New-era campaigning – using online platforms to work in an organised and active way towards a shared goal – gained prominence through movements such as the Arab Spring, the democratic uprisings that originated in Tunisia and spread across Arab countries in 2011. Many lauded the role that social media played in facilitating large-scale mobilisations, with like-minded revolutionaries using digital platforms to build extensive social networks and organise political action in the process. Others, however, were more sceptical of its true impact.
Inspired by the new possibilities, other forms of new-era campaigning emerged, such as “hashtag activism”, where groups began to organise conversations on social media under a common hashtagged word, phrase or sentence with social and political significance. For example, in 2014 more than one million people – including high-profile celebrities, influential leaders and politicians – tweeted #BringBackOurGirls, raising global awareness of the approximately 250 schoolgirls kidnapped in Nigeria.
With the rise of social media, it was suddenly easier than ever for supporters to take action. By signing an online petition, sending an email to elected representatives, or making a donation, people could show their support from the comfort of their home or office using nothing more than a handheld device. But for some, herein lies the problem. Modern collective action such as the Arab Spring uprisings was being reduced to a “flash in the pan”, and the #BringBackOurGirls campaign was accused of “clicktivism”. Both were perceived as being incapable of creating the meaningful engagement that is required to achieve real change.
In 2016, the election of Donald Trump as the 45th president of the US saw the landscape change once again. His rise to prominence during the presidential campaign was touted by many as being, at least in part, a symptom of foreign interference and the spread of fake news on social media. Facebook, Twitter and Google executives are still grappling with the fallout, with pressure mounting for the tech giants to take real action to ensure that the platforms are not a threat to democracy. As the push for transparency and accountability continues, it’s important that we keep using social media as a force for good. The Resistance, for example, is a political and cultural movement led by Americans who oppose the politics and policies of President Trump. It is being fuelled online.
Whether used to facilitate large mobilisations, inspire group conversations or serve as President Trump’s primary means of public communication, social media is here to stay. Of course it needs to be regulated, and we should keep a critical eye, but it is futile to dismiss the potential it can yield, through awareness-raising or otherwise. In an article titled “#Bringbackourgirls hasn’t brought back Chibok’s girls, but it has changed Nigeria’s politics”, Chitra Nagarajan claims that the Bring Back Our Girls movement “was instrumental in mobilising the country in protests and conversations about the abductions and, in doing so, helped remove a Nigerian president from power in what will be the first democratic transition in the country’s history”. The influence of social media should not be predicated on a rigid result, but rather on how it can be used to build movements for change. As we move forward, how can we ensure that digital organising efforts are sustained, or that we empower those who engage online to become more involved in a campaign?
Much of the future of changemaking will be shaped by the millennial generation, those born between 1980 and 2000. The Millennial Impact Project, published annually since 2010, is the most comprehensive and trusted study of the millennial generation and their involvement in causes. Based on surveys conducted between 2011 and 2016, Cause, Influence & the Workplace: The Millennial Impact Report Retrospective: Five Years of Trends found that millennials learn about and donate to causes digitally, that their peers are a critical influence on their decision to take action, and that they are motivated by opportunities to use and develop their skills. Increasingly, millennials are motivated to support causes rather than the organisations working to address them. Therefore, campaigns that can use digital and social media to enable and empower supporters to create content that they share with their peers, and that promotes their central message, will be at an advantage in their quest to achieve systemic change.
So what does this look like? First and foremost, campaigns must draw supporters in with a compelling cause that appeals to their intrinsic desire to do good. Excellent storytelling and issue framing is crucial to converting observers to ardent supporters. It must be authentic and demonstrate how things can improve and what role a person can play in making that happen. Once you’ve hooked them, how do you compel supporters to take real action? While proactive social media activity will enable supporters to stay informed, new-era campaigns move them to deeper engagement by inspiring offline action and providing opportunities for collaboration. This type of engagement can also play a vital role in how supporters influence their peers to become involved. What would make you stand up and take notice – your friend sharing content from a campaigning organisation, or content created by your friend about why that issue is important to them? Authentic campaign messages by supporters to their networks can reach more people and incentivise more action. Supporting content created by individuals, stakeholders and other campaigning groups can also be harvested and leveraged on your channels, where appropriate and with permission.
Empowering supporters to become advocates requires strategic leadership from campaigns to frame the cause and develop the narrative, then to open it up to participation. Having a bank of engaging, relevant, informative and shareable content that promotes key campaign messages and activities sets the tone of the campaign, inspires others to get involved and ensures that they can remain “on-message”. Remember, people want to participate, so your campaign should make it as easy as possible for them to do so.
As the symbiotic relationship between digital activity and campaigning continues to flourish, we must be nimble in our response, embrace new opportunities and invite others to join us.