Creating Technology for Social Change

5 Ways You Can Give Attention As Aid

When we really care about a community in crisis, there’s a lot more we can do than give money to a formal aid organization. In fact, the range of activities we CAN do to help, even remotely, is much greater and richer than it has ever been before.

For my Media Lab Master’s thesis, I’m looking at all of the new ways people can help each other in times of crisis (mutual aid), and how information & communication technology (the internet) has amplified this peer aid.

One of the most interesting peer aid categories I have identified is the act of bringing attention to a cause, crisis, or event. I’ll be speaking on this next month at the National Conference for Media Reform, with Madeleine Bair of WITNESSWafa Ben Hassine (the Poetic Politico), Karen Leigh of Syria Deeply, and Josh Stearns of Free Press. But in case you won’t be there, I want to share where I’m at, and get your thoughts.

We know that attention has a large impact on the amount and duration of disaster relief, as measured by aid money, volunteers, and other metrics. But professional media attention to crises can be quite fickle, depending on where in the world you are, the type of crisis you face, and what other events have occurred in the same news cycle. For every person killed in a volcano eruption, 40,000 must die from drought to receive the same probability of media coverage. Similarly, 40 times more people must die in an African disaster to achieve the same expected media coverage as one eastern European (News Droughts, News Floods, and U. S. Disaster Relief).

Given the large amount of information vying for our attention, attention itself becomes a scarce and thereby valuable commodity (see Herbert Simon). The rise of participatory media has allowed many people to build their own audiences independent of broadcast media, and broadcast media itself has adjusted by mining social media for stories. In this environment, the ability to drive attention itself can be as valuable and donate-able a skill as many other volunteer activities.

Here are five ways we can give attention as aid:

1. We can marshal the attention of the broadcast media
2. We can donate the attention of our own audience via social media
3. We can pressure the new gatekeepers
4. We can ride pre-existing waves of attention
5. We can donate our visual and storytelling skills

1. We can marshal the attention of the broadcast media

  • The proliferation of cameras, especially on cellphones, has drastically increased the chances that a person with a camera is among the witnesses of an event (See WITNESS’s Cameras Everywhere report). We can create and share usable original footage and documentation of events at exponentially greater rates than the analog film era. This global trend has increased the pool of available photos and videos of events for every communications channel, from social media to advocacy groups to broadcast media outlets, the latter of which can license the citizen footage and broadcast it to far larger audiences (this is the media strategy of Human Rights Watch).
  • As with other professions, publicists sometimes donate their professional attention-driving powers to undernoticed causes. The most interesting case I’ve found is that of Ryan Julison. Julison regularly donates his professional abilities to news stories that did not receive sufficient media attention. When he took on the story of slain teenager Trayvon Martin (on a pro bono basis), Julison was able to elevate the already-forgotten story to the national stage. Within one day of joining the effort, Julison got coverage in a syndicated Reuters article and on the national televised CBS Morning News. From here, the story went on to become one of the most-covered stories of 2012. The Reuters article itself inspired a reader to start a petition which eventually garnered over 2 million signatures calling for George Zimmerman’s arrest.
  • The Ad Council itself was established in 1942 to “marshal pro bono talent from the advertising and communications industries to deliver critical messages to the American public.” 
    Crowdsourced ad-buying platforms likeLouder offer groups of people the ability to take a page from the government and countless corporations by banding together and placing their own commercials and billboards within traditional broadcast media.

2. We can donate the attention of our own audience via social media

Outside of the mainstream media, peer-to-peer attention tactics have become more viable thanks to larger trends in where we look for information. The act of liking a piece of content on Facebook or retweeting something on Twitter is the most criticized action of all the slacktivist strawmen. But those who attack the act of sharing as meaningless presuppose three things:

  1. sharing the message accomplishes nothing
  2. sharing is all this individual is has done, or will ever do
  3. this individual would be doing more to help, were it not for such an easy outlet

I haven’t seen any of these three points sufficiently proven. If anything, it’s possible that sharing is the first (and yes, easiest) step that can lead to more serious action as an individual begins to identify with the story. But sharing online can also have actual impact in its own right, despite representing a thin type of participation.

Ryan Julison, the publicist that launched the Trayvon Martin story, is not an avid user of social media, but he sees amplifying a message through online sharing as one of the more important things an activist can do: “If someone goes out and does a march, that’s a one-time news story, that’s it. Somebody forwards stories, and engages in propelling information, that leads to so many other things. That continues – it doesn’t just stop with the forward. That forward leads to other forwards, and people share with their friends, and post and tweet about it. I would put online activism, or even just online information-sharing as a pretty high profile way to be an activist.” Activists agree, and have developed a variety of tools and methods designed to derive value from the simple fact that many of us have grown and nurtured an audience of people who pay attention to what we share, despite living in an attention-scarce society:

  • Reality DropCampaigns like FactSpreaders and Reality Drop leverage grassroots supporters to spread empirically accurate information in the face of rumor propagators and climate deniers, respectively. This includes not only tweets and Facebook shares, but also pushing back against trolls in the comments of news articles and elsewhere online. 
  • Prior to the 2012 election, a research team at University of California Berkeley developed Proposition 30 tracker. The researchers created a custom affiliate code, share link, and leaderboard to encourage citizens to spread awareness of the ballot proposition to increase sales and income tax or significantly cut state education funding. 889 citizens signed up to participate.
  • The Thunderclap platform recognizes that Twitter is a noisy stream where individual messages are easily lost. The service coordinates as many supporters of a cause as can be recruited, and then times their tweets to send simultaenously, with the goal to create a notable moment in their followers’ streams.
  • Diaspora populations have proven adept at distributing information when the home community is out of reach because of political or natural crises. The Kenyans on Twitter hashtag #KOT, for example, is a common forum for the diaspora to spread news.

3. We can pressure the new gatekeepers

If we each have an audience online, imagine how many people Justin Bieber can reach. Prior to the web, news companies were often described as gatekeepers to mainstream awareness. Technology has drastically altered this landscape, with many more places and ways to be heard online. A new breed of attention gatekeeper has emerged: the individual who amasses a large following on digital communication platforms. This includes web-native celebrities, like bloggers and YouTube stars, but also mainstream celebrities newly empowered to speak directly to their millions of fans without the help of the press. Celebrities on Twitter create an alluring combination for activists: they garner large amounts of attention but offer relatively lower barriers to access. But keep in mind that celebrities and online influentials are people, too, and there are ethics you should consider before bombarding someone on behalf of a campaign (see Ethan Zuckerman’s post, The Tweetbomb and the Ethics of Attention).

  • In March, 2012, the producers of the aforementioned KONY video teased the film to supporters for weeks before launch, and then shepherded “a network of 5,000 teenage campaigners to bombard celebrities with demands for support” on Twitter and Facebook, reaching 100 million views in six days (the Guardian).
  • Organizers like Tim Newman at routinely target celebrities on Twitter to ask them to spread the word about various campaigns and petitions. This tactic was wildly successful in the case of the Trayvon Martin petition, when Newman elicited supportive tweets from Talib Kweli, Wyclef Jean, Spike Lee, Mia Farrow, and Chad Ochocinco, creating a 900% spike in social media traffic to the petition in one day. Later that week, supportive tweets were successfully solicited from John Legend, Cher, and MC Hammer, the latter of whom had 2.6 million followers at the time.
  • The original Rolling Jubilee page design (an extension of the Occupy movement) explicitly asked users to target celebrities like Oprah, Bruce Springsteen, and Louis C.K. with their tweets.
    Rolling Jubilee prompted users to target celebrities on Twitter

4. We can ride pre-existing waves of attention

  • Memejacking, culturejacking, and newsjacking tactics siphon off attention from wildly popular memes to their causes, with varying degrees of success. Groups like the Harry Potter Alliance use not only fandom of fictional works, but can also leverage huge media events like Hollywood film premieres to divert some attention towards their issues. Political organizers have long worked to prepare for and ride waves of attention as they come up in the news cycle.

5. We can donate our visual and storytelling skills

Graphic designers hold valuable skills in an attention economy.

Documentarians, reporters, and other storytellers are also well-positioned to drive broader attention to a crisis or the needs of a population, even without a traditional distribution model. See, for example:

  • KONY2012, which used social media to produce and distribute the fastest-spreading viral video of all time.
  • 18 Days in Egypt, a crowdsourced documentary capturing Egypt’s revolution through many perspectives.
  • Sandy Storyline collects stories from the affected community, built with Vojo, a tool that allows people with non-smartphones to call in and record their tales.
  • The hundreds of volunteer writers and translators that make up the Global Voices community not only capture stories in places that the professional international media barely covers, but also translate and contextualize these events to make them relevant to broader audiences in other countries around the world. This act of translating, contextualizing, and amplifying stories may well be the reason the protests in Tunisia were able to spread, topple Ben Ali, and ignite the Arab Spring (Center for International Media Assistance via Ethan Zuckerman).

I’ll be back with more examples of tech-mediated mutual aid, and a framework to help us think about this space as it grows.