The myth of the keyboard warrior: public participation and 38 Degrees

James Dennis in Open Democracy: “A cursory glance at the comment section of the UK’s leading newspapers suggests that democratic engagement is at an all time low; we are generation apathetic. In their annual health check, the Audit of Political Engagement, the Hansard Society paint a bleak picture of participation trends in Britain. Only 41% of those surveyed are committed to voting in the next General Election. Moreover, less than 1% of the population is a member of a political party. However, 38 Degrees, the political activist movement, bucks these downward trends. In the four years since their foundation in 2009, 38 Degrees have amassed a membership of 1.8 million individuals—more than three times the entire combined memberships of all of Britain’s political parties.

The organisation is not without its critics, however. Earlier this week, during a debate in House of Commons on the Care Bill, David T. C. Davies MP cast doubt on the authenticity of the organisation’s ethos, “People. Power. Change”, claiming that:

These people purport to be happy-go-lucky students. They are always on first name terms; Ben and Fred and Rebecca and Sarah and the rest of it. The reality is that it is a hard-nosed left-wing Labour-supporting organisation with links to some very wealthy upper middle-class socialists, despite the pretence that it likes to give out.

Likewise, in a comment piece for The Guardian, Oscar Rickett argued that the form of participation cultivated by 38 Degrees is not beneficial to our civic culture as it encourages fragmented, issue-driven collective action in which “small urges are satisfied with the implication that they are bringing about large change”.
However, given the lack of empirical research undertaken on 38 Degrees, such criticisms are often anecdotal or campaign-specific. So here are just a couple of the significant findings emerging from my ongoing research.

New organisations

38 Degrees bears little resemblance to the organisational models that we’ve become accustomed to. Unlike political parties or traditional pressure groups, 38 Degrees operates on a more level playing field. Members are central to the key decisions that are made before and during a campaign and the staff facilitate these choices. Essentially, the organisation acts as a conduit for its membership, removing the layers of elite-level decision-making that characterised political groups in the twentieth century.
38 Degrees seeks to structure grassroots engagement in two ways. Firstly, the group fuses a vast range of qualitative and quantitative data sources from its membership to guide their campaign decisions and strategy. By using digital media, members are able to express their opinion very quickly on an unprecedented scale. One way in which they do this is through ad-hoc surveys of their members to decide on key strategic decisions, such as their survey regarding the decision to campaign against plans by the NHS to compile a database of medical records for potential use by private firms. In just 24 hours the group had a response from 137,000 of it’s members, with 93 per cent backing their plans to organise a mass opt out.
Secondly, the group offers the platform Campaigns By You, which provides members with the technological opportunities to structure and undertake their own campaigns, retaining complete autonomy over the decision-making process. In both cases, albeit to a differing degree, it is the mass of individual participants that direct the group strategy, with 38 Degrees offering the technological capacity to structure this. 38 Degrees assimilates the fragmented, competing individual voices of its membership, and offers cohesive, collective action.
David Karpf proposes that we consider this phenomenon as characteristic of new type of organisation. These new organisations challenge our traditional understanding of collective action as they are structurally fluid. 38 Degrees relies on central staff to structure the wants and needs of their membership. However, this doesn’t necessarily lead to a regimented hierarchy. Pablo Gerbaudo describes this as ‘soft leadership’ where the central staff act as choreographers, organising and structuring collective action whilst minimising their encroachment on the will of individual members. …
In conclusion, the successes of 38 Degrees, in terms of mobilising public participation, come down to how the organisation maximises the membership’s sense of efficacy, the feeling that each individual member has, or can have, an impact.
By providing influence over the decision-making process, either explicitly or implicitly, members become more than just cheerleaders observing elites from the sidelines; they are active and involved in the planning and execution of public participation.”