Branch Out: Social media to garner interest

In early 2011, a group of Saudi Arabian women launched the Women2Drive campaign to reclaim their right to drive motor vehicles on public roads.

A ban on the issuance of licences to women makes it effectively illegal for women to drive there. Emboldened by the social upheaval then taking place in the Middle East, the campaign called for women to start driving on a certain date: June 17, 2011.

Manal al-Sharif, one of the most visible members of the group, was filmed driving in Riyadh while articulating a cogent rationale for why women in Saudi Arabia should be allowed to drive. The video was posted on the campaign's Facebook page, which already had over 12,000 supporters by that time, and quickly went viral though a combination of different social media outlets. It was viewed 700,000 times in 4 days before it was taken down.

Manal was detained, then later released. The campaign is now calling for women to apply for driving licences and then, when their applications are inevitably rejected, to file lawsuits.

The allure of social media

The success of social media campaigns hinges on a simple principle: that people are more likely to trust or act on messages from friends or people they know than from strangers or advertisements. Information exchanged at the proverbial village well has a different value than information received anonymously. Social media technologies have allowed us to take this informal networking conversation and move it to the digital realm. 

Why use it?

In the context of advocacy work, social media stimulates the interactivity and connectedness needed to provoke social change across geographical boundaries. It allows you to generate a support base and share information directly with your constituents. It enables and encourages meaningful participation through user-generated content; and it can help an organisation realise a large-scale project by enabling it to delegate certain tasks through micro-scale volunteering.

Generally, however, social media is not effective taken on its own. It must be supported by a strong message, and is usually best used to augment existing advocacy strategies.

How can I use it for my campaign?

Social media operates on interactivity. Try to involve your audience at each stage:

  • Posting content: Don't just broadcast your content. Survey your audience and find out what their content consumption habits are – and where and how they like to get their information. Try to develop a strategy in which one person or department not only produces content, but also actively participates in the discussion. Think of how the information will be used – does it inspire action? Trim if it doesn't, and make it shareable.
  • Monitoring content: Once you have some back-and-forth going between your audience and your organisation, you'll notice that certain social media users are more active than others. Try to monitor your social media feed through hashtag searches or metrics programs to identify your most popular content and your most active users.
  • Empower your audience: Encourage social media users to get involved in the cause. Offer a range of options that involve varying levels of involvement for different types of users, from online voting and link sharing to becoming a content contributor. Build relationships with advocates and foster meaningful participation – rather than just a high number of followers or facebook 'Likes'.  


Potential Pitfalls
Using social media platforms present a dangerous paradox: the more you use them, and the easier you are to find. But these same platforms that make you more visible also render you more vulnerable to surveillance. Security concerns range from the relatively innocious, like geo-tagged tweets or posts, or new "features" that are set by default to share bits of your personal information to advertisers, to more dangerous possibilites like identity theft. Familiarise yourself with the settings of each platform and know exactly what information you are sharing. Use Tactical Tech's Lost in Small Print tool to help you dissect exactly what you are agreeing to when you sign up to use such services.
Be aware also that when campaigning around a sensitive issue, the very fact of association can be dangerous. In Lebanon, an LGBT organisation created a Facebook profile with no photos and no friends as a way to direct users to the organisation's website without threatening their security by publicly associating them with such a profile.
Types of Users
Social Media users can fall into one or more roles: Consumers, Curators/Editors and Creators.
  • Consumers only passively take in content without participating, by browsing or watching;
  • Curators/Editors skim large amounts of content and assemble or modify it;
  • Creators create content. 
Roles are not precisely defined and can differ depending on the community or the platform. People who are creators in one community may simply be curators or consumers in another.
Content Curation platforms
Delicious (Social Bookmarking)
Global Voices (Aggregators)
Content Creation platforms
At the same time, there are three broad levels of engagement: Passive, Active and Influential.
  • Passive users are the least engaged;
  • Active ones are more engaged, and hold influence within their personal contacts;
  • Influential users are the rare people who are able to influence others both inside and outside their networks. 
Learn to recognise different types of users within your community. Research has indicated that generally only a small group of users drive the activity within an online community – Wikipedia only has around 80,000 active contributors compared to over 400 million users. Being able to identify these key users and getting them involved will give your campaign a solid boost. The 1% rule - which posits that, in general, around 1% of internet users are creators, 9% curators and 90% consumers - is often invoked in this context, but the actual breakdown of your own community will vary depending on a number of factors.
Online petitions
When you sign an online petition, are you really making a difference? When you click 'Like' on the Facebook page of an organisation, are you truly supporting the cause? The term Clicktivism was coined by author Micah White in 2010, who said “Clicktivism is the pollution of activism with the logic of consumerism, marketing and computer science.” White argues that, by asking so little of their supporters, clicktivist campaigns are drawing attention away from genuinely radical movements and spreading political cynicism. This practice has sometimes been referred to disparagingly as 'slacktivism'.
Online petition groups like Avaaz make it easy to participate in their global 'actions'. Simply typing in your email address will send a pre-written message in your name to the petition's target. It's easy to participate, and it's easy to share – but critics argue that such a miniscule action accomplishes little and allows people instant gratification without compelling them to learn about the issues involved.
Avaaz, in its defence, argues that its campaigns allow people to contribute across time zones and country borders, and that many campaigns have had significant effects due to the sheer number of supporters, coupled with Avaaz's actions on the ground. “You click when you go on iTunes or eBay, but nobody disputes that these sites have changed commerce,” says Avaaz founder Ricken Patel. They also poll members for ideas and allow them to approve the best suggestions., which started out as a social networking site for non-profit organisations, now focuses exclusively on online petitions. With a strong platform and a massive and fast-growing user base, some of their campaigns have achieved the kind of success that challenges the notion of empty clicktivism. A petition to combat the practice of 'corrective' rape of lesbians in South Africa garnered over 170,000 petitions and put pressure on the South African parliament to set up a task force to bring the practice to an end.
Mobilising the international community requires resources, visibility and logistical support. Consider the pitfalls of clicktivism when designing your campaign. Is your goal to raise awareness about your cause with the most people possible, or is a deeper, more meaningful involvement more valuable to you? 
Making your online community grow: a framework for social technologies
Blogger and speaker Gaurav Mishra puts forward an interesting model for social media activism. Citing the plethora of new and changing tools, as well as our tendency to place too much emphasis on them and the lack of a clear definition of what the term 'social media' involves, he has proposed a 'tool-agnostic, terminology-agnostic' framework for thinking about social media – Content, Conversation, Collaboration, Community and Collective Intelligence. “The tools are transient, the buzzwords will change, but the value system embedded in these 5Cs is here to stay,” he writes.
These 5Cs represent five different stages of evolution of an online community.
  • Stage 1: Content - social technologies democratise media creation by allowing anyone to be a creator.
  • Stage 2: Conversation - these technologies enable two-way dialogues between citizens, potentially becoming memes that go viral and affect a larger constituency.
  • Stage 3: Collaboration - social technologies facilitate the aggregation of small individual actions into meaningful collective results.
  • Stage 4: Community - engagement around a shared idea or cause can be sustained by a critical mass of contributors.
  • Stage 5: Collective Intelligence - meaning can be extracted from this engagement or action and these values can serve to reinforce or improve the community. 
Mishra indicates that most social media campaigns stall between the Conversation and Collaboration stage, and few ever make it to the Collective Intelligence stage. Read his article here.
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