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Using Social Media to Organize Social Movements: A Look at Citizen Engagement Laboratory

The following case study is part of a project by MPA students at the Presidio Graduate School on information management technology and policy. You can read the rest of the series here.

With recent impacts in the uprisings across the Middle East and in the 2008 Presidential campaign of Barack Obama, social media has demonstrated its capacity to compel social movements and create large-scale change quickly.  For organizations seeking to spread their messages while at the same time creating a strong sense of community organization offline, social media thus presents opportunities to bring people together like never before. Several NGOs are looking at new ways to integrate social media into their work to build communities offline and simultaneously accomplish organizational goals in the real world.

This case study explores the fashions through which Berkeley based NGO Citizen Engagement Laboratory works with digital media to amplify its message, organize community support, and achieve its goals, specifically focusing on its recent campaign to get advertisers to drop Glenn Beck from commercial campaigns.

Working in the realms of advocacy, social justice, human rights and political engagement, Citizen Engagement Laboratory (CEL) seeks to empower under-represented constituencies by providing information technology services, best practices, media production, and fundraising to online communities.  The organization collaborates with advertisers, other NGOs, and social enterprises to support lightweight, tech-savvy change campaigns that can challenge even the biggest of pundits and conglomerates.  In order to steer their partnered online communities towards success, CEL uses the Internet to allow its members to speak in unison and behind simple, powerful messages, and with an amplified political voice over the circuits of a widespread network of activists and like-minded supporters.

To do this, CEL strategically reaches out to social entrepreneurs who can become the unifying voice of under-represented constituencies, and empowers them with the tools of social networking.  Working with these social entrepreneurs, CEL incubates their respected identity-based community online, to build a virtual network, and then builds support offline using proven community organizing techniques to bring people together.  Targeting specific audiences and goals, CEL channels its efforts on unifying community voice, online and off, to push communities towards fulfilling its organizational goals, to successfully expand awareness and action on identity-based issues.

CEL’s present projects include ColorOfChange.org - the largest national online organization focused on issues affecting African-Americans; VideoTheVote.org – an election monitoring project that empowers citizen-journalists to document voter disenfranchisement; Presente.org – a project empowering Latino communities to strengthen their political voice; and GetEQUAL.org – an online organization seeking to create full federal equality for the LGBTQ community.

Under its ColorOfChange.org project, CEL uses the Internet to bring together members of the African-American community from all over the country and build support for the array of inequality issues they face across America.  Recently, the organization launched a campaign titled, “Drop Glenn Beck”, to work with mainstream companies including Walmart, GEICO, Verizon, and Chase to drop their advertisements from the Glenn Beck Show on Fox News Channel.   Seeing Beck’s comments from a July 28, 2009 broadcast in which he called President Obama a “racist” who had a “deep-seated hatred for white people” as an opportunity to convince advertisers to remove their support from the program, CEL organized and mobilized online and offline communities to help dump Beck.  Over the course of the campaign, over 100 companies dropped their support from Beck’s show, helping mitigate Beck’s political clout and negatively impact Fox News Channel’s revenue streams.

In the process, CEL gathered over 280,000 signatures on its petition asking advertisers to remove commercial support of Beck’s show; contacted over 70 companies via phone and e-mail communicating its members concern and urging them to renounce support of the program; and built a multi-media campaign titled, TheRealGlennBeck.com, to serve as a central database of Beck’s race-baiting and misinforming praxis.   Moreover, the organization brought together the Black community in Harlem to protest Beck’s inaugural “A Christmas Sweater”, and convinced the Harlem Gospel Choir to not perform during the program.

In an interview with one of the organization’s producers, the philosophy behind CEL’s methodology became more lucid.  Recognizing that NGOs face a score of challenges in fostering real world participation and action, CEL works to combine effective community organizing tactics with online support systems.  That is, in order to accomplish the kind of activism supported by the Beck campaign, CEL recognizes that NGOs need to use technology to get people involved.  To do this, the organization strategically reaches out to target communities that can work together towards a common goal, and empowers them with a massive organizing campaign to deliver a powerful story that can convince decision-makers within power circles to take action.

In respect of the Glenn Beck campaign, this manifested itself as a matter of demonstrating why Beck’s commentary negatively portrayed the African-American community, and how members of the ColorOfChange.org virtual community viewed his actions.  Using the political clout packed by the over 600,000 members of the community represented by ColorOfChange.org, the message that Beck’s tactics were viewed negatively by the African-American community was clearly understandable, and action to pull support from Beck’s program became easily justified by advertisers.

While the process of integrating online and offline community organizing techniques seems rather straightforward, there are still challenges in working to organize people using such means.  First and foremost, any campaign that is launched inevitably faces criticism from opponents, especially if the target is as large an icon as Beck.  Initial support for the “Drop Glenn Beck” campaign, for example, was difficult to harness at first, as not many companies wanted to be the preliminary sponsors of such a movement.  Only after demonstrated support from ColorOfChange.org did companies begin to see the larger possibilities at play and take action.  As such, coordinating such an effort is frequently an uphill battle, and speaks to the second but just as equal a challenge faced by community organizers.  That is, working with such under-represented constituencies, it is often times difficult to get people organized and keep communities strong.  Virtual communities must continuously provide support internally while facing external criticism and keep their dreams alive as they work to build an equitable world around their vision in reality.

Looking towards the future of civic engagement, it is clear that combining effective community organizing techniques with digital outreach and social media campaigns is essential to fostering social and political change movements.  Though it also seems that there is still a challenge of matching organizational technique with an appropriate context. Given that social media is only a tool for incentivizing change, there are inherent challenges facing organizations seeking to organize communities off line.  Every campaign must have a clear focus and keep momentum going both internally and externally; both virtually and in real-life.  Looking at CEL as a case study, it is clear that there are innumerous ways to have success with this framework, though it also seems that perhaps the best practices of successful community organizing remain in the real world and well-tested tactics of the past.  Lessons for the future indeed...

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