Internet, visibility and empathy: social activism in a 2.0 scenario

Last week I attended in Madrid the conference “Internet and 21st Social Revolutions”, organized by AERCO and Obra Social Caja Madrid and held at La Casa Encendida in Madrid. During the conference we learned about the role Internet is playing in the revolutions in Arab Countries and North Africa, the current state of cyber-activism and some pretty useful tools to help defend social causes. I learned some very interesting things that I believe are worth sharing.

Social activism has always had to deal with two issues: accessing the information to make it available to everyone and triggering people to act. In the new scenario, social activism has found a tool that helps solve both: web 2.0 is full of options to develop social campaigns and fight for human rights.

On one hand, Internet has proven itself to be the perfect tool for sharing information. With the example of Wikileaks as an ideal case, we have seen how, thanks to blogs and social media, traditional statements have lost the power to decide what is news and what remains out of the public eye. In the new scenario it is not an editor (or the pressure lobbies behind the editor) who makes this choice. The decision remains in hands of Internet users who decide what is interesting to them and their contacts by using bookmark services like Delicious or just sharing a link on Facebook or Twitter. Users have the power to decide which person or company is a reliable source of information by following them through social media. Even search engines such as Google or Bing are integrating this information from social media to categorize relevant contents. The times when economic and political interests were able to hide and manipulate the truth will soon be over, since there is no marketing campaign able to confront the power of Internet users (a.k.a. citizens).

On the other hand, web 2.0 can help give social causes more visibility by improving engagement with people. When we read in the newspaper the number of people who died in the Tahir square protests or how may bloggers has the Government of Bahrain imprisoned, we are reading nothing more than numbers. By using blogs and social media, new campaigns can easily and effectively personify a cause, giving it a face and a story that will help generate the public empathy needed to trigger a social reaction. A good example of this idea is the campaign created to request the liberation of bloggers imprisoned by the Bahrain Government in September 2010, which was personalized in the figure of Ali Abduleman. It wasn’t “bloggers” anymore, but a man with a family suffering from this human rights abuse.

Images, therefore, become crucial for social activism campaigns. Google, YouTube, Flickr and Facebook are really useful tools to share these images and to open the eyes of the world to human rights violations, as the NGO Witness writes. But there are still many problems. Due to the fact that these platforms are run by private companies seeking economic benefits, they remove contents flagged by other users as shocking or disgusting, or contents that political and financial lobbies dislike. In some cases, governments can request different companies (Google, Twitter, Facebook…) to remove contents or even deliver users’ personal information, as seen with the case of Birgitta Jónsdóttir, Member of Parliament for the Movement in Iceland about whom the US Government requested information from Twitter. Just a quick look at the Google Transparency Report gives us a fair idea of the importance of these issues.

There are also privacy issues related to the visibility and personification of the causes: people may not want to appear online. And there are good reasons for this: some regimes have used images from the protests to identify people involved in revolutions, and thanks to personal data shared in blogs and social media they have been able to track down names and contact networks. In order to get over these issues there are some non-profit organizations training individuals to use video tools and web publishing in order to ensure that human rights violations contents stay online. A good initiative is the video application for smart-phones that Witness is developing, using face recognition to take videos automatically blocking the faces of the people appearing, protecting their identities.

Last but not least, visibility is not only a matter of videos and pictures. There are other tools in the Internet that can help activists share information and make the causes more visible. Here are some interesting examples:

  • Bookmark services, such as Delicious, can be used to organize and provide access to all the information available on the Internet about any specific issue.
  • Posterous is one example of free blog platforms that allows users to post in their blogs and many other services (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube, Vimeo…) at the same time, just by sending an email, including videos, images or any kind of documents as attachment files. This way, with just sending the email we can make sure the content will be published even if some of the services aren’t working at the moment (or are blocked by the Government).
  • Global Voices is a community seeking to build a global anti-censorship network of bloggers and online activists dedicated to protecting freedom of expression and free access to information online. Freedom of speech is at the base of the community, which also translates to English contents submitted by bloggers. Points of view that won’t be published in the mainstream media find their way to big and global audiences through projects like this.
  • Ushahidi is a platform to create maps allowing users to send reports of what they are seeing, and the system automatically ads information to the map. The platform has also developed Crowdmap as a free way to setup the platform in a matter of minutes without any technological knowledge., explains on its about page that the power of this tool remains in the fact that ordinary people have a voice, and interesting things happen when you aggregate those voices and visualize the results. Surprising information and insights can be found. Ushahidi becomes especially useful when mapping crises or monitoring elections, giving citizens complete control over the information.

Overall, what I learned from the conference is that Internet is really playing a big role in the changes happening now. As it does in most of our everyday tasks: Internet has changed the way we communicate and most aspects of human relationships. But I believe web 2.0 is going to play even a bigger role in the next years in the field of politics: it has made transparency and honesty basic values for any communication; and it has become the place were we meet, talk and share information or opinions, which means it is where we go to know what decisions to make. Private corporations have realized this already and are turning their strategies to web 2.0, not only as a tool for communication campaigns but to know what consumers think about their products and what they expect from them, to be closer and become better. Worldwide politics won’t be able to dodge nor deny these changes for much longer.

If you want more information the videos of the conference are available here.

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