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Feb. 13 2014 11:04 AM

The Limits of Hashtag Activism

Activists attend Invisible Children's Rescue Rally at Santa Monica City Hall on April 25, 2009, in Santa Monica, Calif.

Photo by Todd Williamson/Getty Images

The massive attention grabbing success of the Kony 2012 campaign, despite all the very legitimate criticism lobbed at it, seemed to many to be an encouraging sign of how a relatively small organization could use social media to educate the public about a serious issue in a faraway country. At a minimum, far more Americans now know the name Joseph Kony than did before March 2012.

Joshua Keating Joshua Keating

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and writes the World blog. 

But is it actually any easier to gain attention for humanitarian issues through social media than it is through traditional media? Trevor Thrall, Dominik Stecula, and Diana Sweet argue that it isn’t in a recent article for theInternational Journal of Press/Politics:   

Although digital technologies and the web have dramatically reduced the costs of distributing information, they have done less to reduce the costs of producing information that people want to consume or marketing that information to the public. Digital video cameras are cheaper, for example, but people skilled in making movies and telling good stories are not. Moreover, NGOs are not the only beneficiaries of the falling costs of communication. Thus, NGOs communication efforts must also compete with a rapidly increasing amount of communications and information from all kinds of other sources.
The results of competition for attention in the online environment, studies have shown, is that web site and blog traffic, YouTube vide views, Facebook likes, and Twitter followership are all heavily skewed toward a relatively small number of popular people, organizations, or outlets both generally and with respect to any given subset of people or topics.

The paper contains a number of interesting findings from a survey of traditional and social media attention given to 257 human rights NGOs between 2010 and 2012. For instance, just three NGOs—Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and Oxfam—accounted for 50 percent of the news appearances. Meanwhile, “Of the 65 NGOs in the lowest quartile of news attention, just two had above average social media visibility. (Earth Justice and International Women).”

The researchers found that, “There is a threshold budget of about $10 million per year before NGOs start getting any real traction in the attention-getting game in either news or the social media.”

As for Twitter’s role as a tool to get the word out, “NGOs appeared in just 2% of the news stories on the 15 topics most frequently tweeted about by their organizations, suggesting that Twitter’s ability to help NGOs break in to the traditional news media is quite limited.” 

Even Kony 2012, perhaps the most successful NGO social media campaign in history, resulted in more coverage for the Lord’s Resistance Army for only about a month before things reverted to the mean.

I’d be curious to see if the advent of social media-with-a-purpose sites like Upworthy have had an impact on this, but given that I haven’t seen too many stories about the Central African Republic or South Sudan going superviral in recent weeks, I’d say that it’s probably as hard as it’s ever been to get attention for depressing situations in faraway places in a very crowded news cycle.

Via Marc Lynch

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and writes the World blog. 


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