09 June 2023
While not explicitly ‘democracy technologies’ in the sense we would usually use the term, there is no denying the impact of social media and other digital communications platforms on the democratic space.
That impact cuts both ways. As part of an ever broader and more complex public sphere, they play a huge role in the discourse (and meta-discourse) that feeds political processes. And they are also tools – ones that can be used by political organisations actively to promote messages, activate members and reach new audiences.
Yet for years, the social media space has seemed a little stagnant. To keep in touch with friends and family – Facebook or Instagram. To expand your business network – LinkedIn. To exchange thoughts, barbs and ‘hot takes’ on whatever passes for the zeitgeist at any given moment – Twitter.
That stagnation also meant that for those just joining an established platform for the first time, it felt a bit like showing up late to the party. Everyone already has their crowd. They all know each other. It can be difficult not to look a little awkward.
So when Elon Musk took over Twitter in the same manner a wild bull might take over a glassware store, it’s not surprising that people seized upon the opportunity and started clamouring for alternatives – a fresh start.
So here we present some of the ‘other’ social media platforms out there and their potential use for political organisations. Not all of them are brand new. But all are growing – benefitting from the old-platform exodus.
They’re certainly worth a look.
A bit like – Twitter
By this point, most of us have probably heard of Mastodon. It’s been around for a while. Part of an ever-growing network of social media platforms called the ‘fediverse’ which use (predominantly) a common protocol called ‘ActivityPub’ to link and work together. What this means is that all sorts of apps and platforms resembling everything from Facebook to Twitter and even more traditional blogging sites can be built in such a way that data and activity can be shared. For Mastodon itself, the result is a Twitter-like platform where you basically choose your ‘server’.
Rather than one big gladiatorial arena like Twitter, each Mastodon server or ‘instance’ can have its own culture and, to a degree, its own rules. This means there are left-wing instances. Right-wing instances. Instances devoted to particular interests and even professions (such as journalism). Being on one doesn’t mean you can’t communicate with the others. It just means you have different ranges of contact. So, for example, you can see a ‘local’ feed. Or go a bit broader to see the ‘global’ feed. It also means your ‘handle’ tends to be slightly more complicated and more closely resembles an email address. Eg, @yourname@yourinstance.
As a result, certain organisations and communities have even created their own micro-twitters within Mastodon, with their members or citizens on the same instance, using it as they might an internal comms channel such as slack, albeit publicly accessible and transparent.
Sound a bit different? It is. Check it out. These folks have:
- The City of Chicago – An instance dedicated to citizens of Chicago enabling the people of that city to essentially share their own small city specific Twitter.
- Sunshine Coast Australia – Another instance, this time dedicated to citizens of Australia’s sunshine coast.
- The European Union – Yep, that’s right, the EU set up its own instance and all of the various branches and institutions (such as the European Commission) are users on that instance.
Who can benefit?
Mastodon is useful for organisations that want to step away from the hubbub of Twitter and establish a much more close-knit community either by joining an existing instance or starting one of their own.
Growth spiked for a bit and now seems to have slowed down. Becoming a little niche and unlikely to truly reach the scale of Twitter. Also, the instances are both a strength and a weakness – siloing things a bit.
A bit like – Twitter
BlueSky is genuinely new. So new it’s not even publicly accessible yet – currently only available to those with an invite key (or those who know someone with one). Even so, it’s already up to 100 thousand users.
Though at first glance, you would think it was a straight-up twitter clone, it is in fact markedly different. First of all, it’s ‘federated’ much like Mastodon, albeit using a different protocol called the ‘ATprotocol’ developed expressly for purpose. In this sense, it doesn’t exist in the same ‘fediverse’ as the other federated platforms. It’s its own thing – for now. Also for now, everyone is on the same server, so it avoids some of the siloing inherent in Mastodon – though that might change.
Furthermore, BlueSky offers customisable content filtering and algorithms — ostensibly to put all the control directly in the hands of the users. Not only can you tell it what you do or don’t want to see with a handful of useful toggles, but you can also create ‘custom feeds’ to really curate the experience you want. A great way to avoid the sort of mess that Twitter often falls into.
Ironically, it was originally created using funding from Twitter and its founder Jack Dorsey who stated at one point that it was what he ‘wanted Twitter to be’. Since Musk took over Twitter, BlueSky has become independent with Dorsey remaining a partial shareholder and board member, while the company has been taken over by a younger and notably female-led team.
The experience of BlueSky has been invariably described as being like the early days of Twitter. Friendlier. More enthusiastic. Less cynical. A great place to be if you wanted to start a Twitter account but don’t want to spend years just trying to convince everyone you’re not a bot. What’s more, because of everything going on at Twitter, there has been an influx of politicos, journalists and other celebrity figures that have begun to make it feel like it could be serious competition for the ‘bird app’.
Need a few examples? Here we are:
- Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – Congresswoman from New York and popular figure in democratic politics in the United States.
- Jake Tapper – Former White House correspondent and current CNN Washington Anchor.
- The Washington Post – One of the world’s premiere newspapers, having won the Pulitzer Prize 65 times.
Who can benefit
Ideal for those individuals and organisations that want to get in on the ground floor of something new. Real opportunity to build a following due to fresh-faced enthusiasm. Find someone who has an account and ask them for an invite!
As mentioned above, it’s still not entirely public and has a waiting list in the millions (maybe you know someone with a spare invite code). As a result, it can be a little cliquey. Either way, it’s likely to go public soon enough.
A bit like – WhatsApp, Signal and Facebook groups
With a lot of people fed up with the Twitter-style ‘arena’ approach to public discourse, Telegram and other more sophisticated messaging platforms have benefitted. While it might be easy to dismiss these platforms as not true ‘social media’ in the usual sense the term is understood, that would be a mistake.
Telegram was (is) a messaging client created by Pavel Durov, an entrepreneur who left Russia after refusing to collaborate with intelligence services. Largely open source, Telegram also encrypts messages and video calls. Although perhaps not as secure as rival client Signal, it boasts an overall larger feature set and is therefore much more readily viable as a ‘social media platform’ in the broader sense.
More than just a tool for facilitating group chats, Telegram has browseable public channels for virtually anything. Do you have a cause, community or network that wants to broadcast a public message? Start a telegram announcements channel. Add a group chat to that and you’ve got the basic infrastructure for a great means of connecting with and even organising large volumes of people. Share a link to that channel on your website or in a newsletter and you’ve got a platform that is in many ways far more engaging than a mere Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn account. You’ve got a group chat of tens, hundreds, potentially thousands of people who can break off into other groups and get things done.
Don’t believe us? Here are some groups that have already used it:
- Podemos – The Spanish political party has used Telegram to communicate with supporters and share information on their political agenda.
- Russian Opposition – Telegram has been used extensively by Russian opposition leaders to communicate with supporters and organise protests against the government.
- Hong Kong Pro-Democracy Movement – During the protests in Hong Kong in 2019, Telegram was used by pro-democracy activists to organise and coordinate their efforts.
Who can benefit
Political organisations wanting to communicate with and organise supporters in an open and direct way and are happy engaging directly with supporters at scale, while encouraging them to engage with each other.
The fact that it’s encrypted has made it a useful tool for millions, particularly journalists in sensitive environments. However, it has also made it an attractive platform for extremist and conspiracy theory groups.
A bit like – WhatsApp and Slack
Here’s a question – what if we took telegram one massive step further? Discord started out as a place for gamers to connect, chat and yell obscenities at each other. This continued for a decent length of time, but it slowly became obvious to the team behind it that people were using the platform for other forms of organising, and in 2020 they changed their motto from “Chat for Gamers” to “Chat for Communities and Friends.”
Unlike a lot of other similar platforms, discord is highly moddable. A flow-on effect of the gaming culture from which it emerged. As far back as 2016, developer tools had been made available to the general public and Discord has actively provided resources to help develop bots for the platform. Not necessarily the bad kind – the good kind that performs automated tasks for a community.
Again, surface level, it’s a messaging platform. But the present reality is so much more than that. Not only can discord facilitate large-scale communication between tens of thousands of people. Not only does it have a search feature that enables you to find and join communities that interest you. But because of the way it lets users customise their channels, it can be used as a governance tool in its own right.
There are organisations that not only allow communities of thousands to chat to each other in well organised subchannels, but also allow them to work together, assign roles, establish processes and even make collaborative decisions together. The blend of functionality and an existing tech savvy user base has meant a raft of young innovation or activism focussed groups have chosen it as their home.
Here are a few examples:
- The Young World Federalists – A global network of young people who advocate for a federalised global democratic system and campaign for the reform of the United Nations into a parliamentary assembly.
- MoonDAO – A large multinational collection of space enthusiasts intent on settling the Moon, who govern a Decentralised Autonomous Organisation (DAO) using a cryptographic token to represent voting authority
- Blue Politics – Another large network, Blue Politics hosts debates, guest interviews and other discussions. It also circulates news stories relating to left-wing politics predominantly in the United States.
Who can benefit
Political organisations wanting to conduct more extensive operations including onboarding and collaboration in a singular digital platform. For the particularly tech-savvy there is the opportunity to run sophisticated organisations all-in-one.
Yes it can do a lot, but it also requires a degree of technical proficiency to set things up. Anyone can do the basics as easily as on other platforms, but the aforementioned ‘tech savvy’ would be required to get things to the sort of level that would allow for proper organisational management.
Alternative Social Media – An Opportunity
The idea of starting fresh on a new platform might seem a little daunting. It often means reworking your approach to content, learning new features and etiquette, and alas, building a following or a community from scratch.
But it can also be a massive opportunity.
For political organisations, that opportunity is not just more of an audience, but a more active, engaged and passionate audience. There’s a cynicism that settles in on old platforms after a while. And the fact that so many are on the hunt for something new means that in a lot of these places cynicism has been replaced by optimism.
A fresh start might put you in touch with just the people you need.