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Online Activism 1.7: Lessons Learned in Copenhagen

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The Copenhagen climate summit brought together tens of thousands of activists from around the world and provides a unique opportunity to evaluate the state of online campaigning - so called "Online Climate Activism 2.0."

As someone fully immersed in this world for a long time now, and heavily involved in various work around the Copenhagen talks, I would suggest that at this point the state of online social media campaigning would more aptly be called "Online Activism 1.7."

While social media played a role like never before in the run-up and during this historic summit, there remain, in my opinion, three major issues that must be overcome before online activism reaches the height of 2.0 and fully utilizes the power of social media.

In this post, I explain the first major issue that must be overcome, which is trust. And so not to bore you with a two-thousand word explanation of all three issues here, I will follow up on the other two issues (sphere of influence and online journalism) in separate posts over the coming days.

Within the activist community there is a counter-intuitive dynamic that arises when you compare the perception of social media information sources, like blogs, Twitter and Facebook, with mainstream sources like radio, TV and newspapers. While on the whole, the general public trusts neither source very much, I thought it was safe to assume that the activist community would mistrust mainstream media to an even greater degree, and put more faith in information transmitted via social media channels.

My assumption that the activist community mistrusts mainstream media more than the general public is based on the idea that within the community a longtime topic of conversation has been the sloppiness and ulterior motives of the mainstream media industry. Look no further than the major opposition to Fox News or the organization Media Matters for America, whose raison d'être is monitoring and reporting on the constant stream of inaccuracies pumped out by right-wing media sources.

Like any group of people rallying around a cause, the activist community is more tight knit than the general population, making me assume that information shared between individuals within the community via social media channels would be seen as more trustworthy than that reported by the mainstream media. I think of this affinity as a derivative of bunker mentality, in that once you've fought a war alongside someone you tend to trust what they say more than others outside the group.

In Copenhagen these comfortable little assumptions of mine were proven to be wrong.

Mainstream media still reigns supreme as the trusted and primary source, while information reported via blogs, Twitter, Facebook and other social media channels plays the secondary role of dissemination.

That's not to say that the information Tweeted, Facebooked and blogged was ignored. Social media channels were used very well in campaigns around Copenhagen to relay information quickly and efficiently to thousands of people. But they were used more as a transmission tool than a source tool.

To give you a personal example to illustrate my point, I was in the very lucky position in Copenhagen to be in possession of leaked documents on a regular basis.

One such document was a leaked memo updating the United Nation's Climate Secretariat on the state of the treaty talks. A very trusted source sent it to me and as one who has been in possession of many leaked documents over the years, I knew it was authentic and I ran hard with it. I posted it on several blogs, including Huffington Post. I also pushed it out hard on Twitter, Facebook and news filtering social media channels like StumbleUpon, Digg and Reddit.

The comments and emails started rolling in very quickly and many were asking: "Is this document real?" Fair enough, I responded saying that my source was solid and that I had taken adequate steps to ensure its authenticity. But the skepticism continued until this comment popped up: "The leaked memo is real, it has just been reported in the Guardian."

Now don't get me wrong, I love the Guardian, in fact, I write for them from time to time and I consider their columnist George Monbiot a friend. But the article the Guardian had published had taken no further steps to verify the leaked memo than I had.

The very same "media industrial complex" activists accuse of bias, inaccuracy and all sorts of underhanded agendas remains the trusted source of information, while reports using social media channels emanating from within the activist community itself remain questionable.

Of course, it could be that people just don't trust me. But I have seen this exact scenario played out many times over the years where new information that breaks on a blog is not "authentic" until mainstream media has reported on it.

The more likely explanation is that while we see the many faults of the mainstream media, the most influential members of the online activist community are of a transitional generation stuck between the TV-anchor-as-the-ultimate-authority era and the new age of citizen journalism. We embrace the new media forms as the next great thing, but still see the mainstream press as the ultimate authority.

We are the "I still love the feel of a real newspaper" generation, and overcoming this mistrust of social media as an original source of information is vital for the coming age of Online Activism 2.0.

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