Humanitarian organizations are discovering the mobilization potential of social media campaigns. But trying to make the world a better place with a mouse click has its pitfalls and not all who mean well actually do well.
August 19 is World Humanitarian Day, a day on which the United Nations honor the work of humanitarian helpers. This year, the UN are targeting Facebook and Twitter users around the world via a social media campaign under the motto "I was here."
Singer Beyoncé Knowles performed the theme song at the UN headquarters earlier in August, and the music video is published on Sunday. "I was here" is about celebrating "the humanitarian spirit," said Jens Laerke, spokesperson of the coordinating Office for Humanitarian Affairs with the United Nations (OCHA) in Geneva.
"For 364 days a year we talk about Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sudan, Congo and all the other ongoing crises," said Jens Laerke. "But once a year, on World Humanitarian Day, we want to get the message across in a slightly different way."
A billion good deeds
Online users can click on "add your support" and announce a good deed on the platform, "anywhere - for somebody else." That can range from mowing your neighbor's lawn or giving away things you don't need. The organizers hope to collect some 1 billion promises. On August 19, the comments are published and the Internet will be flooded with "humanitarian messages," is the organizers' hope.
People shouldn't believe, however, that they can change the world by simply clicking on "Like" and "Support" buttons, Laerke said. But things do look different if these clicks are then followed by concrete action, he added. Mowing your neighbor's lawn may not save people's lives in Congo or in South Sudan, but it's still a humanitarian deed, he said.
Big mobilization potential
Marketing expert Rolf Olsen from Geneva based consulting company Leidar said "I was here" was a well-crafted campaign and that it had major mobilization potential. Olsen consults organizations and companies with respect to their international communication strategies. His clients learn that social media campaigns are about more than raising awareness. They should have a simple message and trigger concrete action.
"Successful social media campaigns tick all the boxes needed for somebody to get active," Olsen said. "It's not enough to know something about something to change things. That can only happen when you actually do something."
Party for human rights
The High Commissioner for Human Rights has its own experience with social media campaigns and is satisfied with their impact. On International Human Rights Day last December, the UN organization launched an information campaign about the Universal Declaration on Human Rights - using Twitter, Facebook and its own website.
The motto was "celebrate human rights." It may have looked like an invitation to a kid's birthday party at first glance, but High Commissioner Navi Pillay said it reached young people in particular who were interested in finding out something about human rights.
"The Arab Spring showed that social media, the Internet, cell phone cameras and text messages are getting more and more important," said Pillay. "They are tools to get connected, to raise awareness, they can alert and document. That's why I'm so thrilled."
Honest, credible, and true
Via social media, a message can spread worldwide and trigger a big amount of reactions. Sometimes, this can lead to unforeseen proportions - like in the case of the Kony 2012 campaign set up by US non-governmental organization "Invisible Children." Within weeks, more than 100 million people clicked on the video about the brutal militia leader Joseph Kony. Now the whole world wants Kony to be held accountable for recruiting child soldiers in Uganda.
But the video has received much criticism. The film has some serious deficiencies content-wise, and the film director collapsed under the immense pressure and the attention he was getting. He was diagnosed with a mental condition triggered by trauma or stress in May this year. The international action day the organizers had planned as a climax for their campaign didn't prove to be the success they had hoped for either.
"The larger your target audience the better you have to be prepared and the stronger your message has to be," said communications expert Rolf Olsen.
And there was another important lesson to be learnt from the Kony2012 campaign, he said.
"You can't manipulate public opinion - that may work for a short while, but then there will be a point when journalists or other smart people will point out your weaknesses to the public," he said. "You have to have a real message, it has to be honest and credible and it has to tell the truth."