Using text-messaging to build constituencies for human rights action


Tactical Aim: 
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Amnesty International--The Netherlands uses text messaging technology to attract new members, especially young people, to the organization, to build awareness of Amnesty's Campaign Against Torture and to encourage members to respond quickly to Urgent Action appeals. This tactic to use a technology that appealed to young people built a new constituency for promoting human rights and a means for taking fast action. 

Amnesty International developed this tactic in 2001 as part of the organization's Campaign Against Torture. When immediate action was required to protect someone from torture, the Dutch Amnesty International office sent a text message to the mobile phones of thousands of participants. These participants, who had signed up for a voluntary and free subscription to the Amnesty SMS (text messaging) campaign network, could respond to the appeal. Within hours, Amnesty could collect thousands of protest “signatures” against a case or threat of torture. The organization could then forward this data by fax or email to the authorities, making them aware of the public opinion.

Amnesty International--The Netherlands and a Tunisian man who had been saved through an Urgent Action appeal introduced this tactic on the most popular Dutch Saturday night television program, which reaches 2.5 million people. Viewers learned that they could take part in an Urgent Action to save someone from torture with just a short text message. The Urgent Action message sent to Amnesty supporters details the emergency situation in 160 characters or less. Recipients who wish to support the cause respond "JA" (YES) to the phone number 4777. One minute later, participants receive another text message to thank them and to tell them how many other people have participated in the Urgent Action. Later, a text message is sent to inform participants of the campaign's result, such as the release of a prisoner from custody.

Although Amnesty International rarely claims direct responsibility for improvements in the situation of people featured in Urgent Action cases, about one-third of the cases have had successful outcomes: death sentences have been commuted, “disappeared” people have reappeared and the whereabouts of detained persons have been announced. The chances of torture have therefore been reduced, and the likelihood of seriously ill prisoners receiving medical attention has improved.

In addition, more than 500 new members have joined Amnesty International's Urgent Action network as a direct result of the text-messaging recruitment and over 5,000 more have responded to urgent action appeals sent through text messaging.

For more information on this tactic, read our in-depth case study.

New Tactics in Human Rights does not advocate for or endorse specific tactics, policies or issues.

What we can learn from this tactic: 

Modern technology can be used to create awareness about human rights and recruit large numbers of people, especially youth, to be involved in human rights campaigns. Youth are frequent users of cell phones and the internet, so these technologies are good ways to reach them. While the ease of participating in human rights campaigns via new technology can lead to so-called "slack-tivism," tactics such as this one used by Amnesty International-The Netherlands are useful because of their broad reach. By contacting thousands of people, the organization is able to find those who are truly interested in human rights activism who otherwise might not have gotten involved. Youth members are particularly important in this effort because they will add to the campaigning power of the organization now and in the future.

Text-messaging or other technology based tactics also allow activists to reach a large number of people in a short period of time. In some cases, such as Amnesty International's Urgent Action appeals, the long-term committment of respondents is welcome, but the short-term engagement of many is the immediate concern. Organizations that wish to demonstrate a large quantity of support for a certain issue or movement can use this type of tactic and perhaps gain some new members in the process.