A new model of activism is winning remarkable victories around the world. In February, GetUp! and its partners prevented the Australian government from deporting more than 200 asylum seekers through online petitions and street protests. This March, Unilever compensated Indian workers poisoned by mercury after Jhatkaa pressured the company through online petitions and a viral rap video. And in Germany, Campact has motivated thousands of people to sign petitions and take to the streets to stop the EU-US Free Trade deal.
These campaign groups cover vastly different countries and issues, but a new, distinct mode of activist organization is at the core of all of them. Compared to traditional, single-issue advocacy organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, these groups are reactive, nimble, multi-issue, and membership-driven, They’ve used the Internet and mobile technology to mobilize thousands, both online and on the streets, like other digitally empowered social movements such as #BlackLivesMatter and the Arab Spring. But they differ in that they are establishing permanent structures of organizing and mobilizing. These digitally based activist organizations constitute a powerful new form of civil society organization that’s worth paying attention to—because they’re making an impact.
Here’s a closer look at how they work and what differentiates their efforts from other advocacy campaigns.
Local, National, and International Impact
These organizations have contributed to major successes on local, national, and international issues. India-based Jhatkaa’s YouTube video “Kodaikanal” featured a rapper who sang about the mercury pollution at a local Unilever thermometer factory, and its effects on the environment and workers. The video went viral (it currently has more than 3.7 million views), and was covered internationally by The New York Times, the UK Times, the Hindu, and Buzzfeed. The group also initiated a #WontBuyUnilever consumer awareness campaign, which, according to its campaign director, reached more than 500,000 individuals on Twitter. Chief Executive of Unilever, Paul Polman, responded to the campaign on Twitter and engaged in a back-and-forth with supporters, stating that Unilever was “determined to solve” the issue. On March 9th, Unilever declared it would compensate poisoned workers in an out-of-court settlement for an undisclosed amount thought to be in the tens of millions of dollars.
Video: Jhatkaa used this video to campaign against Unilever for its failure to clean up mercury contamination or compensate affected workers at its thermometer factory in Kodaikanal, India. Words written by Chennai-born rapper Sofia Ashraf and set to Nicki Minaj's “Anaconda.”
On the other side of the Indian Ocean, GetUp! launched a campaign in February that transformed Australian public debate on refugee issues. The group and its partners mobilized thousands of people from Melbourne to Sydney under the banner “Let Them Stay,” protesting the government’s decision to deport 267 asylum-seeking families, including 33 babies. Many of the asylum seekers were seeking medical care on the Australian mainland and would have been sent back to off-shore detention in Nauru or Manus Island (Papua New Guinea). Get Up! orchestrated an online and offline campaign that used digital tools (e-petitions, Facebook, and Twitter) alongside more conventional ones (front-page media coverage in major Australian newspapers, targeted advertising, and street demonstrations). Eventually, the government released all the children and their families into the Australian community—a remarkable turn-around, considering the government’s strict “stop the boats” policy and desire to have no asylum seekers reach Australian territory.
Other digital advocacy groups, such as German-based Campact, are successfully tackling major transnational issues. Their opposition to the Trans-Atlantic Trade Agreement (TTIP) over concerns about the trade agreement’s effects on the environment, labor rights, and economic inequality has left the negotiations in a precarious position. Last year, Campact mobilized the largest protest in the past 10 years in Germany—a reported 250,000 people took to the streets against TTIP. Campact has crowdfunded billboards and advertisements in mainstream newspapers, and motivated masses of people to collectively contact members of the European Parliament to lobby against TTIP negotiations. Time will tell if these efforts have scuttled trade deals altogether, but there is little doubt that the power of these organizations has been dramatically underestimated.
These kinds of organizations are big and growing globally. GetUp!, Campact, 38 Degrees (UK), and MoveOn (US) each have memberships in the millions. Avaaz, the international digital advocacy group started by activist Ricken Patel, now has more than 42 million members around the world. And in just the last two years, new organizations have emerged at the city level (in Rio and Sao Paulo), national level (in New Zealand, India, Austria, South Africa, Sweden, and elsewhere), and regional level (the EU’s We Move).
Unlike the wax and wane of many important-but-sporadic social movements—like Indignados, Occupy, and Gezi Park—these groups are permanent organizations and have shown their durability (MoveOn has been campaigning actively since 1998, Campact since 2003, and GetUp! since 2005). They have permanent, professional staff just like their traditional NGO counterparts, but they differ in important ways—their campaigns are nimble, multi-issue, and collaborative.
Nimble and Reactive
These organizations have all emerged in the digital age. Their core campaigning strength is in mobilizing people using online tools to rapidly respond to dominant issues of the day. Within hours, they can set-up a new campaign, contact members, build a new website, and start pressuring decision-makers. GetUp!, for instance, has a rapid response campaign team whose goal is to routinely set-up new campaigns on a five-hour timeline so that it can introduce campaigns on the day an issue breaks.
These groups don’t usually have complicated internal sign-off systems, bureaucracies, and institutional stakeholders—all of which tend to slow down traditional NGOs. They are also more comfortable making mistakes, being transparent, and learning while doing. In fact, some of these groups embrace “failing fast” and will drop campaigns that are not gaining significant membership support in favor of those that are.
Many traditional NGOs have built up their support bases by focusing on one core area and pushing that issue onto the political agenda, even when there’s little mainstream interest—think World Wide Fund for Nature and the environment. In contrast, these newer organizations mobilize their members over many issues simultaneously. GetUp!, for instance, is campaigning simultaneously on refugee rights, saving the Great Barrier Reef, renewable energy, and economic inequality. Of course, this broad issue coverage also brings constraints; it can limit detailed policy expertise on any single issue, and reduce the number of awareness-raising campaigns on issues that are not in the public eye or political agenda (such as protecting minorities in other countries facing persecution).
These groups do not work alone—all of the above campaigns were part of a bigger civil society movement, and each advocacy organization formed partnerships with existing, expert organizations to push for change. GetUp! worked with established refugee advocacy organizations and experts, and Campact worked with unions and NGOs such as Greenpeace. While we can’t attribute the campaign victories discussed briefly here solely to their actions, their digital mobilizing skills and nimble, reactive campaigning complement many traditional advocacy methods. These new digital-era activist organizations have identified and leveraged important tipping-point moments, and mobilize the public on the streets and through tweets.
These organizations are having a significant impact on local, national, and international decision-making. They represent a disruptive step change in civil society organizing of the kind we’ve seen with taxis (Uber), accommodation (Airbnb), and content production (Google and Facebook). It’s time to pay more attention to this model of social change. As scholars, activists, and civil society practitioners, we should be looking to these groups and examining what combinations of campaigning tactics (online and off) are most effective in a digital era.