Digital Activism With Real Impact | Part 2
Read Part 1 of Digital Activism with Real Impact here.
Digital activism has become so ubiquitous that it is hard to imagine a world where we weren’t hash-tagging our causes and tweeting directly to the President of the United States with our grievances. Today everyone has a public voice, and when we join together for a specific cause or campaign we can make ourselves heard by powerful people who once were beyond our reach. Professional activists, organizers, advocates–as well as millions of self-identifying ‘activists’ who may or may not have a formal connection with any organization–have flooded the internet to champion their favorite causes. Anyone can start a petition, and they do; sometimes with great results. Often, however, their efforts fall flat because they lack training and support to make digital tools work for them.
Even for professionals, getting heard is only half the battle. There’s a difference between being acknowledged by people in power, and being able to influence them. According to Washington D.C.-based activist Shireen Mitchell, success in digital activism is tied to specific outcomes: “I think success is based on what the campaign is attempting to achieve whether it’s just simply awareness or policy changes,” she advises.
Knowing exactly what you want from a campaign, or an overall digital strategy will allow you to measure your efforts and determine what works, and what doesn’t. Without specific goals there is no way to measure progress, making it impossible to determine if your activism is actually working.
When it comes to online campaigns, activists must create a feedback loop of content development, strategic distribution, data, and critical review (which, in turn, informs more content). In fact, many of the basic principles of online marketing are essential for targeting your audience, and making sure your message is heard by the people who need to hear it. It also means having a powerful, compelling call to action so that the work you do online doesn’t just stay online but has impact on the ground, and in the kinds of public forums where visibility makes a difference. Finally, it means availing yourself to the tools that marketers use for measuring and analyzing online activities.
Digital activism isn’t just about posting in support of a cause, or having arguments in public forums with people who hold opposing views. It is a process and one that requires ongoing, objective management. Shireen Mitchell cautions against off-the-cuff activism, and recommends a more methodical strategy. “I would say with most of the campaigns I’ve worked on it usually trying to scale from zero to 60. Activism takes time and I find that many campaigns expect an over night impact. That’s not realistic. The second is making sure we aren’t speaking to ourselves. If we are only reaching the people that already feel strongly about our campaign then we haven’t done enough. We may have to change the language a bit to resonate with diverse audiences. I find that happens when I’m talking about online violence to police versus conference organizers. They view it differently and the message has to be tweaked a bit.”
Mitchell herself has been working toward racial and gender equality in the tech and communications sectors for well over a decade. She was one of the activist voices responsible for the Online Harassment Summit that SXSW held this year after she and other digital activists were initially denied a platform by the festival and suffered online threats and abuse by Gamergate proponents. The OHS brought attention to the issue of online harassment (which disproportionately affects women and people of color online) and was mentioned by President Obama who also spoke at SXSW this year. Still, with years of activism and even some successes under her belt, Mitchell is constantly evolving her activism and remains as focused on results, viewing publicity as a means to an end.
What, exactly, can digital activism do for your cause? And what are it’s limitations? Part 3 of Digital Activism With Real Impact will discuss examples of success with digital activism, and what digital activists have to say about the benefits and liabilities of doing their work online.
Featured photo by Wade M.