New media, old problems in human rights

June 26

The following is a guest post by Dominik Stecula and A. Trevor Thrall. Stecula is a doctoral student in the political science department at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. Thrall is an associate professor at George Mason University in the public and international affairs department and is director of the graduate program in biodefense.

The media landscape seems dominated by hashtags these days. Take, for example, the recent, yet already forgotten, developments in Nigeria and the #bringbackourgirls campaign. It brought back comparisons to the #Kony2012 campaign, the social media campaign so frequently cited as an exemplar of the great power of the new media and ‘hashtag activism.’ The “Kony 2012” campaign, created by a small non-governmental organization (NGO) called Invisible Children, produced a video that has now been viewed almost 100 million times on YouTube, turning it to one of the biggest viral sensations in the history of the web. That video, and the social media frenzy it provoked, turned Joseph Kony, the leader of the Ugandan Lord’s Resistance Army, into a household name. Today, the #bringbackourgirls campaign, launched by former Nigerian education minister Obiageli Ezekwesili, attempted to do the same for Boko Haram, the terrorist group responsible for kidnapping 236 young girls from a school in Nigeria.

The #Kony2012 campaign has been frequently cited as evidence that social media heralded the arrival of a new era in non-governmental organization effectiveness, making it easier for NGOs to gain attention for humanitarian issues than through traditional media channels (for an interesting debate see, for example, here, here, here, here or here). On the surface the #bringbackourgirls campaign looks like confirmation of this hypothesis – with Michele Obama jumping on the bandwagon to help “name and shame” the terrorist group Boko Haram for their actions. Unfortunately, the evidence so far suggests that this view is overly optimistic.

In a recently published paper, we argue that the new media may actually represent a more challenging environment for most NGOs in which to be heard. Despite the easy ability to communicate with global audiences they provide, the new media fail to resolve an old problem: the scarcity of attention. Citizens, journalists and political leaders all have limits on how much attention they can or will pay to human rights issues. Moreover, all audiences now face an increasingly crowded information environment with ever more voices clamoring for their attention from a growing number of media platforms.

Thus, although the specific challenges of global communication have changed with the evolution of the Internet, the enduring scarcity of attention ensures that transnational information politics is an expensive and highly competitive process. In our study, we examined 257 transnational human-rights groups’ ability to generate attention in both international mainstream news media and social media outlets, such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, in the years 2010-12. This was based on an original data set that we constructed utilizing the Major World Publications collection on Lexis Nexis as well as gathering all of the organizational social media metrics as of December of 2012. Subsequent data analysis was largely descriptive.

Data: Stecula and Thrall/courtesy SAGE
Data: Stecula and Thrall/courtesy SAGE Journals

The results indicate that organizations that thrive in the traditional news media also do well in the social media, while the organizations that are largely invisible in the traditional news outlets remain invisible online. For example, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Oxfam accounted for 50 percent of all the NGO news coverage in the discussed time period. Twenty-six NGOs, just 10 percent of our sample, accounted for 91 percent of all news appearances.

More to the point, we found that the public attention via social media is just as heavily skewed as the traditional news media attention. The top 10 percent of the sample enjoyed 92 percent of the Twitter followers, 81 percent of the Facebook likes and 90 percent of the YouTube views. Furthermore, the least visible 50 percent of the NGOs in each medium are in fact getting about as much attention as the average individual user of Facebook or Twitter.

What, then, contributes to successful garnering of online and offline attention for an NGO? Unsurprisingly, it’s the size of its budget. The results indicate 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 the news or the social media. That does not mean that organizations with smaller budgets don’t develop an online presence. They try to. The reality seems to be, however, that the very same groups who have long been the most effective at getting attention in the traditional news media are also the most effective at getting the public’s attention online and through social media, since the visibility in the traditional news media tends to translate into a serious advantage in the online attention competition.

This does not mean that occasionally smaller groups won’t succeed. But consider the fact that Human Rights Watch — one of the world’s most important NGO “gatekeepers” — launched a professional campaign, which included an online video, expressly to encourage the Obama administration to intervene to deal with Kony in the fall of 2010. Despite their best efforts, however, the HRW video has been viewed only 60,000 times over the past four years, and the campaign generated just a handful of stories in major newspapers. Though it is appealing to think that the Kony 2012 campaign provides a blueprint for virality for future campaigns, it represents the exception rather than the rule. Hashtag activism can be an effective way to raise awareness of important issues, but the limits of attention mean that there is no magic recipe for ensuring that the next campaign will “go viral.”

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