Using Social Networking for Innovative Advocacy

Conversation Details

Dates of conversation: 
Monday, May 23, 2016 to Wednesday, May 25, 2016
Conversation type: 
Type of tactical goal: 

Summary Available:

Social networking tools have revolutionized the way that social movements and human rights advocates operate. In a world where the public creates the news in real time and information is readily available in a moment’s notice, the process of communication and dissemination has been largely democratized. Individuals can magnify their voice, not only through information consumption and generation, but through active engagement and organizing.  For example, activists of the 2014 Umbrella Revolution in Hong Kong used a mesh networking tool, traditionally used at music festivals, to communicate.

In this conversation, we sought to highlight innovative new social media tools and campaigns, as well as explore how to use “traditional” social media outlets (i.e. Twitter, Facebook) in innovative ways. 

Use of “Mainstream” Social Networking Tools

“Mainstream” social networking tools, like Facebook and Twitter, allow groups with no official affiliation to quickly rally together. They allow ordinary people to connect and build power through information sharing, because they are enough people using the platform present at the each potential human rights movement. One revolutionary attempt is the use of Twitter in the Arab Spring. Another global attempt is the use of Facebook and WhatsApp in Malaysia to gather a global protest rally against election malpractices by the ruling national front. However, the spotty privacy records have also been used by authoritarian regimes to identify and crackdown on dissidents – a possible backfire of using social media. A possible solution is to eschew the mainstream platforms and use for example, Telegram, to connect (more examples will be discussed in the next session), but it needs to make sure that those decisions are guided by the communities they are intended to benefit.

Activists can also use their own social media to advocate their human rights advocacy campaigns and promote counternarratives to counter establishment accounts in the press. Many of the most powerful social media moments of year 2015, including #BlackLivesMatter, #SayHerName, #IllRideWithYou, #IfTheyGunnedMeDown, #OscarsSoWhite, etc., gave voice to a population or perspective that was not playing in the mainstream media. However, most of the social media moments mentioned above were facilitated by grassroots movement instead of established advocacy group. A comment is that people should be careful about what they “build” because they are not stable “structures,” and they are “land” you can never own.

Except the solely use of social networking tools online, a collective force sometimes play an even stronger role when the social media can be used to amplify the effect of on-the-ground tactical actions, such as protest, hunger strike, etc.. An example of a successful use of social networking is the resignation of San Francisco’s Chief of Police following a 17-day hunger strike by five activists. Along with the hunger strike, there was a huge amount of organizing that happened on Facebook including inviting family, friends, activists and community members to the Facebook groups for each of the slain men. It highlights the connection between on-the-ground tactical actions and their use of social media to amplify to those.

On the other hand, organizations can also help to amplify and support the voices on the online platforms. They have a responsibility to listen deeply, continuously and broadly to supporters. Human rights community also often has a perspective on how technology can have negative impacts on marginalized population, which also needs more attention to mitigate.

Use of Non-Traditional, Emerging, or Unique Social Networking Tools

Emerging social networking tools involving The Groundwork, Hustle, etc. consist a new generation of tools that recognizes that power doesn’t come just from having a lot of people on the email list or liking one’s Facebook page, but from having deep relationships with supporters who are willing to take action on behalf beyond clicktivism. Human rights advocacy groups are building power to expose abuses, free prisoners or reform an oppressive regime. It is critical to provide ordinary people on-the-ground information, observation, video documentation, etc.. An outstanding example is an organization United for Iran, which have done tremendous work built upon the contributions of highly committed supporters.

SMS is a fast emerging tool in the field of human right campaign, which is very powerful because it does not require a download. For example, Amnesty International-Netherlands recognized the power of text-messaging technology to attract new members, build awareness of the campaign against torture and engage youth in quickly responding to cases of torture through Urgent Action appeals. Greenpeace launched “Zero Waste” SMS text message campaign in Argentina to shape waste management policy. Fahamu used SMS test messaging in a Pan-African campaign to mobilize public support. Another example is the use of FireChat, an original app built for music festivals, which operates through the use of “mesh networking”. It allows users to converse within one another without access to a traditional data network or Wifi. At the same time, It has been realized that its users were unauthenticated, which left Firechat users wide open to potential monitoring and manipulation by Chinese authorities. Some encrypted messaging platform, including TextSecure, Threema, and Cyphr, are developed in response to that. A more advanced tool, frontline SMS, was first used in election monitoring in Nigeria and Kenya and has been used in a wide variety of areas including environmental conservation, health, and human rights, etc.. In the other hand, technologies may translate across contexts. For example, Hustle would be incredibly powerful in places where SMS is really dominant, but less so in other areas.

Opt-in feature, which provides for direct engagement and allows people to make themselves known to others in the social network, can play an active role in people joining a demonstration, hosting an event and giving money. Crowed Source data collection provides a way for people to share, collect, aggregate and analyze information in order to make a problem visible and hold those responsible accountable. A challenge posted, therefore, is whether those functions can be available in one app.

Another emerging field is the use of Apps and Cloud storage. Most of them are used to document interactions with law enforcement. Some of the examples are talked about. “Hands Up 4 Justice” allows people to discreetly record interactions with police officers during traffic stops, etc.. “I’m Getting Arrested” inspired by Occupy Wall Street movement, sends texts to emergency contacts that one’s preprogrammed into the phone. A similar App developed for Egyptians called Beyt2ebed 3alia, which works on Android and Blackberry phones, also sends emergency texts to parents/lawyers and friends to inform them about the arrest place. The SWAT App captures video and live-streams it to friends nearby as well as automats the police complaints process. “Five-O” created by three teenagers, allows citizens to record and store data from every encounter with law enforcement and allows the community to rate individual officers and police departments as a whole.

Other Examples Shared:


Pink Chaddi campaign

Non-Traditional Tools



The GroundWork

Eight other technologies link

Byt2ebed 3alia

Hands Up 4 Justice

I’m Getting Arrested

The SWAT App






Serval Mesh


Great/innovative social media campaigns

Edgy Tech Conference

Civil Tech Conference

Progress Tech for Advocacy

Nonprofit Software Developer's Summit



Conversation Leaders

julienburns's picture
Julien Daniel Burns
Fission Strategy
adrielhampton's picture
Adriel Hampton
The Adriel Hampton Group Ltd.
rachelweidinger's picture
Rachel Weidinger
Derecho Lab
Discussion topic Replies Last postsort ascending
Normal topic Use of “Mainstream” Social Networking Tools 12
by npearson
Wed, 05/25/2016 - 5:01pm
Hot topic Use of Non-Traditional, Emerging, or Unique Social Networking Tools 15
by npearson
Thu, 05/26/2016 - 9:08am
Normal topic Open Forum 3
by rachelweidinger
Wed, 05/25/2016 - 6:38pm