Facebook Phooey & Organizing

Tech millenarianism (the belief that one trendy tool will save us all from everything) is rampant in some quarters of some labour movements. Not here in this column, oddly enough. But it is around. So take this story How Social Media is Helping Australia's Labor Movement Survive with a grain of salt. As long as the tactics described are just a few in your much larger toolbox, go for it!

In January, Zuckerberg announced major changes in the way Facebook will organize its newsfeed. At presstime, what I was getting from the LabourStart folks in Slovakia, where the new feed was being tested, is a bit disturbing if you've got all your online organizing eggs in Facebook's basket. It seems that pretty much all the content from pages disappeared from their main feed into something called the "explore feed." This spelled disaster in terms of organic (involving no deliberate push or outreach) growth and outreach.

No surprise, but the emerging consensus is that the result seems to be a channeling of organizations like unions towards Facebook's pay-for services. Even if the change is modified before it appears in all the national versions of Facebook, the lesson here is clear: Get some of your eggs out of this basket or risk being left either high-and-dry or with a bill to pay.

If the change appears as is, Slovakian LabourStarters suggest that, in order to avoid paying to get your word out, you make sure key members or supporters share your posts. Which involves another kind of organizing. Facebook, it seems to me, is pushing us into a complicated and fragile online version of the good old-fashioned phone tree, or into doing the legwork needed to build our email lists.


And just to gild my anti-Facebook lily, think what all the chit-chat about fake news means. Especially with more U.S. elections coming. Facebook is pretty much guaranteed to soon be rolling out censorship policies and processes. And if they're anything like the rest of the Bad Book's decision-making, they will function with little or no human input — meaning there will be little or no possibility of a timely response to an appeal for exemption.

This likely will have more of an impact on American unions: will they be able to organize members to vote using Facebook, without triggering a response? Still, the push for censorship that might catch union stuff is growing and not just in the U.S. Stay tuned.

Before you move the eggs you took from your Facebook basket over to your Twitter basket, read The Guardian's report Twitter under fire after suspending Egyptian journalist Wael Abbas, the story of a journalist who lost his ability to tweet at a critical moment.

Remember, like Facebook, Twitter is neither a public service nor an altruistic charity dedicated to making the world a better place. It is a for-profit corporation as dedicated to "shareholder value" as Bell or GM is. Challenge it, its friends, or the context on which it is dependent for its profits, and you're toast. This is something union activists, for all our rhetoric (and sometimes actions) about taking on capitalism, seem to forget.


Now for some confusion: I love the way both Twitter and Facebook provided a platform for the #MeToo movement. A movement that would have been pretty much unimaginable without those platforms, or something like them.

For once I will agree that email would not have been as effective, let alone more effective. But #MeToo has a context: when we're done counting the number of shares and re-tweets, give a thought to the bit that really matters by reading Jane McAlevey's In These Times article, called What #MeToo Can Teach the Labor Movement. ("Until we effectively challenge the ideological underpinnings beneath social policies that hem women in at every turn in this country, we won't get at the root cause of the harassment.")


On the good-news front, check out the SA (South Australia) Unions' Young Workers Legal Service, a great example of an online service offering free work-related advice to workers under the age of 30. The Young Workers Legal Service is an initiative of SA Unions. Notice that it is web-based; it's not a Facebook page or group. Why is that? Because Facebook use is in decline amongst people under 30 years of age. Nail Number 312 in that coffin.

Continuing with our tribute to our Australian comrades, one of the best examples of a concerted, integrated (website, social media, email and SMS) campaign over the last few years was the Down Under victory against a dairy chain. Learn about the Great Australian Ice Cream Boycott by reading Greg Jericho's Guardian article Social media can be the workers' voice — but is it loud enough?

Keep an eye out for Australian union news in general. The new general-secretary of the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU), Sally McManus, is leading a change in the way Australian unions organize.


Did I already say online platforms can make work more intense, more exploitative (see Amazon's Workamper and Mechanical Turk programs)? Here's some news from the Global South: Betcha didn't know that online work could solve the global refugee crisis, did ya? Wait now, it can't! Miranda Hall says online microwork is just one part of a "continuum of unpaid, micropaid and poorly paid 'taskified' human activities." See her Open Democracy article #Tech4Worse: The problem with digital labour initiatives for the Middle East.

Amazon remains a leader in this nasty business: Increasingly, writes Bryan Menegus for Gizmodo, "it's plainclothes contractors with few labor protections, driving their own cars, competing for shifts on the company's own Uber-like platform." Be your own boss. Right.


A December 2017 Broadbent Institute webinar called "Networked Change in Canada," on the politics of online organizing and mobilizing, was pleasantly un-techy. Get on their mailing list for notifications of future events. Amnesty International does something similar and their list is as easy to join.

Campaign planning often gets lost when we're reacting to an event using volunteers and on short notice. Avoid panic and think the process through now, when things are quiet. Fairsay offers some online tools for campaign design. Worth a peek. London, England's NCVO also has some tools for developing a winning campaign strategy. As does MobLab, including a free online course and campaign cookbook.

Need a break from the trenches of online struggle but don't want to stray too far from your digital home? The UK's TUC (Trade Union Congress) has a discussion paper out there called Shaping Our Digital Future. Check it out. Also, set Katherine Cross's article for The Baffler aside for when you need a fun and hopefully paid break reading about Unions in Space (you'll have to add your own reverb and echo effects when you read the title out loud).

Here's one that has me flummoxed. Only in the social democratic homelands like Finland would a giant corp like Google be throwing money at a union, even if it is just for a freelancers' billing system. Still, as a member of the Canadian Freelancers Union (Unifor Local 2040), it caught my attention. Check out freelance journalist Heikki Jokinen's article Google to finance union project.

Bots for unions is something that needs to be thought through, too, but NGOs are just a bit ahead of us I think, so here's a head start: Read Beth Kanter and Allison Fine's GuideStar article The Robots Have Arrived: How Non-Profits Can Make Sure They Save Us Rather Than Kill Us.

For you Facebook fans who made it this far here's a bone I can in good conscience throw your way. McDonald's workers organizing strikes in England last year relied on some viral video exposure to put public pressure on their employer: The Guardianreports that a video ("Momentum") shared on Facebook showing UK McDonald's workers talking about their zero-hours contracts was seen by one quarter of England's McDonald's workers. That's a lot of workers.

That's enough warm and fuzzy stuff about Facebook. Let's end as we started and as we intend to continue: Read Cory Doctorow's advice on Boing Boing on how to become a Facebook vegan and dump the Bad Book in favour of your browser.

Derek Blackadder is the co-ordinator for LabourStart in Canada and an honourary member of the Toronto Workers' History Project’s Archive Committee. Feedback and ideas for future WebWork topics welcome. 


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