Online Advocacy and Social Media: time to rethink?
This blog inaugurates a foray into somewhat new territory for GFAN; more opinion driven pieces from our staff and partners. Want to contribute or hear from us on a specific issue?
Get in touch with Quentin and tell him about it: firstname.lastname@example.org
For at least 7 years GFAN has used Twitter and to a lesser extent Facebook as a way to reach our members, amplify our members’ work, reach broader audiences and weigh in on policy and advocacy debates. This was especially true in our virtual and hybrid experience of the most recent years. These past few months have gotten us at GFAN worried about how we would continue to do that if Twitter were to go under. We seem to be hardly alone with those concerns, and it has brought us to question our relationship with Twitter and other social media platforms. Have we become too dependent on them as channels of communication, and are they taking too much space in our work? We wanted to our thoughts with you in a longer format than a handful of characters, and hopefully initiate a conversation among peers on using the Internet for advocacy.
Why Are We Here
The pandemic got us all stuck at home. Suddenly, ‘advocacy’ could not anymore mean demonstrations, sit-ins, face to face meeting with policy makers, press tours or MP field trips, because none of those were allowed, or safe. So we moved online. This is hardly news of course, we all saw it in the past few years. For us, and we believe for many in our field, it also meant a renewed interest for engagement on social media, which felt like the next best thing to connect and engage when doing so in person became impossible. Beyond COVID-19 that move was also part of a broader trend. Social media platforms offer promises that are hard to resist for advocates – a large audience, real-time metrics, direct access to decision-makers (or at least their social media officers), easy tools to coordinate engagement (#, tags, etc) – why not use them?
These platforms then create dependencies of their own. It’s easy to grow an audience on social media, because the threshold for engagement is very low on the users’ side – they merely have to click a button when they see something they like, once, and that’s a new follower for you. Once these follower numbers go up, it is only natural to start thinking of social media as a primary channel of communication – after all, the numbers tell you many more people can hear your message there, so why would you use something else? Even better, these platforms are more than happy to let you know in great detail how many people have read your posts and how they have engaged with it. How these metrics actually translate to impact is not always clear – impact is hard to measure in advocacy no matter what, so it is easy to grab onto whatever is available. Yes a lot of people saw your tweet, but how many read it, and were they the people you were targeting? Most importantly, did they “do” anything with it, did it inspire them or change their hearts and minds?
Wake Up Calls
Social media are ubiquitous, and so is criticism of them – their business models, what they do to our brains, to public discourse and democracy. We probably all have had one – or many – ‘I’m removing Instagram from my phone’ moment after watching a documentary, being called out by a love one for scrolling too much, or just going outside once and touching some grass. You might even have acted on it and sticked to your decision! GFAN’s moment of professional reckoning came with the drama surrounding the acquisition of Twitter by Elon Musk. As the concerns with the management of the platform grew, we became worried that what we had come to consider (probably erroneously, see the above paragraph) our primary platform of communication could disappear or become too toxic an environment to be used professionally.
Discussing Plan Bs and Cs among the team got us thinking about our work on social media and its value, and two specific promises it makes: access to a large potential audience, and direct access to advocacy targets.
On the potential audience: GFAN is not a public-facing network. We do not target the general public. We are not trying to trend, go viral and reach millions. Our posts and the content they promote are niche, they target other advocates, technical partners in UN agencies and NGOs, and decision makers. We hope for our posts to ultimately be of interest and use to our members and key stakeholders. We try to reach as many people as possible within these groups, but our objective is not to endlessly grow our audience. For that reasons, the promises of a gigantic potential audience on social media is only somewhat relevant to our work.
On direct access to advocacy targets: Among the people we do hope to reach are people who do not always want to hear from us – decision-makers. One of the obvious advantages of social media is the wide array of tools it puts at our disposal to contact individuals or institutions directly. Just tag them in your message and it will go straight to them – though of course, anyone of any importance at this point has one or many social media officers managing their only presence, and the platforms’ promises of direct, unfiltered communication with anyone has become hollow. The other issue of course is that these same tools are available to all. And unless you have accumulated an audience of millions, which GFAN certainly has not, you are more likely than not to become noise. Everyone and their aunt has an important message to share with their President or Prime MinisterMinister, MP and heads of major agencies. Standing out among such large crowds is hard, and falls squarely beyond our scope of work.
And with all of this in mind, we came to a few conclusions.
We have not decided – yet – to remove Twitter from our phones, but we will refocus our work around the channels we know work. For us, it is our listserv and our website. Our audiences for both are dwarfed by our follower numbers on social media, but we know that the people we want to reach, and who want to hear from us, are using them. We will be quieter on social media, and invest a bit less time in crafting the perfect posts, to give us room to improve our other channels – that are more focused, and also more resilient. As far as we know, no billionaire is putting googlegroups at risk nor is there a high-stakes takeover of WordPress.
And we hope to start working together with you, GFAN member (if you aren’t yet, just click here), to find better ways to work online – Mastodon, anyone? – and make the best of the tools at our disposal. We try to host a series of call around the topic starting January 26. It you think it might interest you, get in touch with Quentin: email@example.com