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Amplify: local campaigning in a digital world

May 31, 2013

How do you get the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to live on £53 per week? How do you get the first non-white President elected to the highest office in the Western world? And how do you get 1.6 billion people to watch a lesser known K-Pop star prance about on an imaginary horse?

For better or for worse, the internet has become an integral part of our planet’s collective conscience.

But what about closer to home? How do we get a question posed to Boris on the impact of housing benefit changes? How do we get people across the country to rate retailers’ displays of lads’ mags? And how can free or low-cost web tools help us do this?

The internet is clearly good at raising awareness of and campaigning on big global issues – it’s not called the World Wide Web for nothing. But it’s becoming apparent that ‘local’ issues can be tackled through the same means.

DA campaigns

For our Digital Activism project, we worked with six small organisations to look at the role web tools could play in local campaigning; giving people a voice, helping them spread important messages and mobilising new audiences.

We found that, understandably, campaigners want and need to engage a wide range of people to strengthen the campaign and raise its profile. Free and low-cost web tools can help campaigners do this.

The benefits of a wide network of supporters was particularly evident for Shahida, our campaigner behind Shelve It! in Birmingham.

Shahida is the founder of the Women’s Networking Hub. This network of over 1,000 women from across the West Midlands and beyond hadn’t really been called on to campaign on an issue so far, so Shelve It! was new territory for Shahida. But the feminist angle and a large network meant there was a ready-made support base.

The request was simple; people were called on to rate retailers’ displays of lads’ mags – are they out of view and reach of children? – and share them on a porn map.

Although the focus for Shelve It! was local, the global nature of web tools like Twitter meant that anyone anywhere could get involved. Lads’ mags being displayed in reach and view of children wasn’t just a concern to people in Birmingham, and Shelve

It! provided a channel for people to share frustrations and highlight retailers who flaunted the objectification of women, wherever they were. Retailer ratings didn’t just come from the West Midlands where the campaign was focused, but from as far afield as Edinburgh, Durham and London. Shelve It! was being driven by people across the country, not just Shahida in Birmingham.

Critics would argue that such activities are “clicktivism”. That we’re replacing placards with hashtags and protests with browsing. Does it really mean as much?

For Shelve It!, definitely. Online collaboration helped give different people a voice and spread the message wider than Shahida initially hoped and strived for, strengthening the campaign.

In addition, online activism can amplify an issue to those who can make change. While reaching individuals to get involved and share ratings wasn’t too difficult for Shelve it! for Hackney CAB Crowdmap, it was a slightly different matter.

The Hackney CAB Crowdmap campaigner, Catherine, wanted to engage local people facing difficulties due to the new housing benefit cap. But with many of these people struggling to get by, what was the likelihood they would have internet access, never mind join an online campaign to share their stories?

Catherine made the most of offline opportunities to gather stories via CAB Advisors and added them to the Crowdmap and social media profiles herself to make sure everyone could be heard.

But what difference would that make on its own?

Catherine wanted to reinforce these stories so looked at how many properties in Hackney were available on one day. Only 14 properties – or one per cent of available Hackney housing – were available to people on housing benefit. The findings seemed to be a hook. Patrick Butler shared the results on his Guardian Cuts Blog, and Darren Johnson AM used it to pose a question to Boris Johnson at Mayor’s Question Time.

While the outcome from the question wasn’t necessarily ground-breaking – Boris wanted to see more evidence from across London – it proved one thing. That web tools, some offline activity, and sharing voices can help amplify a campaign to people in power. It also helped show others the importance of this kind of activism; it prompted other CABs and support organisations to look at similar activities in their areas. Perhaps Boris would listen then.

Our campaigners didn’t see these web activities as “clicktivism”, but instead saw the potential of using web tools to connect with their communities and increase their involvement in campaigning.

While our campaigns didn’t see a law introduced to display lads’ mags out of reach and view of children – yet – or reverse the housing benefit changes – yet – they did set in motion wider activities around the issues. Our campaigners explored new

territory, created new personal and organisational links, and brought a voice to communities who felt unheard. Along the way, they also got the issues brought to the forefront by people with power.

Our report – Amplify: Local campaigning in a digital world – outlines the learning above, alongside other lessons, from our Digital Activism project.  The report shares five key tips for local online activists:

  • Decide who to engage and what you want them to do.
  • Collaborate.
  • Keep content accessible and up-to-date.
  • Maintain momentum.
  • Target influencers to amplify your message.

We hope this inspires others to campaign online on issues that matter to them.

Our Digital Activism work with these six communities has now ended, but you can still support the campaigns by visiting their websites and joining them on Facebook and Twitter.

And for those of you who claim puzzlement at the lesser-known K-Pop star”, wonder no more.

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