Human Rights Advocacy and Social Media

From post-election protests in Iran to the campaign against trade in conflict minerals, social media is revolutionizing the way human rights advocates broadcast their efforts. Internet-based services like Twitter and YouTube enable campaigners to reach global audiences and put issues in the international spotlight with just a few mouse-clicks.

The potential reach of social media gained worldwide attention in the aftermath of Iran’s controversial June 2009 elections. Protesters and their supporters took to the streets, but also to the Internet, posting videos and information on social media sites, with Twitter becoming a main focal point.

The Iranian protestors’ use of social media dominated the news coverage, with traditional news outlets discovering for the first time how these new platforms can provide access to information in otherwise closed-off environments. Yet, little has actually changed in Iran as a direct result of the widely publicized protests, which has led some to reflect upon the limitations of social media.

“Networked social movements are still in an immature stage. But as information campaigners grow more experienced, skilled, and above all else pragmatic, the quality of digital campaigns is sure to improve,” Adam Elkus wrote on Huffington Post. “But until then, we should take a realistic view of networked social movements’ mobilizing power. Social media adds another dimension to political conflicts and activism, but not a necessarily decisive one.”

More recently, news from the Associated Press out of China suggests that dissidents there have turned to social media networks to publicize and commiserate over their experiences with Chinese security forces. Chinese police routinely seek to silence government critics with a campaign of intimidation, usually beginning with gentle warnings given over a meal or a cup of tea, according to the reports. Some of those targeted have now begun to share their accounts of “drinking tea” with the authorities online.

Most mainstream human rights campaigners now also make use of social media as an integral part of their outreach. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and Witness are among the internationally recognized organizaitons now using Twitter to spread information and calls to action.

As use of social media becomes increasingly mainstream, it is likely to alter the character of rights advocacy around the world, with rights activists continuing to refine their online presence and expand their ability to reach a global audience. Whether or not that expanded reach results in more effective campaigns depends on how well rights campaigners translate access into action.