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Info-activism: using technology to force social change

Andrew Hickman

19th January, 2010

A must-see documentary explores how campaigners are successfully using new technologies and tactics to change the status quo

The information age brings with it the power for us all to make change

What do local government corruption in India, bloated EU farm subsidies and police backhanders in Morocco have in common?

They have all been targeted by a new generation of info-activists - campaigners who are using new technologies to force social change.

Their stories are told by 10 tactics - a documentary produced by the Tactical Technology Collective (www.tacticaltech.org), so far screened in 16 countries.

Stephanie Hankey, co-founder of Tactical Tech, explained the rationale behind the film:

‘Technology and social media platforms have revolutionised the way we communicate and campaign on global and local issues. We have seen examples of the power of social media to shine a spotlight on oppression and hold governments to account, notably in Iran and Burma.'

But with powerful new media, come risks and responsibilities.

‘Technology and social media can also, however, carry huge risks for individuals in terms of security and visibility.'

With its practical tips and compelling stories, 10 Tactics is a must-see for anyone serious about affecting change in the information age.

And here is some of the advice that forms those indispensable 10 tactics...

1) Mobilise people:

Facebook and other social networks have become an essential tool for info-activists to gather support.

Facebook was instrumental in the pink chaddis or ‘pink panties' campaign in India which involved women's advocates asking supporters to send pink chaddis to members of a right wing group responsible for attacks on women seen drinking in pubs.

Three days after the campaign's launch, it had 16,000 followers on Facebook and just a few months later 50,000 were supporting the campaign.

The campaign drew intense media interest and, according to Nhamita Malhotra of India's Alternative Law Forum, allowed for ‘a conversation between ordinary people and the Hindu right'.

2) Witness and record:

Smaller and cheaper recording devices mean that it's not only a select few who get to tell stories. Everyone has the potential to broadcast what they see.

Witness, record, broadcast and expose was the tactic used by the ‘Targuist Sniper' who filmed police officers in Morocco taking bribes from motorists.

The videos, seen by hundreds of thousands of users on facebook, led the government to arrest the corrupt agents and adopt the same methods in controlling police activity.

In a different context, videos shot by info activists were important in recording events during the ‘saffron revolution' in Burma, when thousands of Buddhist monks rallied against the country's military dictatorship.

As Sam Gregory of NGO Witness warns: ‘In a digital era you can't assume that once a piece of footage is out there, it won't be copied, placed on You Tube and seen by the perpetrator or whoever is responsible for the event.'

3) Visualize your message

Animation can be an ideal way of visualizing a message, especially when confronted with language or literacy barriers or when the issue concerned is politically sensitive.

350.org created an animated video about climate change, which was viewed 100,000 times on You Tube. Using no words and strong visuals, people from across the world could access the film.

Another innovative way to visualise a message was that of Tunisian info-activists who created a Google Earth style 3D map and plotted human rights videos in the same location as the Presidential Palace.

It overcame the government ban on websites YouTube and Daily Motion which had been used to broadcast videos that implicated the government in human rights abuses.

4) Amplify personal stories

The ‘We the Women' campaign in Saudi Arabia asked women to fill in stickers answering the question: ‘to drive or not to drive?'

Participants posted their stickers in public places and photographed them for the flickr photo-sharing site.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo a grassroots video was made to show the experiences of child soldiers and their families. It was aired across Eastern Congo and started a debate within communities about the use of children in conflict.

Spurred on by their successes, info activists made a further video to be broadcast in the International Criminal Court, giving voice to hundreds of previously unheard child soldiers.

5) Just add humour

A laugh goes a long way in the world of info-activism.

The Belarussian President Victor Luschenko must have wished he had never criticised the internet when info-activists created a clone of You Tube called LuTube which satirised the President and his views.

The campaign showed how humour could be used to hold people in power to account and attract a wide audience.

Similarly, 10 Tactics tells the story of sex workers in Thailand who used comical karaokee videos to show how the law discriminated against them. Videos were aired across the country and led to their appearance at an international AIDS awareness conference.

6) Manage your contacts

Kleerkut was a campaign by Greenpeace to end the use of virgin wood fibre in the products of American company Kimberly Clark.

Using CiviCRM software, Greenpeace collected the contact details of people who visited the Kleercut website and then sent them campaign email alerts once or twice a month.

Central to the campaign's success was the software's ability to give people tools to self-organise:

‘Instead of five campaigners, we had 10,000 people able to do things in the physical world because of the tools we made available,' said Greenpeace campaigner Richard Brooks.

7) How to use complex data

The organisation FarmSubsidy.org used Freedom of Information requests to obtain data on the recipients of EU farm subsidies.

The challenge was how to make the huge amount of data accessible to viewers. Plotting the data on Google Maps allowed people to see what subsidies were going where.

The organisation also created tables to show the largest recipients across Europe and within the different countries.

In Britain, the revelation that sugar giant Tate and Lyle was being paid 135 million euros of public money each year was widely covered in the media, and led to further interest in the farm subsidy website.

8) Use collective intelligence

'Swarming' is the real time collaboration of a large number of people using online platforms such as Twitter.

10 Tactics shows how, during the Mumbai terror attacks, people on the ground used Twitter to give each other an idea of what was going on.

Added to the reporting of mainstream media, it allowed for a much clearer picture of what was happening and helped rescue services get to people who were in need.

Similarly, a program called Frontline SMS was used during violence by the military and police in Madagascar. People sent messages to the Foko website detailing reports of violence, which were then checked for accuracy by a team of bloggers before being published on an online map.

9) People ask the questions

The Social Development Network in East Africa found that citizens were unable to get information about development projects in their area.

So they designed a system, using Infonet's Budget Tracking platform, which allows citizens to send text messages to get information on government funding for projects.

The technology also allows users to leave comments on each project or connect with a local social development group that can help them query the allocation and use of public funds.

So far, 36,000 development projects have been listed, and in its first month 25,000 people used the tool on their mobile phones.

10) Investigate and expose

One of the most memorable examples of info-activism told by 10 Tactics is that of Tunisian bloggers who discovered the presidential plane was being used for the first lady's European shopping trips.

Images of the aircraft on plane spotting websites were combined with a visualization using Google Earth to show the unusually busy schedule of the presidential plane.

The video released on YouTube led to further investigation by the mainstream media, revealing the extent of misuse of the plane. The government responded by banning YouTube and Daily Motion, but it was too late. Everyone was talking about the First Lady's trips to Paris, Milan and Geneva.

_____________________________________________________________________

Tactical Tech is an international NGO helping human rights advocates use information, communications and digital technologies to maximise the impact of their advocacy work.

The DVD of 10 Tactics can be ordered at www.informationactivism.org

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