Social media without grassroots action not enough for a winning campaign

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Social media can click-start a campaign but offline action is also important.

Social media can click-start a campaign, but offline action is also important. Photograph: Dominic Lipinski/PA

We asked, you answered. As part of our Students Speak series, students share their thoughts on the role of social media in campaigning for change
Social media can click-start a campaign but offline action is also important.
Social media can click-start a campaign, but offline action is also important. Photograph: Dominic Lipinski/PA
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Carla Kweifio-Okai
Monday 16 February 2015 07.00 GMT
Last modified on Monday 16 February 2015 15.10 GMT
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Social media has become an essential tool for activists wishing to reach as many people as possible, but have other forms of campaigning been overlooked in the process? We asked students whether social media was indeed a campaigner’s best friend, or whether greater focus on grassroots activism was required. Below are five of our favourite responses.
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Don’t underestimate face-to-face campaigning
Campaigners increasingly embrace online tools to get their messages across. Blogging sites, online personal or group profiles, and cyberspace are used to spread awareness about a campaign, interact with and motivate supporters to follow the campaign, and coordinate events. Tweets and likes make it easy for the campaigners to track their followers’ interaction and engagement, while flexibility in social networking gives a behind-the-scenes view of the campaign and consequently a sense of accessibility.

But campaigns also involve a degree of mobilisation and a deeper level of participation that requires relational ties of some kind (as well as individual agency and ability). Thus, campaigning demands an element of fellowship – solidarity and companionship that characterise a more personal form of contact.

For me, one of the best strategies is meeting and pressurising decision-makers to commit to change; it adds a more relational perspective to the campaign and ensures devotion to the cause.

Voula Kyprianou, University of Sheffield, UK

Campaigners can’t afford to ignore social media
Social media has changed the way we campaign. It is the ultimate equaliser – giving people the chance to have their voices heard on the same stage as the world’s most powerful leaders. In the past decade we’ve seen online campaigning help bring down dictators, hold big business to account, elect presidents and encourage a whole new generation of young people to get involved in issues that matter. Of course, this is not to say that social media does not have its downsides, and the same tools that can be used for good can also be used to bully and oppress. But for campaigners to ignore this new platform would be equivalent to ignoring the rise of print media so many years ago. This is simply the way we communicate today, and I believe it’s still possible to maintain “grassroots” elements of campaigning in this new world. Campaigning on the streets is important, but there really is no comparison to the amount of people activists can reach online. So yes, social media is still a campaigner’s best friend.

Annabelle Smith, University of Melbourne, Australia

Social media campaigns still require a spark

The encompassing force of globalisation is facilitating a movement towards an online world, characterised by the rapid sharing of social media information, which has the power to transcend traditional boundaries. However, is it possible to create significant change from an online platform? How can politicians be appropriately engaged? These are questions that cloud the effectiveness of such far-reaching campaigning. Undoubtedly, social media can be used as an effective tool for advocating change, but quality grassroots campaigning should be used as a catalyst for mobilising the vast quantity of “keyboard warriors”.

Take the poignant UN speech by Emma Watson regarding gender equality, which inspired 19m hits for in the four days following. Social media requires a spark to become effective; lazy keyboard warriors need a real-life catalyst to inspire their virtual campaign. A further prominent example is the public self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia, which created a wave of revolutionary unrest throughout the Arab world in 2011, mobilising 2 million Egyptians in occupying Tahrir Square [and] overthrowing Mubarak’s government. It began with Bouazizi and was spread thanks to the sharing of a multitude of accessible information, photos, videos and locations of imminent protests.

Clearly, social media can be employed as a significant tool for empowerment and liberation, yet the online world is a gullible and impatient one; mistakes will doubtless be made. Nonetheless, social media represents the future of campaigning, so long as the sparks that mobilise the clicktivists continue.

James Laycock, University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands

A successful campaign relies on online and offline action
As a means of communication, advertisement, and expression, social media has become the norm. Many young people, in the developed and developing world alike, often have an arguably unhealthy attachment to their mobile device, as opportunities to socialise, research, and express oneself to the world through written word, recorded video, and carefully cropped pictures are a mere swipe of the finger away. Therefore, social media is pivotal to a grassroots campaign in regard to organisation, promotion, recruitment, policy and strategy briefing, and indoctrination of specific goals and beliefs.

Without the use of a variety of user friendly and informative social media applications, a grassroots movement has little chance of making significant strides towards achieving its desired change. However, although this is an increasingly technological age, where some young people would consider it unfathomable to go without their smartphone, social media campaigns must also coincide with more old-fashioned techniques of campaigning such as going door to door, handing out information pamphlets in public places, campus demonstrations, and conducting town hall meetings.

There simply is no substitute for direct human contact if one truly wishes to convey a message that is supposed to be convincing, inspiring, and motivating. Social media contributes substantially to spreading awareness and coordinating logistical movement, but face-to-face interaction is irreplaceable. Also, many older people do not use social media and it would be foolish to attempt to form a grassroots campaign without utilising every possible method of making the campaign stronger.

Patrick Rulong, University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada

Supporters should add their money, not just clicks to campaigns
Social media has enabled organisations to crowdfund projects, organise Occupy events, support or boycott organisations, offer unbiased coverage of events and hold public officers accountable for their actions. It has enabled public sharing of views without fear of victimisation or rejection. However, people have replaced picketing with likes or retweets, leading to the rise of slacktivism. This is also known as armchair activism.

This gives a false sense of fulfilment of moral obligations by encouraging people to provide their minimum support. Social media support does not always equate to tangible contributions. Campaigners may get a million retweets about a particular cause but only a small fraction of people actually give monetary contributions or show up. In light of this, Unicef Sweden recently launched the campaign Likes don’t save lives, which addresses the issue of slacktivism by emphasising the need to give donations in monetary value and not in social media currency in order to have a greater impact.

We may argue that we need to embrace technology, but can we imagine if Dr [Martin Luther] King lived in our age of social media and decided only to blog about his American dream and thereafter shared links on various platforms? There is a need to differentiate between the social media enthusiasts and campaigners. Activism leads to action. Show your support by donating your resources. Go beyond clicking share.

Lillian Nyamongo, University of Glasgow, Scotland


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