Digital channels such as social media, alternative news sources, blogging, and crowdsourcing have become critical in the fight for social justice. Campaigns that harness people power through online platforms can add pressure to decision-makers and can shift the outcome of diplomatic and political agendas.
But despite the often fraught relationship between advocates active on social media and traditional media channels, social advocates still need the reach and prestige of mainstream media to influence decision-makers.
According to Liz Miller, VP and Principal Analyst at Constellation Research in the US, “So this is perhaps one of the most critical connections that can be made — amplification. Nothing can live long in social media alone …and nothing is going to take flight in journalistic media (as opposed to nut-ball bloggers) without authenticity and authentic following.”
Miller told Which-50, “I wish the term ‘community spread’ wasn’t permanently destroyed by COVID, but that is what any social movement needs — literal spread across and beyond a single channel. It needs to grow and formulate substance and calls to action.”
She says this is what starts to happen when mainstream media latches onto a good story and starts to beat a new and synergistic drum. The key is to not ignore the momentum that was originally built on social once mainstream media picks the cause up. Create new stories, new conversations, keep moving forward.”
People also need to be mindful of how they leverage social as an advocacy platform to ensure they maintain and commit to authenticity. “What starts as an authentic conversation that moves, grows, and continues to embrace and envelop more people as it grows can oftentimes turn into something that becomes operationalised and rendered useless.
“With social advocacy, beauty is often in a moment that leads to a movement. When you try to force that moment, the movement is never given the oxygen it needs to grow.”
In recent years there have been several high-profile social advocacy campaigns, some successful and some ongoing.
The power of these platforms to hold governments accountable has been showcased for instance through the recent release of Dr Kylie Moore-Gilbert, who spent the last two years imprisoned in Iran, under false charges of espionage.
Moore-Gilbert is an Australian academic who was a lecturer at the University of Melbourne when in September 2018, while visiting Iran for a two-week workshop, she was arrested at Tehran Airport by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. With no evidence presented against her and no real free trial, she became a pawn in the game of Iran’s hostage diplomacy.
“So far as we know, it’s simply opportunistic. She was there, she was vulnerable. It’s very often the case that journalists and academic researchers are arrested and made political prisoners in this fashion, certainly because it’s felt that they have a degree of profile that will be leveraged,” says Professor Greg Barton, specialist in Global Islamic Politics at Deakin University in Melbourne and a representative from the #FreeKylie campaign.
While Moore-Gilbert herself and the Australian Government maintained the position that the claims against her were baseless, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trading (DFAT) requested that her family, friends and colleagues keep her case private, as part of their strategy of ‘Silent Diplomacy’. However, after two years of her imprisonment, with much of that time spent in solitary confinement, the story broke that Moore-Gilbert had been moved from Evin Prison to Qarchak prison, known widely to be one of the most dangerous women’s prisons in the world. Moore-Gilbert’s move appeared to be, at the time, news to DFAT and to the Australian Embassy in Tehran, suggesting their strategy was not enough to secure her safety or her freedom.
“For a long time it was not possible to talk about her case, we were told it was necessary to keep quiet and let things work out in the background. The only reason for speaking up is because it was judged on balance necessary to add some focus to her case, because that seems to make a difference.”
The #FreeKylie Campaign was launched on social media and on the web site Freekylie.net in July of this year by friends and colleagues of Moore-Gilbert, to shine a light on her case and to put pressure on the Government to use all diplomatic solutions available to bring her home. Just 4 months later, Kylie was released from prison and she has since recognised the impact of the campaign, speaking directly to her supporters on Twitter on 1 December 2020:
And finally, here is the first photo of Kylie as a free woman, taken at Doha airport soon after her release.
In the end, love was enough. She’s safe and home. Bless you all ♥️ pic.twitter.com/0XQpFDZeMt
— Free Kylie Moore-Gilbert (@FreeKylieMG) December 1, 2020
The Australian Twitter community includes highly qualified and politically engaged users including academics, politicians, journalists, and media personalities, many of whom use the platform for social advocacy and for publicly questioning mainstream media.
Denise Shrivell, Founder of MediaScope and a well-known activist, hosts a weekly live podcast on the interplay of media and politics to her audience of almost 25 thousand Twitter followers.
She says, “I often tweet that saying that ‘The only thing for evil to flourish is for good people to walk by’ and that’s really true. The Australian Twitter community does absolutely play a role in our political commentary.”
According to Shrivell, the hashtag #Auspol on Twitter has for many years been the most tweeted hashtag in the country and is one of the most active political communities in the world.
Participants within this fast-paced digital environment of political commentary around current affairs believe it helps them to hold politicians, organisations, and mainstream media to account.
“My theory as to why the community of Twitter has sort of attracted this quite large and engaged political community is because of some deficiencies we see in our mainstream media. People have gone to a place or found a community in a platform where they can talk about politics, we can learn from each other, we can talk about the news of the day,” she says.
“I use Twitter lists a lot. I’ve now curated Australian independent media, the ‘Tweeps’ that I know are trustworthy and can follow, I have a Twitter list for experts and academics and scientists, mainly Australian scientists, who are all there on Twitter and all talking about issues of the day with their lens of expertise. It also doesn’t surprise me in some ways that politicians do criticise the Twitter community because, of course, often they’re called out.”
When it comes to separating the winners and the losers, the social justice campaigns that achieve the best results and meet their objectives, often find their way into mainstream media.
“Where I think Twitter campaigns are successful is when they do jump beyond Twitter. Craig Foster is a really good example. He’s a regular on Twitter. We always support what he does. He gets a lot of traction and momentum through the issues that he speaks about through Twitter. But you then really see it come to life when it bounces off Twitter into another platform.”
Craig Foster is the former captain of the Socceroos, a media personality (SBS commentator) and a human rights activist. His activism began in 2018 when he campaigned in support of Hakeem Al-Araibi.
Hakeem Al-Araibi was a young Bahraini football player who was tortured and incarcerated in 2012 as part of the Arab Spring, for a crime he didn’t commit. In fact at the exact time of the alleged crime, he was playing a football game being broadcast on national television. He fled to Australia, and achieved refugee status. Then, in November 2018 he and his wife took a trip to Thailand for their honeymoon. Upon arrival they were both arrested on an INTERPOL Red Notice with the goal of extraditing Al-Araibi back to Bahrain, putting both himself and his wife in immediate danger.
When the story broke, Foster sprang into action and led the international campaign for Al-Araibi’s release.
Reflecting on the events from this time two years ago, Foster says, “It was so vivid and the experience was so intense over those seventy-seven days that Hakeem was incarcerated that I’m sure for the rest of my life it’ll probably feel like yesterday. It’s not the kind of thing that you forget easily. The outcome was wonderful in the end and the most pleasing thing is that Hakeem is able to move on with his life. You know, he and his beautiful wife have a young son now, who was born at the start of COVID. And so, their lives are in a great place.”
The #SaveHakeem campaign was one of the most successful of its kind in the world, despite the fact that it was Foster’s first social media campaign. Foster puts its success down to its simplicity and authenticity.
“Ultimately, it was about the position that he was in and that someone like myself and many others genuinely wanted to help him. And that’s where all great social justice or probably social media campaigns come from. That’s where the best business activism comes from. That’s where the best athlete activism comes from. It comes from a place of reality, it comes from somewhere real, it comes from the heart. And when people feel strongly enough about an issue and want to attack it almost at any cost because it’s right and it’s real, then, you know, people resonate with that.
“Social media was the difference for Hakeem. Twitter, in particular, enabled me to reach people on the other side of the world in the middle of the night who I’d never met or didn’t know who I was. That’s an extraordinary gift.”
One of the unique traits of the #SaveHakeem campaign was the use of influencers like football players, actors, and advocates who came together through social media and helped Foster to spread the word. It was through these high-profile figures who already had an active and engaged audience that the campaign reached over 30 million people and trended in 81 countries.
Commenting on the role of public figures in amplifying issues of social injustice, he says, “A good friend of mine, who I interviewed the other day, Adam Goodes, put it this way. He said with privilege, whether as an AFL player or a football player, comes responsibility. And I think that’s right. And it’s perhaps that simple.”
Al-Araibi’s ordeal was very visible, as he was able to film his experiences during his first few weeks incarcerated in Thailand. This documentation, as well as the footage captured of him in shackles in the lead up to his second court appearance, was critical in generating public support and pressure.
“That vision went around the world, It was just so immediate, it was so harmful, it was so confronting, that it was perhaps the most important moment of his entire incarceration.”
This level of visibility is not always available to campaigners of social justice. Denise Shrivell raises the ongoing campaign #Home to Bilo and the plight of refugees and asylum seekers in indefinite offshore detention as an example of an injustice that is carried out every day, hidden in plain sight.
Kokilapathmapriya Nadesalingam (Priya) and Nadesalingam Murugappan lived in Biloela, Queensland for four years raising their two Australian-born daughters. However, while their daughters are Australian-born, the parents have had their refugee claims rejected and the government is trying to deport them, despite the support of the conservative Biloela community. The family is currently in mandatory detention on Christmas Island.
The #HometoBilo organisers declined to participate in this story.
“I think that a lot of Australians have no idea that we have a family of four on Christmas Island, as an example,” says Shrivell. “I have to think that if more Australians understood that and understood the reasons that they were there, then they would be very concerned. But again, I see this roadblock of being partly our mainstream media, who doesn’t give enough weight to these kinds of issues.”
Despite the fact that not all campaigns achieve success at the speed of #SaveHakeem, Foster highlights the broader impact generated through digital channels and advises against minimising the contribution of social advocacy.
He says, “Don’t be too focused on what you might think is a successful outcome, because I can tell you now, the refugees and asylum seekers who are locked up in hotels in Australia or three hundred still offshore waiting to get on with their life after eight years, they see every voice, they see every petition, they see every tweet. For them, having another human being support them is important. And seeing that more people care is critically important to their survival every day”.
Social channels also come with some serious limitations for advocates. Rather than propagating a message and introducing the cause to a wider community, social channels are more likely to amplify an advocate’s message to like-minded information consumers.
Constellation Research’s Miller describes it as a double-edged sword.
“Social media communities can allow people already predisposed to narrow points of view and eliminating differing voices to burrow down and simply use social or digital at large as a path to justify their existing thoughts or beliefs. If I believe that the earth is flat and that everyone around me is lying to me about this whole ‘it looks like a marble’ lie, social media becomes a starting point to find other people and other web sites that can ‘prove’ me right and reaffirm that not only is everyone else wrong but that everyone else is against me because of my rightness.”
Digital has given people amazing access to a whole world of information, content, stories, truths and facts, says Miller. But she says, for some, it has sadly allowed them to affirm that facts are subjective and flexible.
“For every infographic CISA put out about how misinformation could spread — like the fallacy that pineapple is an acceptable pizza topping — there are hundreds of social posts spreading some lie or piece of disinformation about fraud and tampering. Again, it doesn’t help when the source of misinformation happens to be the President.”
And then here is the other grim reality of social media: hate speech.
“One key limitation is more of a limitation in humanity. Because this is the age of social advocacy, all of this good came with an almost equal movement of bad. Oddly enough, racists also feel frustration and anger for being asked to change, so social also allowed for that equal and opposite voice to find a home.”
Miller says social provides a platform to mount campaigns against some of the darkest issues in humanity — racism, sexism, violence, trafficking, slavery — but it also gives harbour to people who want to defend and expand those worst evils.
“It also doesn’t help when the loudest mouthpiece defending the worst of the worst is (a) the President and (b) masterful at leveraging social media as a pulpit for a specific cult of personality.”
Social media allows for all voices to find a home, she says. “The problem is that not all of those voices are for the greater social good. This is especially tricky in places like the United States where ‘freedom of speech’ protects both the wonderful and the loathsome. So platforms must decide how they will moderate and protect the open platform for advocacy.”