Video Activism (Session)

One of my side projects is creating a typology of digital activism campaigns.  This presentation presents a slice of that – three types of campaigns in which digital video plays a starring role.  I gave this presentation in Geneva on behalf of the Open Society Foundations.

Here are the videos mentioned in the presentation to illustrate each campaign type:


In-personal screening of a documentary film convinces Secretary of Defense Panetta to improve the legal process for victims of military sexual assault.

Vertical Campaign

Video by the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union shared via social media helps convince Global Fund to support harm reduction services fro drug users in Russia (sub-titled in English).

Horizontal Campaign

Decentralized peer campaign the It Gets Better Project speaks directly to gay youth convincing them not to commit suicide.

Hybrid Civil Society (Session)

In his famous article in The New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell ridiculed today’s digitally-mediated tactics as inferior to the offline, high-risk, strong-tie tactics of the Civil Rights Movement.  In one passage he writes:

Enthusiasts for social media would no doubt have us believe that King’s task in Birmingham would have been made infinitely easier had he been able to communicate with his followers through Facebook, and contented himself with tweets from a Birmingham jail.

Gladwell’s digital absolutism ignores the true hybridity of digital activism: it’s often mixed with offline tactics.   However, when he writes that “King’s task in Birmingham would have been made infinitely easier had he been able to communicate with his followers through Facebook,” he’s right.  I also think Martin Luther King, Jr. would have tweeted, though not to the exclusion of all other tactics, as Gladwell implies.  In fact, I can think of little reason why King, a great believer in the power of the public word, would not have used every tool at his disposal.

Screen Shot 2013-04-09 at 10.14.21 AM

The campaign mixed online and offline tactics created by new and historic networks.

Now, of course, we get into the realm of counterfactuals.  If only there was a major recent civil-rights case that we could somehow use to test whether civil-rights activists would use social media if they had the choice.  And there is such a case – the campaign to demand justice for Trayvon Martin.

This case, which I described this past week at a training for the YMCA national leadership symposium, shows the true hybridity of activism in the 21st century. Traditionally offline and strong-tie networks, like those used during the Civil Rights Movement, collaborate with new online and weak-tie networks, whose members are connected by Twitter, Facebook, and petitions.  The two more successful tactics of that campaign, the Million Hoodie March and a petition with 2 million signatures, were either digital or hybrid, and were created by people with weak ties (or, one could argue, no ties) to Trayvon’s family.

The reality is that both offline and online tactics are often needed to attack injustice, and the two are not so clearly demarcated as we think.  A blogger named Daniel Maree organized the Million Hoodie March in New York using an online tool (Facebook) in order to drive online action (signing a petition calling for the prosecution of Trayvon’s killer).

Trayvon’s parent and the civil-rights leaders that advised them did not initiate these digital actions, but they did adopt them.  They took over the petition (originally started by a DC lawyer) and they adopted the hoodie symbol, developed by Maree and his colleagues.  They didn’t adopt these digital tactics and symbols because they were “enthusiasts for social media.” They adopted them because they worked, because the petition had become the focal point of national outrage and the hoodie symbol had become a transcendant means of motivating and expressing solidarity.

The online-offline dichotomy presented by Gladwell was and is false.  The dichotomy of strong-tie and weak-tie is also false.  Savvy strategists will use whatever tools and tactics are available to them and mix them at will.

The full slides from my presentation are below. Continue reading

Communications Strategy (Multi-Day)

The staff really enjoyed working with Mary.  Everything was very easy but also very productive.
– Sergey Votyegov, Executive Director, EHRN

I’m proud of all my work, but I’m particularly proud of this two-day communications workshop I facilitated in Lithuania earlier this month.  The workshop was for Eurasian Harm Reduction Network (EHRN), which advocates for the the human rights of drug users.  They were a great group to work with and we accomplished a lot in two days identifying and evaluating their key goals, audiences, and communications products.

Staff evaluate the strategic value of their current communication products in an interactive exercise.

Press Outreach for Activists (Session)

Last weekend I conducted a training on Press Outreach and an introduction to the Principles of Advocacy at the annual conference of Universities Allied for Essential Medicines (UAEM) an international student organization dedicated to ensuring that medical innovations developed in university labs are accessible to patients in developing countries.

UAEM Coordinating Committee members pose for a picture with keynote speaker Unni Karunakara, International President of Doctors Without Borders.

Doing my press outreach session in the glorious California Sunshine (the conference was at the University of Irvine).

Parsons Fellow Jen Matsumoto presents the campaign website she designed.

Students participate in a “spectrogram” activity at the beginning of the advocacy session. They were smart, committed, and global – a really special group.


Digital Activism Strategy (Multi-Day)

Here are some photos from a media advocacy training I led in Macedonia a couple of weeks ago for NGOs that defend Roma health rights.  The training was funded by the Open Society Foundations.  The agenda here (.doc format).

Describing the importance of influence in identifying useful allies: both the activist’s influence on the ally and the ally’s influence on the persuasion target are important.

Developing an advocacy plan by filling in tasks beneath supporting goals.

Interviewing local new media entrepreneur and blogger Darko Buldioski. I like to bring in local expertise whenever possible.

This is a media choice diagram I use frequently in trainings. The example on this one shows an analysis of media options for reaching young Roma women who need information on prenatal health.

Taking advantage of the sunshine while doing a group exercise on audience motivation. What principles and interests might motivate a government minister to be more receptive to Roma concerns?

Oslo: Training of Trainers for Minority Women

Training Material Links

Slide Presentations


  • Participants’ Workshop Agenda (PDF, DOC)
  • Annotated Workshop Agenda (DOC)
  • Worksheet: Guide to the Best Digital Activism Tools (PDF, DOC)
  • Worksheet: Basic Digital Activism Strategic Planning Guide (PDF, DOC)
  • Evaluation Sheet (PDF)


Oslo Training: Digital Activism Full-Day Workshop

Today I gave a full-day digital activism workshop to a group of activists from immigrant groups around Norway.

full group shot at the end of the day

It began with a basic introduction to digital activism and tools:

and then moved on to strategic principles:

The final activity had participants create basic digital activism strategies related to causes they care about:

participants design a strategy to attack corruption in Nigeria

participants design a strategy to attack corruption in Nigeria

My materials are below and free for download (they’re under a Creative Commons license).

  • Workshop Agenda (PDF)
  • Quicksheet: Guide to the Best Digital Activism Tools (PDF)
  • Worksheet: Basic Digital Activism Strategic Plan (PDF)
  • Digital Activism Strategy (Multi-Day)

    Today I gave a full-day digital activism workshop to a group of activists from immigrant groups around Norway.

    full group shot at the end of the day

    It began with a basic introduction to digital activism and tools:

    and then moved on to strategic principles:

    The final activity had participants create basic digital activism strategies related to causes they care about:

    participants design a strategy to attack corruption in Nigeria

    participants design a strategy to attack corruption in Nigeria

    My materials are below and free for download (they’re under a Creative Commons license).

    The Capoeira Strategy

    Capoeira is a dance style developed by Brazil’s enslaved Africans in the 17th century. Its graceful flips, spins, and sweeping kicks (video) mask its true purpose as a means for the enslaved to practice their fighting skills: capoeria is a war dance. While capoeria was eventually illegalized, the dance style served to fool the slave owner class. The word “capoeria” itself is mocking. It means “check coop” in Portuguese and was likely coined by slave owners who thought their slaves looked like flapping chickens as they practiced their martial dance form. This term further camouflaged the very serious goals of capoeira. The non-threatening perception protected the development of capoeira, which is practiced to this day.

    Capoeira is an interesting model for digital activism training in repressive regimes today. Teach the people the skills of digital activism – documentation, publication, coordination – but teach it in a non-political context. Teach teenagers how to make photoblogs about their friends, how to organize school projects using listservs. Teach adults how to create Facebook pages to promote a business. You will have a digital army in waiting.

    This strategy builds off the the usually apolitical nature of the web. Evgeny Morozov calls it cyber-hedonism. Ethan Zuckerman refers to it in his cute cat theory. In Evgeny’s view, the leisure activities available on the Internet crowd out more serious political activities. According to Ethan, entertainment portals like YouTube provide a space for activists to work where no explicitly political portals are allowed.

    But it is not a zero sum game. Ordinary citizens who use digital technology for entertainment and social purposes can use those skills for political purposes once in their lives and can have great impact. I am thinking of People Power II, the mass demonstration coordinated through mobile phones, that ousted Filipino President Joseph Estrada in 2001 and how ordinary people used text messaging to counter the ruling party’s propaganda before the 2004 elections in Spain (the opposition won). I doubt Filipino or Spanish mobile phone users are very political as a group. They usually use text messaging to communicate with friends or to play games. But they had the skills. When they were compelled by a political issue, they knew they could use their phones to mobilize their friends to action. Our goal should not be to train digital activists, which is incredibly dangerous in repressive regimes, but simply for all citizens to have digital skills that can be used for political purposes when needed.

    Though there is funding and interest, I do not recommending that the US government take on this task. Our foreign policy of supporting dictators over the years has both caused us to lose credibility with serious activists and to endanger those activists through association. Rather, I propose a capoeira strategy for the dissemination of these skills as well: in the shadows, by neighbors and local organizations, by bloggers visiting middle schools. This low-cost grassroots strategy not only permits the scale necessary to truly disseminate these skills globally, but also facilitates the creation of local networks and experts that are legitimately independent and autonomous.

    Image: irene nobrega/Flickr

    Please Avoid Best Practices

    Sometimes best practices are a great idea – for example, in surgery. If someone figures out an effective way to remove an appendix or perform a coronary bypass, then other doctors should copy that technique. Anatomical differences between patients are minimal and the set of cutting, probing, and cauterizing tools available to surgeons are fairly uniform. Though there may be great breakthroughs in surgical practice – laparoscopy, for example – they come about rarely enough for a given best practice to hold its value for years, if not decades.

    Digital activism is not surgery – far from it. And, counter-intuitive though it may seem, following best practices in digital activism is a very bad idea. Here is why: if a practice worked before it will either be easy to reproduce – meaning that many activists will reproduce it, eliminating the tactic’s competitive advantage – or it will be too difficult to reproduce – meaning that other activists will be unable to reproduce it even if they want to. This, of course, assumes that the best practice is still relevant which, in digital activism, is unlikely because the value of social media applications and devices changes so quickly.

    Let’s look at each shortcoming of digital activism best practice individually. It will be depressing, but there is a happy ending.

    Best Practice Problem 1 – Too Easy: Perversely, the best reason not to reproduce a best practice is because it is easy to do so. If anyone can create a Facebook page (or Cause) or a Twitter feed or an email list then everyone will. If you get one request a month to join an activism-related group on Facebook you may do so, because the novelty is attractive and you believe it may be an effective way to do good. However, when you start getting requests every day the novelty fades, and when you realize that the anti-domestic violence and pro-green energy groups you joined don’t actually seem to be making headway on either issue, your belief in the effectiveness of Facebook activism also fades. (This is not to say that Facebook activism really is useless, but rather that what is best – what is effective – has shifted to a new practice.) This is also why you ignore email newsletters from NGOs and are totally overwhelmed by Twitter feeds. It is easy to do so everyone does it and the practice ceases to have competitive advantage – to set one cause apart from others as being worthy of attention and support. Continue reading

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