We #PrayedFor Syria, Palestine, Paris, and Boston. We dumped buckets of ice over our heads. And we made #LoveWin. Social media advocacy is a powerful strategy. But it’s a double-edged sword.
The first and most immediate benefit of using social media for advocacy is awareness. As an advocacy or a non-profit org, your first goal is to let as many people know that your cause exists.
The best way to do that is to tap the most populated media platform there is—the Internet. Take a look at the #SaveAleppo campaign. Syria nearly didn’t exist in our Western-dominated newsfeeds full of #PrayForParis or #PrayForBoston.When Syrian citizens took it upon themselves to document their suffering through video diaries that told us stories of how they lost the people they love, the world soon took notice. It made Syria matter to the world. Hashtag campaigns like this, when done right, spreads like wildfire.
Awareness isn’t enough, of course. Even if people know that your advocacy exists, they might not understand what it is. Social media is an excellent tool for education.
This is not just to explain what you’re fighting for e.g. you’re a feminist organization committed to forwarding women’s rights, but also to use Facebook or Twitter to tell people what you think is wrong with society.
Everyday Feminism, an online magazine advocating for intersectional feminism, is excellent in doing this. They break down concepts related to gender, oppression and privilege in a way that people can relate to. Other orgs are a little more creative than this, using infographics or explainer videos to make a point. The goal is to let other people see the world as you do.
All of those will remain lip-service, however, if it does not inspire action. The goal of any advocacy or movement is to get people to do something about the cause, either by supporting the organization through donations or participating in your events, or doing something in their community. Here, calls to action are very important.
The Ice Bucket Challenge initiated by the ALS Association is an example of a success story for fundraising. The campaign raised over a billion dollars through donations to fund further research about the disease. This campaign was so hyped up, even celebrities participated.
Social media can mobilize people to collective action beyond donations. Twitter played a critical role in organizing protests in the Middle East during the 2011 Arab Spring, a collective resistance against abusive governments. Activists in countries like Egypt and Syria used the microblogging site to disseminate information about their activities and gather more people. It also used social media to raise awareness about government abuse.
While social media is a powerful tool for advocacy, it can also work against the cause.
Social media campaigns tend to simplify the advocacy to a hashtag. It defeats the purpose of educating people because the focus is not on the cause itself but the campaign activity. The Ice Bucket Challenge, for example, may have been successful in raising funds, but not so much on getting people to understand what ALS is or sympathize with the people who have it. A lot of the participants simply joined the bandwagon because of the hype and because celebrities were doing it which didn’t really gain genuine interest for ALS.
Even in instances where the campaigns got people to sympathize with the cause, a lot of the conversation gets stuck in social media. This is what happened with Syria. The call to #SaveAleppo remained a call, never an action. Because videos were viral and a lot of people were talking about it, it created an illusion that the movement to help Aleppo is gaining ground. While the campaign did mobilize some protests from other countries, the major part of it remained in social media.
What’s worse was that the videos and pictures of suffering Syrians became a commodity that people consumed in media—something you stopped to look at in your newsfeed, something you liked and shared, before scrolling down to other things—much like a video of a cute cat. The surge of war made people numb to the atrocities. They were used to it.
For any social media campaign to be successful, there must be a clear goal: whether it’s to spread awareness, or to inspire action in the community or to donate. The goal is the basis for everything you do in the campaign, and all hashtags you will use. It’s also important to identify your target audience.
Since non-profits and activism rely on public support, it is also crucial to create relatable content. This is to make sure that people understand what you’re trying to tell them. Using comics to explain concepts, or letting the audience imagine themselves in the shoes of the people you are trying to protect are very useful strategies in getting your posts noticed.
And if the goal is to get people to act, call to actions must not only tell the people to help, but also how to help. It’s not enough to tell the world to stop discrimination: it’s more important to tell them how discrimination happens and what they can do stop them. It’s not enough to tell them to #SaveAleppo: it’s more important to tell them how. To inspire action, you also need to tell them why they should do what you’re telling them to do. Why should they donate in your fundraiser? Why should they support gay marriage or plant more trees? Why should they care?
Social media is a storytelling platform and advocacies are about real people with real problems. This why they go together and this is why we need to be responsible in using it—because social media can help or hurt those people based on how you wield it.