The rise of awareness campaigns in social media

2014 saw an astronomical rise in the world wide use of social media, led partially by the Football World Cup. The # (hashtag) is now an everyday part of our lives. The Ice Bucket Challenge is an example of how a small idea can become a worldwide phenomenon, practically overnight. But 2014 also saw the rise of a new trend that has become even more apparent in 2015: the use of social media as a political tool.

It is quite common for someone with a political view or grievance to air their opinion on social media. What is new are specific, targeted campaigns carried out via social media. The first, and still one of the most successful, campaigns was #BringBackOurGirls. In April over 200 girls were kidnapped from a school in the village of Chibok in northern Nigeria. Normally the world would not hear about such events, but a savvy local lawyer took a phrase from a former Governor’s speech and tweeted it. This resonated instantly and led to a global campaign, gaining support from everyday tweeters, activists, famous people and world leaders alike. The most prominent was Michelle Obama, whose picture was retweeted over 57,000 times and overall the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls has had over 5 million tweets. This campaign was just the start and since then there have been a huge number of campaigns, some more successful than others.

world map showing twitter coverage of the #bringbackourgirls campaignImage from NBC News

Of course, the campaign the whole world now knows about is the Je Suis Charlie campaign, which has led to an explosion of free speech and awareness campaigns. Just an hour after the attack on satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, in central Paris on January 7th 2015, an image of the slogan was posted on Twitter. It resonated with people immediately and it has been used all around the world to show solidarity with France as they recover from the devastating terrorist attack. #JeSuisCharlie was tweeted over 3.4 million times in just twenty four hours. Since then there have been a rash of JeSuis campaigns trying to highlight injustices all around the world, but none have been as successful.

Social media effectively levels the playing field. Ultimately it doesn’t matter if you are a rich political party in the UK or an activist in Pakistan, your message can still be heard by the world with the aim of highlighting your cause. Take for example the recent trend by ordinary Pakistanis who are posting videos online calling for the arrest of a controversial Islamic Cleric. They are taking a stand after the attack in Peshawar that killed over 130 school children. They want to raise awareness and change the politics in their country. And this is the same whether you are in Pakistan or America.

Before Christmas a Republican Congressional aide had to quit her job after she criticised the First Family at Thanksgiving. There was a huge backlash against her offensive comments about the Obama’s teenage daughters, which led to an apology and ultimately the loss of her job. The power of social media can affect anyone in any country.

And this story also highlights the dark side of social media, the use of social media networks to ‘hound’ people, or use it to their own ends. There are countless examples of this happening, as the above example clearly shows, or in the case of the more recent story of a ‘hate’ campaign carried out against Miss Lebanon at the Miss World contest. A picture taken with Miss Israel caused immediate condemnation from Lebanon. The Arabic hashtag “A word to Miss Lebanon” was the top trend on Twitter in Lebanon. This is just another example of how something seemingly innocent, such as a photo, or opinion, can go viral to the detriment of the person posting it. The more open our lives become, the more open we are to criticism by people we don’t even know.

Social media also makes the world a smaller place. It used to be that the only source of news was a newspaper, TV or radio. Now we receive news alerts on our phone, people blog, tweet and comment on social media as soon as an event occurs. Often news emerges via social media before the news networks have even got coverage.

Decades ago we wouldn’t have known about food shortages in Venezuela until long after the event, but now people will share views through social media. But like all news channels, people move on. You would think, with the amount of news coverage recently given to it, that Ebola has died out. A few months ago it was all that the news networks could talk about, particularly in America. Now there is very little coverage, despite the fact that it is still ravaging Africa. And this is also true of the #BringBackOurGirls campaign. A few of the girls have been returned but there are still hundreds being held, but the rest of the world has moved on and their plight is no longer interesting. Is it the case that with social media allowing the spread of first hand news at such speed, that our tolerance for a story is even less than it used to be? Do we dismiss things as ‘yesterday’s news’ sooner than we used to, or than we should?

Ultimately all of these campaigns have a call to arms. People want to gain support and promote change, some with more success than others. But as anyone who works with social media knows, you cannot tell what is going to resonate on social media and what isn’t. Sometimes a campaign being a success is a bit of hit or miss because of the unpredictability of social media. You can plan a campaign carefully but if people don’t identify with it then there will be no uplift. Social campaigns are anything but certain and this is something we must all bear in mind when planning any marketing campaigns through social media channels.

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