom we shared a common culture.  These days, it is still fun to get together with Turkish friends to enjoy a glass of raki with meze, but thanks to the World Wide Web, we now have no trouble finding people who are just like us in that they share our opinions- and they are just as likely to be from Germany, the US or China as they are from Turkey.  

On Facebook, I am a fan of “Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi”  with 800,000 plus others, “100% Electric Motorcycles” and an avid follower of a band called Wilco with 330,000 Facebook fans.  If I can find Turks who support the CHP party, who like clean transportation who listen to Wilco, I am sure to have a lot in common with them.  This is quite likely given that in Turkey, almost a third of the population uses Facebook including my parents who are in their 60’s and 70’s.   

Social media has made it possible to find commonalities among individuals:  These are similar interests, think of them as “horizontal” relationships across geographic boundaries which can alter the modern definition of identity.  Today, we are not only likely to have more in common, and identify with friends on the internet as we do with our neighbors.  Facebook communities, for example, serve the purpose of sharing information and soliciting reaction from like minded members.  Social media is instrumental in mobilizing activism locally and internationally.  By definition, it is infinitely more useful in mobilizing crowds when a reaction to the status quo is required.  

Social media acts as social glue.. While some claim they don’t like to communicate on-line because they may prefer face-to-face interaction, I know first hand that this is a misnomer.  My high school class is still tight knit 25 years after graduation thanks to Yahoo groups.  We initially used Facebook for sending reunion invites, then started to spend a lot more time with each other as a group.    Social media brings people together.  For example, the recent “Drinking to AKP” protest by Turks would have been impossible to organize without social media.

During the recent uprisings in Egypt, the government has tried to restrict access to the internet with limited success.  Activists have been able use Facebook, You Tube, internet messaging and Twitter to share news and to organize protests against the regime.  For example, “We Are All Khaled Said”  named after the 28 year old Egyptian tortured to death by policeman currently has over 38,000 fans.   It shares information with the followers on latest events, information on how they can help support the cause and pulls in supportive coverage from overseas.

Twitter and Facebook helped mobilized the crowds not only in Egypt but also in Tunisia.  Communication enabled protest and brought attention and results.   Dire economic and social conditions were the prerequisite to the movement:  Egyptians earn less than $4 per day, half of the population is illiterate and the educated are underemployed.  During the past 30 years, these conditions could not be resolved using democratic methods until the availability and popularity of social media reached a tipping point.

Social media has become an indispensible tool for political activism because it is accessible and egalitarian.  When the Turkish AKP government exercises control over news media by threatening media outlets, by imposing tax levies and sentencing columnists to prison, traditional press outlets have had to to succumb to pressure.  Social media however, remains independent.   If the government attempts to shut off access as the Egyptian Government tried to do, masses can easily circumvent by using fax, telephone and other more traditional means of communication. 

Social media has become a standard tool for politics- the extent to which a political party can utilize this tool effectively will benefit them but will also demonstrate how organized and transparent it will be after winning an election.   For example, if CHP can seriously adopt a viral marketing policy and management system, it will add several percentage points to its tally until the elections.   Especially when it comes to securing votes among the under 30 educated urban masses, effective social media participation is now a requirement of success.

What constitutes an effective viral campaign?   The campaign must tie directly to the party’s strategy and reflect learnings from market research so that every web posted message is directed at the correct audience.  While it must be consistent with the non-viral components of the campaign such as TV coverage and other media interviews, an online campaign can go into detail in a targeted fashion.  A campaign’s success is determined by its messages that synergistically integrate across various modes of communication to reach its audience.  TV presence supports street marketing which in turn is fueled by social media.

The viral component of a campaign must arm the fans with encouragement and information.  A fan in Kadikoy must be able to  find a link to look up where to go for the next local meeting and who to call to get on the invite list.  Grassroots party participation is a two way stream, and not a monologue of pearls of wisdom of a single leader.  A good social site seeks dialogue and inspires grassroots action.   Surveys can be used to prompt dialogue and requesting action can be as simple as asking the fans to invite all their friends to the site or it can be taking part as a volunteer in the next party meeting.   Lastly, a good fan site must tie in with links to the network of other sites such as Tweeter, MySpace and Meetup groups.     

Creating a Facebook site for a cause is hardly sufficient for success.  MHP has very slim presence with no substantial content and CHP fails to properly utilize its web presence by maintaining only a monologue:  The site is used to only disseminate words of wisdom recently uttered by the upper echelon of the party.  Instead, the site’s management must fall under the strategic marketing arm of the party, supervising a dialogue with partisans to foster grassroots support.  Meetup is another great site for forming local organizations and for finding local supporters who can meet among themselves.   I have seen very efficient uses of this in the US local elections  but none of the parties in Turkey are currently using this site.

Mistakes from Turkish opposition party social sites also include writing in all caps, which is the web equivalent of screaming, and letting people who don’t understand social media post updates in a tone of voice that doesn’t sync with positioning their candidate in clear presidential form.   Postings that exhibit inter party disputes must also be avoided. 

Web mass communication is by definition, more efficient when righting the wrongs and when reacting to the status quo.   It is on the people’s side.  This is why it is more important than ever that opposition parties start paying attention to social media 101. 

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