Use of “Mainstream” Social Networking Tools

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Use of “Mainstream” Social Networking Tools

This discussion thread focuses primarily on the use of more mainstream social networking tools, such as: Facebook and Twitter. How do activists take and use these tools in ways that cut through the clutter to reach new audiences with their messages? Can we find ways to flip the tools and use them in new and unique ways that benefit those working in human rights beyond raising awareness -- in areas such as on-the-ground organizing, self-care, creative fundraising, monitoring and evaluation, safety, etc. Below are a few questions to frame the discussion and provide a starting point for discussion.

  • What is the role of social networking in human rights advocacy?
  • How do organizations get their network to move beyond “clicktivism”? How do you engage social audiences to take action and maintain involvement in meaningful ways?
  • How are social networking tools currently being used in human rights advocacy in unique or innovative ways?
  • Case studies/stories of success using traditional social networking tools in unique ways. Wht have you done or have seen being done that caught your attention?
San Francisco's "Frisco Five"

Last week, San Francisco's Chief of Police resigned following a 17-day hunger strike by five activists. The action was organized in response to several police killings of Black and Latino men. 

I witnessed the action as a supportive outsider; one of the things that struck me was the amount of organizing that happened on Facebook. Family, friends and activists created Facebook groups for each of the slain men and invited many community members to those groups, raising cruicial awarness across many communities in San Francisco. Early and sustained Facebook organizing set the stage for large-scale activist participation in key events before, during and after the hunger strike. Facebook organizing allowed groups with no official affiliation to quickly rally together. 

Art also played a key role in the online activism. 

Here are some key news stories and links to the Facebook groups involved in the action:

"How killings, racist texts, and a 66-year-old grandmother took down San Francisco’s police chief"

"Bay Area artist’s portraits serve as backdrop to Black Lives Matter movement"

LOVE & JUSTICE 4 MARIO WOODS, 26, killed  by SF Bayview Police, 12-2-15

JUSTICE 4 Luis Demetrio Gongora Pat, killed by SFPD 4-7-16

Connecting on-the-ground actions with social & traditional media

Adriel - Thank you for sharing this great example.

I was particularly struck by the article "How killings, racist texts, and a 66-year-old grandmother took down San Francisco’s police chief" which highlighted the connection between on-the-ground tactical actions and their use of social media to amplify of those actions to achieve at least one of their desired demands - resignation of the police chief.

The on-the-ground tactical actions that provided information on key 

  • Urgency: a hunger strike by the #frisco5 which showed their seriousness by signing "refusal of medical treatment" forms
  • Visibility: camping out at the Mission Police station where the most recent police-involved killing of a civilian took place
  • Community Mobilization: hundreds took the streets in marches to show their support of the hunger strikers and their demand for SPECIFIC action - the resignation of the police chief. 

Can you share more about how they were able to leverage the social media to mobilize the community? 

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Using social media to mobilize communities

Nancy, this is really one for the history books, and I hope some students will consider deep analysis of the tactics used here. The struggle is very much ongoing, too. What I noted was extensive use of Facebook - the strikers and their supporters would post on their own profiles and, more importantly, I think, in supportive groups, updates and specific calls to action with time and place for events. They also consistently used the #frisco5 hashtag on Twitter. Facebook posts would include needs (bring water, other supplies) and they also used video such as a short clip of a standoff with the mayor when he tried to upstage a march on City Hall by showing up unannounced the day before with an offer to talk. The mayor literally used a photo of himself and two aides facing off with five empty chairs to illustrate that the strikers refused to meet - however, their videos were widely distributed as well. The day before the chief resigned, the mainstream media floated an anonymous poll indicated he had strong support - so this really was a case where activists had to use their own social media channels to counter establishment accounts in the press.

"Antipolice activists won’t take ‘yes’ for an answer"

Use of social media to counter establishment press (media)


I agree - I think this is a really great campaign. I found the article that you linked to especially interesting because it "accused" those involved of not being able to accept victory. The resignation of the police chief was the significant and visible victory being sought. I was impressed that the hunger strikers were demanding implementation. Other significant demands have been initially discussed but the key is they have not been implemented. In addition, policy and structure changes will need to be monitored for actual implementation.  

  • a review of police use-of-force policies including when drawing a firearm, not just firing one, is “a reportable use of force” and subject to investigation.  

How will the public know what actually becomes policy as the Police Officers Association is against this, and how will these reforms be monitored?

  • proposal for a ballot initiative requiring that the Office of Citizen Complaints investigate all police shootings rather than an internal police review

A ballot initiative will require significant organizing, it can be a good way to continue to mobilize the community but it requires a different kind of sustainability to make this a reality.

  • immediate dismissal of police involved in racist text messages

The dismissal of those they found involved was a good initial step, however, a policy for immediate dismissal of any future similar behavior remains to be implemented and will need to be monitored.

The hunger strikers and the community mobilization in support of them were able to show their collective force - their demand and implementation of the police chief's resignatation - lays the foundation for accountability in these other areas as well.

Your comment on the use of social media to counter establishment press was also very telling and worth noting for advocates as they launch their human rights advocacy campaigns, "The day before the chief resigned, the mainstream media floated an anonymous poll indicated he had strong support - so this really was a case where activists had to use their own social media channels to counter establishment accounts in the press."

This got me thinking about how organizations are expanding their media engagement to use social media to GAIN access to establishment media. Do people have some good examples? And as you were noting, additional examples where social media is playing a critical role in countering establishment media reporting that is not a reflection of the real situations in local communities? 

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Harnessing the power of the counternarrative as an organization

@Adriel @Nancy

I think this idea of social media as a tool for promoting counternarratives is critically important. Many of the most powerful social media moments of the last few years (#BlackLivesMatter, #SayHerName, #IllRideWithYou, #IfTheyGunnedMeDown, #OscarsSoWhite, etc.) have taken off because they gave voice to a population or perspective that wasn't getting play in the mainstream media. 

This is something that a lot of organizations fundamentally misunderstand about the difference between social media and traditional broadcast media. The NYTimes or 60 Minutes will do a piece on your organization's work and issues if they are topical, factual etc., but you can only get ordinary people to share your message in large numbers on social if they feel that your message is underrepresented and that their help is needed for it to get heard.

I don't see a lot of organizations doing this well. All the hastags I mentioned above were grassroots movements--not a campaign of an established advocacy group. Do you think there are fundamental barriers to organizations leveraging the counternarrative phenomenon to build movements?


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Dead Man Tweeting

A thought-provoking campaign I recently came across was put together for the Dutch ALS Foundation by an agency called Publicis. You can see the video below that describes the campaign. What they did was work with individuals with ALS 3 years before the campign launch to record stories and messages. Upon the individuals death, they posted the messages to the deceased individuals social media feeds (among other outlets) to raise awareness about the horrific nature of the disease. The foundation saw a sharp rise in donations following the campaign. I thought that this was a dramatic use of social media, that helped to cut through the clutter and grab people's attention.

Ideas, uses & experiences for TweetDeck and HootSuite
I've been thinking about tools such as HootSuite and TweetDeck, features that have been improving in the last few years. I've got a few questions for people who have been using these tools for their human rights activism: 
  • Have you found these tools useful for connecting with your community, new allies?
  • How do you use these tools for tracking responses (e.g., to your messaging or tactical actions)?
  • What experiences and tips can you share for managing the information, such as that coming in to your twitter account(s) before, during and after actions?
Facebook & Twitter - forces for good?

Hey folks,

Lots has been written about the role of Twitter in the Arab Spring. By reaching extensive saturation, platforms like Twitter have allowed ordinary people to connect and build power through information sharing. But many of these platforms have spotty privacy records (Facebook moreso than Twitter) and have been used at times by authoritarian regimes to identify and crack down on dissidents.

In an ideal world, alternatives with stronger privacy safeguards could be created (see the thread about Telegram as an alternative to WhatsApp), but I wonder if that's actually possible. For example, Twitter could serve as a go-to information source for what was going on on the ground during the 2011 Egyptian Revolution because there were enough people using the platform that there was usually someone present during an arrest, beating, etc. to capture and relay it even when professional reporters were absent--could a privacy-oriented alternative garner the necessary adoption to hold this power?

To the point--are we stuck with having to use the most popular platforms, even when they're problematic from a human rights standpoint?

Every emotional (and strategic!) investment you make matters

Great question, Julien:

To the point--are we stuck with having to use the most popular platforms, even when they're problematic from a human rights standpoint?

The way I think about this is that there is (frequently) a lot of heat around, and attention paid to, the issues we're working on in corportate online platforms like Facebook and Twitter. This means there is an opportunity to listen--to pay attention to--a broader issue network speaking about your issue. I believe that organizations and movements have a responsibility to listen deeply, continuously, and broadly to supporters. Find ways to amplify and support those voices. Be stronger together. A total divestment from social media platforms risks ignoring nascent, diffuse, and nontraditional perspectives on your issue.

At the same time as these platforms provide an opportunity to pay attention, we can not own 'land' there. The owners of those social media platforms have chosen to build an apparent commons that increasingly functions as an emotional stripmining operation. The raw, natural material of our emotions (our hunger to be seen, to be recognized, to belong to a family and to a community, to be acknowledged, to interact, to be in the moment, to be aware of the opportunities and dangers around us) is absolutely being refined into commodity products by these social media platforms. Because I believe that emotional stripmining is nor 'nutritious' for incividuals, commnuities or society more broadly, I carefully weigh what I 'build' on this false commons. When you can, think of building temporary mobile structures (campaigns like circus tents, campaigns like houseboats) on social media platforms, rather than building a high rise tower of a campaign whose foundation is inextricably tied to 'land' you can never own.

Finally, because the broader human rights community has a unique perspective on how technology can have negative impacts on, for example, marginalized populations, I believe that we together have a responsibility to continuously voice potential implications of feature changes, terms of use, etc. Sharing the individual stories of negative impacts is one way to do this necessary work.

That's an interesting take,

That's an interesting take, Rachel. While I share your discomfort with this "emotional stripmining", the fact that these companies have monetized such basic impulses is exactly why they've been able to saturate the world in just a decade and why they mean millions of people at risk of persecution are just a click away from organizations trying to support them. Don't take that as an endorsement, just noting that it's a double-edged sword.

I also like your framework of focusing on these mainstream platforms as listening tools and would add a couple points:

  1. While social media platforms may not be a true commons, they are still a common resource that we will likely all be forced to depend on for some time. As a result, we all need to take responsibility for them as if they were a commons and push for security, accountability and privacy.
  2. If we choose to eschew the mainstream platforms, we need to make sure that those decisions are guided by the communities they are intended to benefit. To choose an example from my previous line of work, using Telegram to connect with female sex workers in Nairobi may make sense from the standpoint of our ideals, but in a place where nearly everyone uses WhatsApp, using this insecure, Facebook-owned platform and being able to reach more women who are ready to become their own advocates may be the better move. In these, as in all tech decisions, we need to let communities lead.


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Mainstream social media platforms - be careful what you "build"


Thank you for sharing this perspective on these mainstream social media platforms and your comment to carefully what you "build" because they are not stable "structures", and they are "land" you can never own.

A great example of this is the Pink Chaddi campaign (see video)"Chaddi" is a child's name for underwear and also a slang word for right-wing hardlier. The campaign became a response to a violent attack on women in Mangalore, a city in Karnataka state in India by a self-appointed right-wing "moral" police group, the SRS. The SRS was threatening further such violent incidents in Karnataka state. Nisha Susan and some of her friends in India formed a Facebook group, the Consortium of Pub-going, Loose and Forward Women, in 2009 and launched the Pink Chaddi campaign. Nisha writes in this article, "One day, the campaign had 500 members; a week later, it had 30,000. A 75-year-old woman from Delhi sent us panties. A Bollywood lyricist wrote a poem in honour of the rose-coloured chaddi. Amul, India's best-known brand of butter, put up a billboard featuring a pink chaddi. More than 2,000 chaddis arrived at the SRS office." More information about the campaign and impact can be read through this article by Shreya Sanghani. She shares about her own experience of participating in the campaign. 

However, just as you indicated, the platform of Facebook was not stable, nor secure. Their Facebook page was hacked and Nisha shares the irony that Facebook's reponse was to remove the Facebook group, Consortium of Pub-going, Loose and Forward Women, and the Facebook group is still unavailable.
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Successful usage of FB & Whatsapp in Malaysia - Bersih rallies

Networking tools like FB and Whatsapp have been credited for the successfull turnout in Bersih rallies organized in Malaysia and globally demanding electoral reforms (covered in Mainstream media is and has always been pro-government, therefore any news that is not favourable had previously no opportunity to be made known and disseminated to the public. Dissemination of news and information through FB and Whatsapp has caused an explosion of activism among the Malaysian public at large.