Using Social Networking to Stop Genocide
In less than two years, The Genocide Intervention Network transformed itself from a small student group to a national non-profit. How did they do it? Among other methods, they used social media sites like MySpace, FaceBook, Flickr, and YouTube to reach the young people who are their core supporters.
The Genocide Intervention Network and its partner organization, STAND: A Student Anti-Genocide Coalition, both began their life as on-campus student organizations. Now partners and leaders in the anti-genocide movement, STAND encompasses student groups at more than 300 colleges and 200 high schools, while GI-Net provides effective tools for all individuals to help stop genocide through advocacy and fundraising for civilian protection.
How did these organizations go from small student groups to national non-profits in less than two years? Among other methods, we reached out through online social networking websites - sites that promote connections and collaboration between people who share similar interests, geographical backgrounds or schools.
Our interest in social networking started mostly out of necessity. Students and young people have been at the forefront of the anti-genocide movement, and they also been some of the earliest adopters of new online technology. As a lot of students were self-organizing using MySpace, Facebook and other places, using these social networking tools was a matter of catching up, going where the young people already are, and connecting them to each other.
Yet even as the organizations have grown — and, for GI-Net, expanded well beyond its student origins — social networking has proven to be an important way to develop and engage our membership.
While our current focus is on Darfur, our larger goal is to create a permanent anti-genocide constituency so that when mass atrocities occur again — as they likely will — the world will be well-positioned to respond quickly and effectively. The primary reason countries take so little action to stop genocide is because there is no political will to do so. Our long-term approach to building the movement thus coincides quite effectively with many of benefits social networking: education, collaboration and collective action.
While STAND and GI-Net do some traditional fundraising and lobbying, our primary focus is on empowering our members. So, for instance, most of the donations we receive go to fund civilian protection in Darfur, rather than our efforts alone — meaning our members have a real, concrete effect on the ground in Sudan. Similarly, our advocacy is often focused on giving our members effective tools to engage in their own actions, such as our recently-released Darfur scorecard. With a social networking approach, we can extend this empowerment approach to people who otherwise would likely have not come in contact with us.
Using Community Profiles
So what specifically are we doing with social networking tools? We primarily rely on Facebook and MySpace, two of the most heavily-used websites among high school and college students (in fact, MySpace is the sixth most-visited website on the Internet). We set up a group profile in both tools, which is is fairly straightforward.
On our profiles, we publish the latest news from our organization and links to current campaigns. We use Facebook's messaging service and MySpace's blog and bulletin features to adapt our action alerts into slightly shorter, punchier versions that are then seen by all of our "friends."
Facebook does not allow much customization of the profile beyond a logo and description, but with MySpace, you can really go wild. There are several free services (such as MyGen, LayoutsPlus, and Zobster) that will help you customize your profile without needing to do too much direct coding. Japhet Els, an online organizer for the Rainforest Action Network, recommends that your profile be "hip" — "If they don't really love your homepage they probably are looking for something a big more edgy," she writes. For some examples, see the MySpace Profiles for GI-Net, Oxfam, Military Free Zone, or the Marine Corps, or GI-Net’s Facebook profile.
We’ve found that attracting friends is easier than you might think — though it might consume a fair amount of time. If you have demographic information for your members, you could contact those under a certain age once you have your profiles set up. One strategy that we employed was to look for other organizations or ad-hoc groups, and then invite their members. Unfortunately, neither MySpace nor Facebook allows you to do this all at once — you'll have to click on each individual to invite them, one at a time. When STAND launched their national profile on Facebook, they chose instead to send a message to each of the administrators of the local STAND profiles — which had sprung up organically already — and asked them to send a message to their users.
We have used social networking sites for advertisements as well as profiles — this was one way were able to attract more than 400 students to DC for a conference and lobby day just a few months after we were formed. Similarly, a targeted campaign of Facebook ads in Indiana netted us a large number of students willing to call Sen. Richard Lugar's top donors (which we collected from opensecrets.org) and ask them to pressure the senator to approve a bill on Darfur he was holding in his committee.
GI-Net has, to a lesser extent, used both images and video to spread our message. We have a paid Flickr account on which we post images from Darfur-related events. Our members who have Flickr can post images in their own accounts and use the tag "antigenocide," causing them to show up in a photostream of the latest images from the anti-genocide movement. Our newest website, TimeToProtect.org, features this photostream on the home page.
Because GI-Net and STAND have such small staffs, it has been difficult to fully realize the potential of many aspects of social networking. One small step we took, however, has been pretty successful. We spent a couple of days creating a short video on Darfur using the Apple iMovie software. We posted the video to YouTube — like a moving version of Flickr, and another top-visited site on the Internet — and also posted links to it from our website, MySpace and Facebook profiles. It's hard to measure the direct effect of the video, but soon after we posted it on our MySpace account we started getting 20 or more friend requests each day. That's probably because we made it easy for people to cut-and-paste the code for the video into their own profiles and emails, allowing it to quickly spread throughout the site.
For another good example of outreach through multimedia, see PETA’s Online Action Center.
Extending the Conversation
A final aspect of social networking is the blog community, in which writers post stories online and cross-reference their stories to other websites and other postings. We haven’t had time to engage in this as thoroughly as we would like, but we’re starting to get our feet wet.
On our primary site, all of our regular "stories" — action alerts, newsletters, weekly news briefings, press releases, etc. — are released through blogging software known as WordPress. This is software one installs on an organization's website; a different option is a hosted service like Blogger. We gather all of our stories together and use the FeedBurner service to publish it as an easily accessible "feed." This makes it easy for bloggers to comment on our stories, as well as the more technically-inclined to subscribe to our live feed in browsers such as Firefox or in specialized news readers.
Much of the approach of advocacy in the "blogosphere" draws on a book called The Cluetrain Manifesto, which argues that "markets are conversations" because of the way the Internet has allowed consumers to talk among themselves — and more significantly, to talk back to companies. In recent years, membership and online advocacy has been more thoroughly realized as a conversation, rather than simply a mass of followers paying their dues and repeating the latest talking points.
Despite our constraints of time and resources, GI-Net tries to contribute to this conversation by, for instance, adding to the Wikipedia entry on Darfur. Wikipedia, a collaboratively-edited encyclopedia, is another top-visited site — in fact, the few links on Wikipedia pointing to us generate nearly half of all of our visitors from other sites.
Our website hosting the legislative scorecard on Darfur is built on a content management system known as Drupal, integrated with our Democracy in Action account. One of Drupal's available modules is a "social services links," which you will see on the right-hand side of many pages. These services — del.icio.us, Digg, Magnolia and Technorati — serve a variety of purposes allowing people to bookmark, rate and blog about the pages they link. Although we have spent very little time integrating these services into our campaigns, they will likely become increasingly useful as our commitment to blogging increases.
Supporting the Effort
While none of these approaches cost a lot of money, they certainly require staff time to support. Social networking requires commitment -- you can't set up a MySpace profile and then walk away. You have to approve new friend requests, respond to messages, post your latest action alerts, send out bulletins, keep your profile up-to-date, and more. You’re not creating a billboard, but rather starting a conversation -- you have to be willing to respond.
What does this mean in terms of time? As the director of communications, I spend about 5% is devoted to purely social-networking related things (updating the MySpace page, sending out bulletins, adding people to the Facebook group, adding photos to Flickr, etc.) and about 10% on related things (enabling a lot of those features on our sites, like the del.icio.us and Digg links and Flickr gallery). We also have a communications intern and a membership intern who have been helping us since mid-September, but other than that we really don't have anyone committed to social networking. We'd really like to do more things, like have a full-fledged blog and begin talking about these issues more in-depth — not least to engage the blog community more substantially — but we just don't have the staff time to devote to it.
Stepping Back and Letting Go
There’s a mentality shift required to fully engage with social networking and community content sites: sometimes, you have to let go. It's true that someone could start posting pictures on Flickr of irrelevant things and tag them "antigenocide," or that some of our biggest fans hosting the YouTube video on MySpace might have profiles that would make some of our donors cringe. Perhaps even more significantly, it's possible that some of the people who encounter us on these sites never make it to our main website, never sign up for a newsletter, never complete an action, and never make a donation.
For us, it goes back to our mission: to empower our members to prevent and stop genocide, and in so doing, to create an educated anti-genocide constituency. While we do, of course, want to increase our membership rolls and make ever-larger donations to civilian protection, in some respects it's not always necessary for people to perform every anti-genocide action through our organization. If our videos or emails or profiles get people talking more substantially about genocide — and the concrete ways in which they can actually prevent and stop genocide — then in some sense whether they end up on our mailing list is somewhat beside the point. Through their knowledge they will engage others, and ultimately enhance the anti-genocide movement we're helping to build. Your goals and your experiences on this front may be different, but to really see the full power of social networking, you have to let it be a network — and in some cases that is going to mean sending something out into the ether, stepping back, and letting go.
For More Information
- Using Social Networking Sites to Find Supporters, by Colin Delany of epolitics.com
- MySpace, MyPolitics, by Ari Melber in The Nation
- The Power of Many, by Christian Crumlish
- NetSquared resources on blogging, tagging, podcasts and wikis
- Network-Centric Advocacy blog
- Zen and the Art of Nonprofit Technology blog
- Can Blogging Stop Genocide?" (PDF), an older presentation on GI-Net's involvement in online advocacy
Ivan Boothe is the director of communications for the Genocide Intervention Network, which empowers individuals and communities with the tools to prevent and stop genocide. He holds a degree in peace and conflict studies and authored a thesis on third-party nonviolent intervention. Ivan was a co-founder of why-war.org, which launched a nationwide campaign of electronic civil disobedience against the voting machine manufacturer Diebold in 2003. His writings can be found at quixotic1.com.
Large portions of this article were initially published on Democracy In Action's blog Half-Poets Even.