Bloggers United Could Help Strengthen Our Democracy and Marginalise Our Opponents
I can only speak from my personal experiences as an administrator for www.cwuyouth.org. We deal with the day-to-day challenges of promoting a safe space within which union activists, especially young union activists, can debate issues of importance to them within the requirement of respecting the integrity of the union’s democratic decision-making process.
In doing so, we have to accommodate some uncomfortable encounters with user-generated material from the union’s recent history. For example, there are well-established (not by us) online fora for employees of the companies where we organise and in the past the content has frequently been unpleasant. Generally speaking the standards that were reflected there would not be those that we wish the union nationally to be associated with.
So, how is it that CWU’s youth section has been able to establish and sustain (for over 4 years now) it’s own website as one which prides itself on user-generated content, especially when the parent main website, www.cwu.org, does not have discussion forums or threads?
First of all, we have to acknowledge that the youth section comprises just 12% of the union’s membership as a whole. Even though it is a public site, dealing with a core audience of around 22,000 as opposed to 220,000 is a much more manageable task.
Second, the website and its user-generated content came about as an explicit decision of our National Executive Council in the light of our hugely successful union modernisation funded Youth Empowerment Strategy or YES. Our NEC recognised that effective communication with young members and potential members was central to the long-term interests of the union and that utilising social media was a key part of that. In particular, this strategy was also backed by the senior leadership of the union. There is therefore a strong and comprehensive platform to support for this initiative.
Third, we apply high levels of control in order to provide the confidence that was part-and-parcel of the support received from the NEC and the senior officers of the union. We therefore pre-moderate blog postings and all blog users have to register with the site. Part of the registration is acceptance of key terms and conditions relating to what they will post.
Fourth, we have a robust protocol for dealing with post-publication complaints and concerns. If, despite the safeguards that we have tried to build into the administrative arrangements for the site, we need to remove material that has been posted, we are willing and able to do so very quickly. The fact that we have only had to do so three times so far is a positive indicator.
It is inevitable, in my view, that user-generated websites will at times cause challenges in democratic organisations, where it is important that the clarity and legitimacy of the decisions made are not undermined either by default or design.
This does not mean that debate is stymied to the point where the use of the website as a forum for discussion is compromised. However, it tells me that contributors sometimes have to do take care to couch their remarks in such a way that they and the website are not vulnerable to the allegations that what they are posting is inappropriate.
In an ideal world, and as time progresses, I hope that trade union user-generated websites will proliferate and develop into the sort of safe spaces for free ranging debate that some contributors to the excellent Unions 21/Young Fabians “Bloggers’ Breakfast” at the 2012 Labour Party conference were describing.
However, we have to recognise that (as if we didn’t!) the world is far from ideal and that the trade union movement has enemies who will exploit and generate division to compromise our effectiveness. If we understand this as the backdrop, I believe there is no reason why user-generated websites cannot continue to develop incrementally in trade unions and in so doing will strengthen their democracy and marginalise our opponents.
CWU, new media, UnionHome