Can online campaigns bring offline change? | #NoEsc | Life Links | DW | 27.06.2015
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Can online campaigns bring offline change?

We pour ice water over our heads, paint red lipstick lashes on our backs and upload pictures of us holding signs with hashtags. But how effective are these social media campaigns offline? Life Links takes a look.

Twitter hashtags, Facebook "likes" and viral videos - for better or for worse, these are the tools of today's activists. While previous generations were busy marching and staging sit-ins, today many people just use a hashtag on Twitter and consider it a job well done. In fact, there was even a word invented for this modern form of protest that doesn't require leaving the house, but where only a retweet or a "like" is needed: "slacktivism."

But is the criticism of slacktivism justified? Does online activism really not lead to any real life changes? Can online activism ever live up to the achievements of previous protesters? If a hashtag like #outcry (German: #aufschrei French: #assez), which raised awareness of everyday sexual harassment, starts trending and sparks a debate, or a campaign to waste less food goes viral - does anything actually change? Well, you might be surprised by the power of the computer keyboard.

#1 People power
Thanks to the Internet, people around the world are more connected than ever before. And those connections do make a difference. From the Arab Spring to Hongkong's Umbrella Revolution, we've seen what can happen when millions of people use social media for good - uniting them into a powerful community.

#2 Mobilizing military action
Does the name Kony ring a bell? Well, if it does, that's probably because you've heard about the #Kony2012 campaign run by the US charity Invisible Children. In 2012 they released a 30-minute video online to advocate for the arrest of a little-known Ugandan war lord named Joseph Kony.

He emerged in the mid 1980s as the leader of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) in Uganda and his history includes turning girls into sex slaves and boys into child soldiers. After more than one hundred million people watched the #Kony2012 video, he was an internationally wanted man. The video was shared on Facebook and tweeted by celebrities like Oprah Winfrey, Kim Kardashian, and Justin Bieber.

Even US President Barack Obama got involved and praised the campaign, while more than 30 US senators condemned Kony's action in a resolution. It led to a US-backed military mission joining 5,000 African Union (AU) soldiers in their search for Kony - more US forces have since been sent.

Joseph Kony has not yet been captured but the campaign still managed to capture the attention of citizens and politicians alike and led to a significant political response.

#3 Global attention, local issue

In 2014, the armed Islamist militant group Boko Haram kidnapped more than 270 Nigerian schoolgirls from their boarding school. But it wasn't until a hashtag went viral that the issue became international news and political action was taken.

#BringBackOurGirls was first used by Nigerian Twitter users who quoted Oby Ezekwesili, then the vice president of the World Bank of Africa. She demanded the Nigerian government help "bring back our girls" in a speech.

Such issues with a clear emotional core can often trigger online campaigns that lead to action being taken, says Christoph Schott, a senior campaigner at the online activist network Avaaz. "It's something people can connect with and share. It's emotionally touching. It can get a lot of people involved and have an impact."

The hashtag quickly started trending across the world and was used more than a million times. Hundreds of thousands of people posted images of themselves on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram with signs reading #BringBackOurGirls.

What really gave the campaign a boost was the support of international celebrities, including US First Lady Michelle Obama. World leaders like UK Prime Minister David Cameron and US President Barack Obama also got active and sent specialist teams to Nigeria to help find the girls.

Pakistan's teenage activist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousufzai not only joined the campaign online, she also followed up on the ground visiting Nigeria after the hashtag went viral to meet with campaigners and parents of the girls and to urge the government to take action.

With international attention and a viral hashtag applying pressure, the Nigerian government got involved as well and offered a cash reward of $300,000 to anyone who could help locate the kidnapped girls.

However, one year later, only around 50 girls are reported to have escaped while more than 200 are still unaccounted for. But unlike many social media campaigns which die out after just a few days, the #BringBackOurGirls campaign stayed on top of the Twitter charts for an entire year and is still trending today.

#4 Wasting water to raise money

Only in the Internet age could dumping cold water over your head do anything more than give you the chills. Now as it turns out, buckets of ice water equal big bucks. We're talking, of course, about the #IceBucketChallenge.

Ever since July 2014, when the #IceBucketChallenge began, we've seen numerous CEOs, pop stars, actors and footballers pour ice water over their heads, and then publicly nominate others to do the same - or else make a donation to charity. The challenge videos were uploaded to social media, which generated millions of clicks - and millions of dollars. Justin Bieber's video alone got almost two million views on YouTube.

The goal of the #IceBucketChallenge was to raise awareness and research money for the rare but often deadly disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). And while not everyone who participated in the challenge also donated money, the campaign still managed to help raise more than $100 million for ALS in less than two months.

As the BBC reports, awareness was increased as well, with the average daily visits to the ALS association website increasing from about 17,500 before the ice bucket challenge to a peak of 4.5 million visits on August 20, 2014, when the #IceBucketChallenge was in full swing.

Many critics said the challenge was problematic - it wasted water and the outrageous act of pouring water over your head distracted from the initial cause. There were also other variations of the campaign, like the #RiceBucketChallenge in India, where participants gave a bucket of rice to someone in need. None, however, were as successful as the original #IceBucketChallenge.

#5 Hashtag fails

Not all social media campaigns always go the way they were planned. The Twitter callout #myNYPD was intended to highlight the work of the New York Police Department by encouraging citizens to tweet happy pictures of themselves with police officers.

But the campaign backfired and social media users hijacked the hashtag and began tweeting images of brutal arrests and victims of police brutality instead.

A similar unintended consequence is happening with a new hashtag campaign called #SummerInSyria. The hashtag was started by Syria's government news agency SANA presumably to drum up some positive press, but instead social media users are using the hashtag to highlight war atrocities in Syria.

#6 Supporting free speech

Saudi blogger Raif Badawi was sentenced in May 2014 to 1,000 lashes and 10 years in prison for the crime of blogging about topics considered taboo in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi government claims he insulted Islam on the blog that he created, which included posts about religious freedom, politics and even Valentine's Day, which is forbidden in Saudi Arabia.

After Raif Badawi's first public flogging of 50 lashes in January 2015, there have been several social media hashtags to support freeing the blogger. The latest social media campaign is trying to combine all these efforts. The movement, called #Backlash, was started by Nathan Newman, director of social media at a campaign agency, in June 2015 to put pressure on the Saudi government and keep Badawi's imprisonment in the headlines. The hashtag is a powerful wordplay on the sentence that was given to Raif, thereby turning his public punishment into something positive, a powerful protest and backlash, as Newman tells Life Links in an interview.

"Until we started this campaign there were a whole lot of petitions and Facebook groups and Twitter handles set up all aimed around trying to raise awareness of what's happening, which is all great and has contributed towards a lot of people talking. But we felt there was a need to amplify all those voices together with just one idea that's more international and breaks through language barriers."

Newman's #Backlash campaign is simple: take off your shirt, paint lash marks with red lipstick on your back and post a picture to social media using the #Backlash hashtag.

Within only three weeks, the campaign has already created a lot of attention with more than 10,000 tweets mentioning the hashtag, 5,000 unique users, 7 million impressions and a reach of between 10 and 15 million people.

It has even prompted a demonstration in Rome, where protesters marched in solidarity with Badawi with red lipstick lashes painted on their backs.

The power of social media

Campaigns like #Backlash give people the chance to speak out about issues happening in other parts of the world.

"Twenty years ago a grandmother in Berlin couldn't have campaigned for gay rights, for example," said Schott from the online activist network Avaaz. "It's positive just to show people what change they can make in places far away from them."

Newman goes even further: "Social media is a way to amplify the voice of people and to consolidate everyone's opinions. There is certainly a climate right now in the world of social media at least indirectly being able to affect change and amplify a conversation about politics and social issues that people wouldn't necessarily talk about otherwise."

Although Badawi is still in prison, Schott says the campaign has been successful. It has triggered media reports, which helped raise awareness and has given international politicians the mandate to put pressure on the Saudi regime.

"The campaign has not focused on Saudi Arabia - the government doesn't care about international pressure," he said. "But it does care about economic trade with Germany." There have been calls for Germany to stop weapons exports to Saudi Arabia because of its handling of Badawi.

Pressure with positive and negative impact

Still, journalists working in Saudi Arabia have suggested that the pressure on the government is more likely to make them dig in their heels.

"In the long term, Badawi might get pardoned, but not now. They don't want anyone to think it is a direct action because of the pressure," said Schott of Avaaz. "But I don't think he would be released without the pressure. The chance of him being released is now much higher, now that everybody knows his name."

And the campaign has also helped others speak out about their personal traumas and experiences, adds Newman: "We've had people who've been exposed to torture reach out to us and say that they identify with what's happening with Raif and that's something that we've never anticipated. They've said it's the first time they've even dreamt of showing the world something that's happened to them and that really affected them quite deeply," Newman said.

It remains to be seen whether the #Backlash campaign, which will run for 15 weeks total, can have a direct impact on the Saudi government and Badawi's sentence. But it has definitely helped put Badawi's plight into international spotlight. A few weeks ago, U2 frontman Bono highlighted Raif Badawi's case at a concert in Canada. And just last week, Badawi received the inaugural Freedom of Speech Award from DW.

Of course, social media campaigns are not able to change the whole world. That's the nature of any protest movement - there will always be far more failures than successes. But the impressive thing about online movements is they can be started by anyone, from a small group of friends in Massachusetts in the US to concerned citizens in Nigeria. And when real change happens, from chasing African warlords to raising millions of dollars, it demonstrates the power of the online community, one click at a time.

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