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Using digital tools to build activism

June 3, 2011

In the past, activism typically had to take place in physical spaces. However, the growth of the internet, social media and mobile technology has allowed people the world over to take part in civic action quickly and easily.

There are now a whole host of examples of digital technology being used to galvanise people locally, nationally and internationally to take action – either online or offline. Such action could be based around a locality or on a common interest. It could be targeting governments, businesses or local people. Or it may be focused on galvanising support, raising money, increasing awareness, mobilising protestors or inciting change.

Social media can play a major role in all types of campaigns. However, using a variety of tools, both relevant to the campaign and those who it is hoped will interact with it, is important in order to increase the campaign’s impact. In this first of two blog posts, we feature campaigns which do so to interact with a range of people,  nationally or internationally, to either act on an issue that they feel passionately about or to raise awareness of a cause.

Political activism

One of the most recent and publicised examples of social media being used to organise national physical action developed out of a growing discontent with authoritarianism, political inheritance, state corruption and censorship. While social media cannot take the praise for overthrowing dictators, it did provide the tools and help disgruntled citizens in Egypt and Tunisia organise political protests, communicate them to the masses and garner support.

A Facebook page shared information on public protests, whilst large numbers of Twitter users used the micro blogging site to post real time information on the protests in Egypt using the hashtag #jan25.

Analysis by Sysomos shows the huge increase in the use of the terms Egypt, Yemen or Tunisia in tweets for the week of the Egyptian protests (see image). Such keywords and hashtags not only helped spread information to those protesting, but also helped distribute information and videos rapidly across the world, feeding real time updates into mainstream news.

Shared interest activism

Topic specific social networks such as Mumsnet, launched in 2000, have built up a strong member base around a common interest. Mumsnet alone attracts over 25,000 posts every day and 1.3 million unique visitors each month.

In 2010, Mumsnet launched the Let Girls Be Girls campaign to ask clothing retailers to commit to not sell products which play upon, emphasise or exploit children’s sexuality. The campaign asks ‘Mumsnetters’ to bring to the attention of other members new items of clothing which they think are overtly sexual, to gain their opinion. Where members agree, Mumsnet raises the issue with the retailer and works with them to resolve the problem.

Engaging people in charity appeals

Social media plays a vital role in involving the general public in charity appeals, and activities – with growing numbers of charities developing social media strategies.

Two international charities – Charity: Water and 15andCounting – are a good example of how social media can be used to distribute a message, increase giving, and involve campaigners.

Charity: Water, a non-profit that brings clean drinking water to people in developing countries, uses 10 different social media platforms to interact with potential donors. It shares media interviews, advertisements and stories of some of the donors and those who benefit via YouTube, Facebook and Twitter.

People are also encouraged to create their own My Charity: Water social media profile where they can fundraise, communicate and see proof of the work their fundraising has contributed to.

15andCounting, a global campaign to demand better access to sexual health services for youth, used social media and mobile phones to reach and engage young people globally.

Twitter acted as a distribution and support-generating tool, whilst Dopetracks (an online music network) hosted a competition for young people to create, distribute and share related music. Facebook, YouTube and MySpace engaged young people to share the message further. Two articles were published to the Digg.com homepage, attracting 22,000 website hits in 24 hours.

In addition, text messaging campaigns were used to engage those living in Kenya, India, Indonesia, Brazil and Mexico, where access to the internet is sporadic. A petition through this method gained 94,000 signatories in Africa alone, showing the importance of ensuring all potential methods of reaching people are included.

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