Ten years ago, we could have never predicted what social media would mean for politics or for gender equality, let alone how it would reshape grassroots activism and mass movements.
This month, on Behind the Handle, I spoke with Valeriia Voshchevska and Amira Aleem, the duo behind @Amnesty, an international NGO focused on human rights. We spoke about the pivotal social moment we’re living in, why activism amplified by social media is here to stay, and how organizations can play a role in the future of social media.
Activism on social media is here to stay
If I ask you to name a current movement, chances it will be a hashtag: #MeToo, #BlackLivesMatter, or #AbortoLegalYa. This is a powerful indicator of how social media has become an intricate part of mass movements — either by how it unifies individuals, how it mobilizes people to gather offline, or how it captures the global reach of grassroots efforts.
But of course, Amnesty International wants its social media efforts to go beyond so-called vanity metrics. It aims to pressure leaders in power, to drive policy change, and to bring a wider awareness to the complexities of human rights to the mainstream halls of Twitter, Facebook, and other platforms. And it’s not an easy feat.
“Human rights is quite hard to communicate as a concept to people because it’s quite broad,” Voshchevska said. Aleem added that the “unspoken line” drawn between human rights and other development issues adds to its isolation within the wider global development conversation.
“Human rights have a reputation for being quite intense or political,” Aleem said. Storytelling within the activist movement has historically not been as positive as other development narratives, she said.
To succeed in this context, Amnesty International’s strategy is focused on making impact, and raising authentic voices for human rights issues, Voshchevska said. This, coupled with a news-driven strategy and social listening on various platforms, informs Amnesty International’s content strategy for daily posts and long-term campaigns.
“Inserting our unique perspective into something that people are already talking about contributes to our overall standing as the leading commentator on human rights issues,” Voshchevska said.
Take the historic bill to legalize abortion in Argentina this past summer. The Amnesty International team watched closely as grassroots activism spread online and in local activist communities. “Our campaigners on the ground told us that it was important to show that the world was watching,” Voshchevska said. In response, Amnesty International profiled Argentinian activists on its own channels and published a backpage advertisement in the New York Times. In the end, the Senate voted against the bill, but only by a narrow margin.
Fostering a new generation of activists
Within activism circles, legacy social media brands such as Twitter and Facebook are still quite important, Voschevska said, highlighting modern movements that have been started and fostered on social media. Facebook continues to paramount in mobilizing, despite its recent scandals.
For new and younger audiences — for Amnesty, those aged 16 to 34 — Amnesty International is shifting its focus to Instagram and YouTube, which Voschevska believes will ‘keep [fighting] the fight.’ It doesn’t hurt that both Instagram and YouTube are set to outpace the first generation platforms with upward of 1 billion monthly active users.
“Instagram is our pet project. We want to bring additional value to our young activists [there],” Voshchevska said. This means that Voshchevska and Aleem spend time on the platform learning its ins and outs to bring visual, high-quality content to its users. They recently began experimenting with Instagram Stories and are finding ways to create social actions that keep users engaged and are native to the platform.
We can’t talk about Instagram, of course, without talking about influencers. While many in the global development sector are on the fence about partnering with influencers, Voshchevska embraces their potential.
“People are tired of big publishers, organizations, or corporations talking to them and projecting this official voice,” Voshchevska said. Influencers have built-in loyalty from their followers that organizations can benefit from. “For the work we do, it’s something that’s quite to new to work with influencers. We don’t want to be stuck in our bubble, in the NGO bubble,” Voshchevska added.
Amnesty International plans to continue to work with influencers and wants to provide capacity building and education within the sector on the topic. It plans to roll out e-learning modules within Amnesty International to build that understanding soon.
Combatting the toxicity of social media
Even with the bright spots on social media, the toxicity across social media cannot be ignored. Mental health, harassment, and even suicide are all things to be mindful of when engaging on social media. In fact, many of these have caused people who were once active to opt out of platforms altogether.
Voschevska believes that platforms should be held accountable. Last year, Amnesty International launched #ToxicTwitter, a campaign to draw attention to the violence and abuse many women experience on Twitter, often with little accountability. Amnesty International outlined four solutions for Twitter, urging the platform to be more transparent and diligent in its response to reports of violence and abuse. In a recent Twitter chat with Recode journalist Kara Swisher, Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter, still hasn’t come up with a good answer as to why progress is slow on that front.
Even in the midst of fighting for accountability, Voschevska holds onto the importance of social media for mass movements, such as March for our Lives in the U.S. For Voschevska, it also has a personal significance: “I’m from Ukraine, and the revolution in Ukraine was partially fostered through the information exchanges that people were doing through Facebook.”
Aleem added that organizations have to take on the task of finding new ways of negotiating the platform together so that it works for all of us.
“As charities and nonprofits, we have a huge role in putting out important messages and making sure that the right people mobilize around it,” she said.
Update, Feb. 19, 2019: This article has been updated to clarify that Amnesty International plans to roll out e-learning modules within the organization to build understanding of working with influencers.