Campaigning and advocacy via social network sites, are social movements on the right path?

On: September 26, 2010
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About Cristina Reyna
Cristina Reyna New Media Master Student 2010/2011 Cristina was born in Colombia, she moved to Belgium to study in the Catholic University of Louvain, since then she has been involved in women rights issues. She works in the field of development, migration and peace.


I do believe the Web 2.0 is shaping our societies, and much more the way users relate to each other.

Social movements are adopting very fast social media technologies in their communication strategy. They use social network sites mostly for campaigns, dissemination of information, news and awareness raising  among the public.

Raymond Williams in his essay The Technology and the Society, 1972 debating around technology determinism, explains the phenomenon of the creation of television and radio when the invention preceded their content. Later on, television and radio were adapted for other uses than initially thought.

I was wondering if we could say the same about social media. If in the same way Williams had compared the impact of television in the earlier 70´s, one could compare nowadays the impact of the use of social media in the society, including change of behaviors, relations and ideologies.

Each era deserves its own technology and its own movements. In fact, the rise of the Web 2.0 arrives also in the moment when society is in mutation and new theories of global sociologies are being proposed. For example Saskia Sassen who explored the influence of communication technology on governance, she observed how nation states begin to lose power to control these developments, and she studied increasing general transnationalism.  In addition, global economic crisis and food crisis are realities we can’t escape, one lives in McLuhan’s  global village. We are all interconnected to each other.

Since Web 2.0, the number of nongovernmental organizations and social movements has increased; some of them rely mainly on social network sites, and even exist only on virtual basis, but are covering the globe. Face book and twitter allow to connect members in a fast and efficient way, some of those organizations are even creating internal social network sites for capacity building within their members. Social media are shaping the way organizations are relating to each other and what is more important  are opening the possibility to link with other networks, with whom probably off-line they would never have met.

Developing a communication strategy based on Social media networks, requires a new approach, requires learning new skills and understanding the world of the internet and it users. How can the goal of a campaign be ensured and how can decision makers be reached? Where do the virtual world and the stakeholders meet?  Is the Internet the new and most powerful place where decisions are made? Who takes decisions in a virtual world? Answering these questions will require a new analysis of decision making power.

We had good examples of the massive mobilizing power the social network sites like in the success of Obama’s campaign:  `he understood that you could use the Web to lower the cost of building a political brand, create a sense of connection and engagement, and dispense with the command and control method of governing to allow people to self-organize to do the work´. Or the Iranian green movement, able to catch the attention of the whole world.  Examining these and other examples could be the start of understanding links between ownership, engagement and interactive media.

Then one would have to look inside of the movements, which are distinguished for being complex, loose, and fluid actors made up of networks of informal interactions among diverse members. Social network sites could help them to organize in a decentralized way, which do not guarantee stability and continuity. Instead, they could favor inclusive activist networks that evolve organically and could simply shift their focus according to emerging opportunities. What are organizations doing? How are relations among members, individuals and collectives changing because of social media, how are processes of decision making changing; has the capacity to engage in advocacy and in affecting social change improved thanks to social media? How are the politicians and institutions reacting to new ways of advocating? Are these politicians following or controlling?

What differs the current social movement from their predecessors? Which ideals and topics drive them?  What could be the impact and the benefit cost ratio of using social media for social movements?

In order to answer all these questions, different steps can be taken. First, one could go back to theorists of social movements, like José Bengoa, a Chilean  anthropologist who investigated social movements in Latin America in the 1970´s, then compare and update with current global sociologist like Saskia Sassen.

Second, compare social network sites practices of organizations like Via Campesina and the World March of Women, who are autonomous in their ideologies and globally based, they were born before the Web 2.0, and have in different ways adopted tools of social media,  with new born organizations such as , community of global citizens who take action on global issues; Or 10:10, a campaign whose communication strategy is mostly based on facebook, twitter and location based technologies, to mention only some examples.

To finish, only one question still triggers me: in a society where everything changes in such a fast way, even ideology and opinions, could one still consider long term sustainability of an organization a point of analysis? Perhaps this would be another topic to explore.

Resources: Digital activism decoded : the new mechanics of change / Mary Joyce


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