A look at recent, digitally empowered campaigns whose challenges and successes provide guidelines for making change
Social movements are not novel phenomena. One need only consider the Ozone Protection campaign, which played a pivotal role in catalyzing the development of an international treaty designed to protect the ozone layer in the late 1980s, to acknowledge the positive impact collective action can have.
What the early days of the Ozone Protection campaign lacked was the digital tools that today’s social campaigns often attempt to leverage to generate change. While the proliferation of these tools has allowed campaign organizers to gain attention and support at rates previously unimaginable, it is equally as true that these same tools expose campaigns to challenges and obstacles at a novel scale.
A recently published report was the result of a study of what motivates citizens to act and participate in social campaigns and, perhaps most importantly, what encourages their continued participation. The report details a series of recommendations for campaign organizers and activists on how to best achieve impact and longevity, two aspects of social campaigns that are often at odds with one another.
In total, our group of researchers from the University of Toronto’s Munk School, with the guidance of Canada’s Ambassador to Venezuela Ben Roswell, examined 11 citizen or civil society-led social campaigns that use (or used) digital tools and have a substantial international component or are maintained by a diaspora community.
Six of the campaigns and their key lessons can be found below — insights from which may have implications for other groups around the world, and for social movements in the future.
I Paid a Bribe, India: Leverage a reporting platform
Originally launched in 2008, ‘I Paid a Bribe’ was created by the Indian non-profit organization Janaagraha, whose mission is improving the quality of citizenship, services and infrastructure in India.
With the use of a highly effective data visualization platform, I Paid a Bribe leverages user submissions of bribery requests to raise public awareness of corruption in India, and to provide citizens, policy officials and change-makers with means to track corruption across geographic regions and bureaucratic sectors. The information is vital: it pressures public officials to make procedural changes to mitigate corruption, while also informing citizens on how to recognize and avoid bribe-paying situations.
Results from I Paid a Bribe have been very positive. With over 40,000 reports in 889 cities in India (and counting), the campaign has succeeded in mapping bribe requests (and honest officers) in various regional districts, raising awareness of the overall state of corruption. The campaign’s Bribe Hotline has helped citizens become informed of their right to refuse bribery payments, while their process review initiatives have taken positive steps towards institutional and procedural changes in multiple government offices.
I Paid a Bribe’s success comes partially from providing direct action tools with their innovative platform, as well as from their clear organizational structure. The initiative is operated by the Janaagraha organization, which employs a full-time staff for website maintenance, content creation, verification, policy advocacy, and overall strategic direction. The centralized structure of the organization provides strong foundational support for the campaign’s online bribe reporting platform, the source of I Paid a Bribe’s true success. With the platform, the campaign leverages a highly decentralized citizen base for its reporting mechanisms, leading to a highly distributed impact structure.
The Umbrella Movement, Hong Kong: Safeguard your activists
Two years after a University of Hong Kong law professor published the article “The Most Destructive Weapon of Civil Disobedience,” photos of Hong Kong’s massive campaign for universal suffrage were at the forefront of global media. Dubbed the “Umbrella Movement” for their use of yellow umbrellas, activists gathered to protest the lack of universal suffrage within the electoral reform process for the 2017 Hong Kong Chief Executive election and the 2020 Legislative Council election. Not satisfied with the decision by China’s national legislature to impose institutional safeguards ensuring Hong Kong’s Chief Executive shall be a person who “loves the country,” a coalition of student groups and activists merged to begin occupying public areas as the Umbrella Movement. Occupations lasted from September 26 to December 15, 2014, with future steps created to coincide with political reform decisions in July 2015.
Beginning as a vertically structured citizen campaign, the Umbrella Movement was able to create a movement manifesto defining specific goals and requirements for campaign participants. This provided structure to the movement, with a common direction between the various internal student groups. The movement began decentralizing when attention increasingly shifted towards the mass participants in the streets. Overall, this strategy of central leadership with diffused support was influential. The movement suffered certain threats in the ways of digital phising and Internet surveillance tactics used by the state. Despite the use of peer-to-peer chat services, many participants were registered as activists due to mobile network activity and even refused access into Mainland China after the protests. The case underlines the importance for citizen campaign leaders to identify digital risks within their political environment, and operate with safer strategies or more secure tools.
The People’s Climate March, International: Build coalitions
The People’s Climate March (PCM) was a massive globally coordinated event to advocate for action for climate change on September 21, 2014. With an estimated 310,000 people taking to the streets of New York City, and an additional 2,646 subsequent events occurring around the world, the PCM became the largest climate march in history. Held just prior to the United Nations Climate Summit, the march utilized multiple social media platforms to mobilize participants within New York, and advocate for global climate change solidarity.
Outside of their ambition for becoming the world’s largest climate march, PCM did not have specifically defined or structured goals. While certainly showing widespread popular support, the campaign failed to properly wield such support into direct action in the form of specific policy change or institutional reform. However, PCM succeeded in utilizing digital tools and tactics to ensure that their central message was not lost amidst the massive social media frenzy. Tools like Thunderclap were used to amplify PCM related tweets, while tools like Tint allowed organizers to aggregate tweets for their central website. PCM also showed success in coordinating a massive coalition of 1,574 organizations for the March, requiring intensive logistical planning and preparations. By forming a coalition, PCM was able to build strength in numbers, mobilize resources, and enhance legitimacy. The march did succeed in generating significant attention from mainstream media outlets and major political figures like President Barack Obama.
Movimiento 15, Spain: Leaderless is OK
Movimiento 15 (15M) was a non-violent, grassroots, anti-austerity and free culture movement that swept across Spain beginning in May 2011. The 15M demonstrations aspired to end the social consequences of anti-austerity measures such as housing evictions and to create more representative, participatory, and deliberative political and financial systems. Immediately after the initial demonstrations, thousands of people took over the main plazas of Spain’s major cities until the encampments were dismantled in June 2011. Estimates suggest that between 6.5 and 8 million people – collectively known as the Indignados (the Outraged) – participated in the movement in Spain. The movement spawned solidarity protests in numerous other cities.
The 15M demonstrations are notable for their highly decentralized but well organized structure of distributed action. Each plaza had its own committees, which were in charge of day-to-day activities; working groups, which drafted proposals related to certain themes; and assemblies, which voted on the proposals.
Additionally, consensus decision-making was utilized, as were rotating moderators and spokespeople to prevent the emergence of leaders. When it became clear that the encampments were going to be dismantled, calls were made to “toma los barrios” (“take the neighbourhoods”). As the movement decentralized even further, the neighbourhood assemblies addressed issues that were more salient for that particular barrio. Here, a decentralized structure of distributed action proved effective because those who were most familiar with a particular problem in a barrio were those most qualified to fix it.
Some assemblies set up online forums where citizens could register the date and time of their housing eviction so that local residents could physically block law enforcement officials from carrying out the eviction. Since 2011, nearly 1200 evictions have been stopped. This structure has played a pivotal role in the movement’s longevity.
Idle No More, Canada: Anticipate growth
An indigenous rights campaign started in the province of Saskatchewan, Idle No More was sparked in October 2012 by the Harper government’s introduction of budget omnibus Bill-C45. The bill contained changes to three pieces of legislation related to Canadian indigenous communities, which critics viewed not only as attacking indigenous rights, but also as epitomizing the Harper government’s disregard for consultation or cooperation with these communities.
According to the Idle No More website, the campaign has six current “calls for change;” however, the initial development of the campaign can be seen largely as a campaign against Bill C-45. Like Movimiento 15, Idle No More boasts a largely decentralized organizational structure because of the belief that no one person or group of people should exclusively operate the campaign. Despite the efforts of the campaign, Bill C-45 passed without any amendments.
Idle No More is a cautionary tale about the need for social campaigns to be prepared to scale rapidly. The amplificatory nature of digital tools allowed the campaign to grow very large very quickly, but it lacked the requisite online and offline structures to support this growth. As a result, the Idle No More brand has been co-opted by entirely separate organizations and individuals, creating legitimacy challenges for the organization. As digital strategist Mark Blevis explained in an interview, “without these structures, a campaign stands the risk of becoming like a bonfire stoked with gasoline. They will burn bright and strong for a short period of time, but without a proper underlying structure, they will not burn for long.”
Anti-SOPA/PIPA, United States: Target decision-makers
The campaign against the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA) was a series of coordinated online and offline protests targeting two proposed pieces of copyright legislation in the United States. Actors ranging from technology companies to concerned citizens took issue with the vague and open-ended nature of the legislation and its potential to restrict access to entirely legitimate content on the Internet.
Support for the protests and the general direction of the campaign developed almost exclusively through a grassroots process hosted online. Nevertheless, a number of civil society organizations such as Fight for the Future played a key role. Of the case studies examined, the anti-SOPA/PIPA campaign is one of the most successful. On January 18, 2012, the main sponsors of the legislation in the Senate and a number of congressmen withdrew their support, and both bills were subsequently removed from the legislative process.
One of the key takeaways from the anti-SOPA/PIPA campaign is the manner in which digital tools can be leveraged for influence mapping. According to Fight for the Future founder Holmes Wilson, one of the most effective tactics used by his organization involved identifying the key decision-makers related to SOPA/PIPA — primarily Senate representatives — and utilizing “click-to-call technology,” which allowed individuals to call their representatives by simply clicking a button of the computer. This tactic not only reduced the costs of participation, but also allowed people to directly contact the individuals with the power to effectuate the changes they desired.
Other case studies found in the full report include change.org’s Chinese labour standards campaign, the Turkish Internet Ungovernance Forum, Avaaz’s Break the Blackout campaign in Syria, the Global Dialogue on the Future of Iran, and We Are All Khaled Said. For a deeper exploration of how digital tools are changing diplomacy, visit directdiplomacy.net.