Social media strategy and #USSStrikes

In the last week, I’ve found myself obsessing about the use of social media in #USSStrikes. This was probably inevitable, helping with two social media campaigns related to the strike while also being someone who studies social media. In preparation for a teach out later today and to feed into the social media strategy for my local branch, I spent a couple of hours this morning preparing some thoughts on social media strategy for #USSStrikes and reading a really helpful paper someone sent me about @UCU.

In this 2015 paper, Andy Hodder and David Houghton offered a systematic analysis of @UCU’s twitter activity over a four month period. They frame this in terms of the uptake of the internet by trade unions, which in the earlier literature was “centred around debates on optimistic and pessimistic opinions about the possibilities for the Internet to enable union renewal” (174). The core claim of the optimists was a now familiar one: internet communications made it possible to flatten the hierarchies of trade unions, producing a more distributed and democratic discourse in the process. However the pessimists recognised that new communications technologies can be taken up by existing elites within organisations in order to extend their control over deliberation, contrary to the assumption of a binary opposition between bureucracy and the internet (174).

Hodder and Houghton reconsider these considerations in terms of the emergence of social media, which they recognise as less a technological innovation (for these capacities existed in ‘Web 1.0’) as an extension and mainstreaming of existing opportunities, facilitated by a technical infrastructure allowing much greater opportunity to access the internet. This leads them to stress how a platform like Twitter has no intrinsic democratising effect on trade unions, simply offering another channel through which the existing leadership can formulate, communicate and manage a collective message:

However, for example, while Twitter largely facilitates interaction and conversation between users, it still enables a union to control what message is coming from an account, and to monitor and control the content of such communication. Therefore, the way in which social media platforms are used by unions can reinforce the power and
authority of union leadership. (175)

The novelty is in how fast moving these platforms are rather than how organisations approach them. It is possible these communications challenges drive pluralism through making traditional message discipline difficult to sustain and incentivising engagement as a root to increasing visibility online. Their empirical study sought to clarify this through three research questions:

1. Is the content of the message in line with mobilisation theory?
2. What is being said by trade unions on social media?
3. Who are the audience?

The four month period in which they collected and categorised all @UCU tweets (original, retweet or conversational) included four instances of strike action. The original tweets were coded in terms of mobilisation theory: framing of an injustice, attribution of blame for the injustice or evidence of action. 61.79% of the original tweets could be coded in this way. They take this to mean that “although UCU is using a modern platform to communicate, the content of the majority of tweets (61.79 per cent) remains in the traditional style of unions” which I’m not sure I agree with (185). In a parallel analysis, all  tweets were subsequently categorised as recruitment, campaigning, external campaigning, strike building, strike action, solidarity, engagement, news, other. This analysis produced a range of interesting findings:

  • There was little use of Twitter for recruitment during this period: only 4 instances. I found this particularly striking given it was during a period where there was repeated industrial action, higher visibility and a greater propensity of non-members who were engaging with @UCU to join.
  • This finding on pg 181 seems particularly important: “An interesting approach UCU adopted was to tweet to those affected by industrial action—students—explaining the reason, purpose and necessity of such action”. My hunch is the capacity of social media to not only generate solidarity between staff and students but also to produce action on the basis of this has barely been tapped.
  • Another finding on pg 181 which seems interesting: “UCU frequently retweeted posts that linked current issues to wider cultural references, or current Twitter trends, often containing humour. For example, a parody of Monty Python’s The Life or Brian, ‘What Have the Romans Ever Done For Us?’ had been tweeted by users in a video entitled, ‘What Have the Unions Ever Done For Us?’, which listed union successes. Links to the profession were also made around Valentine’s Day, when a Twitter trend for academic valentine’s poems was hijacked by users writing similar style poems about the pay dispute, which UCU often retweeted.” My impression has been this has declined with time but I’ve not examined it systematically.
  • They note how useful social media is for allowing “workforce that does not have common, set hours or a physical place of work when they are not teaching or attending meetings” to signal their participation in strike action, expanding visibility beyond the picket line (182).
  • @UCU was on the whole more active during strike periods, retweeting more often but engaging in less conversation (182-183). This presumably reflects greater engagement coupled with greater demands on the time of union staff. But could carefully escalated conversational engagement prove to be a crucial strategy during strike periods? In its absence simply retweeting more could be seen as “an attempt to demonstrate some form of controlled interaction with followers” (186) without the underlying reality.
  • It was interesting to note that in spite of the decline in conversational engagement, @UCU was well engaged with publications such as Times Higher Education via Twitter: “UCU was particularly engaging with the Times Higher Education’s request via Twitter for details on those VCs earning more than £100,000 per annum. In these tweets, the language became increasingly subversive towards institutions, VCs and UCEA, especially regarding pay deductions for participation in the strike action.” 
  • Tweets were used to coordinate strike action, being “sent to indicate when strike action began, but also when members
    should return to work, coordinating the different picket lines and those working from home who had ‘downed tools’ in their own way” (183). Coupled with the aforementioned conversational strategy, I wonder if this could be used more directly in order to address some of the confusion and uncertainty which circulated online in the run up to the current extended period of strike action?
  • Unsurprisingly, sharing solidarity messages was a distinct feature of @UCU’s tweeting during the period.
  • Another interesting observation they made in the paper was the non-existent relationship between the size of a membership and the size of a Twitter following for the trade unions they analysed.

It was particularly interesting to see who UCU was engaging with. This classification is difficult on social media and the author’s chose to interpret multiple self-identifications into which ever was most relevant to the union:

Towards the end of the paper, the authors acknowledge the limitation of focusing only on @UCU. The question which seems urgent to me is: how are branches using social media? Can it be analysed in the terms above to understand strengths and weakness? How can @UCU maximise its engagement to harness the reach and creativity of these branches? How can branches develop their own strategies which hook in to national campaigning in an effective and sustainable way? These issues are not a million miles away from ones which Labour has dealt with in the last two years, as the run away success of their social media strategy has come from building a flexible and open relationship with a vast array of affiliated initiatives.

Any thoughts on this are much appreciated. We are shaping the local branch’s social media strategy on the fly, as I suspect are many other branches around the country. To whatever extent time allows, it would be great to share experiences and coordinate action, particularly as the strike continues beyond this week.

4 thoughts on “Social media strategy and #USSStrikes”

  1. Thanks for this timely and interesting post Mark.

    You end by asking how union branches are using social media. I might be wrong, but I think during the current USS dispute UCU have asked local branches to emphasise that it is a national dispute, potentially limiting local branches’ autonomy.

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