Finding a voice in Facebook

Israeli NGOs are realizing the potential power of social media such as Facebook and Twitter.

By
January 21, 2010 16:12
A demo for children of migrant workers.

migrant workers children 311 . (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

 
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'We will demonstrate against the government decision to deport the children of migrant workers after all. The demonstration will take place today, Tuesday, at 7:30 p.m. at the corner of Ben-Zion and King George St. We must show the ministers that their voters are against deportation of children!" - October 13, 2009 at 7:33 a.m.


Pay close attention to this announcement. Made by the nonprofit organization, Hot Line for Migrant Workers (HLMW), to protest the government's threatened deportation of foreign workers' children, this rallying call brought together hundreds of migrants and human rights supporters in exactly 12 hours.



The call was not made on the radio, nor was it published in the newspapers and it certainly did not form the basis of hundreds of e-mails or phone calls to supporters, rather it is three simple sentences placed by HLMW on the wildly popular social media Web site Facebook. It was a cry for help that reached thousands of people within minutes and it highlights the resonance that new Internet media have for hundreds of local NGOs.



Of course, this particular demonstration was just one of many that happened over the past six months to protest Interior Minister Eli Yishai's plans to deport some 1,200 children of migrant workers, but as the gatherings grew in size toward the end of last year, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was finally forced to weigh in on the debate. He agreed to allow the children to stay at least until the end of August to finish up the school year.



"We joined Facebook this past summer when the government launched its campaign to expel the children of migrant workers," says Shevy Korzen, executive director of HLMW, a nonpartisan, not for profit organization dedicated to promoting the rights of undocumented migrant workers and refugees, as well as eliminating human trafficking.



"Events were moving at such a fast pace and even though we have a Web site it could not be updated quickly enough," she says. "We wanted to organize demonstrations and gather up our supporters in only a few hours to speak out against the government's policies. Many of our supporters were already on Facebook, so it made sense to create a page, because then we did not have to waste time sending out a mass e-mails and worrying that people might not get the message in time."



She says that the NGO also tried utilizing micro-blogging tool Twitter to keep its supporters updated but "that did not really catch on." Instead, the organization focused on building up its following on Facebook and, in less than six months, HLMW has accumulated some 1,127 "friends," keeping them updated almost hourly with links to news items from around the world, sparking discussions on the controversial topics important to the NGO and rallying its followers to take up the causes at ongoing demonstrations.



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"We are definitely seeing a much bigger turnout than in the past," notes Korzen, who says HLMW staff takes it in turn to update the page throughout the day. "I have also begun to notice that it is not just the same people showing up at our demonstrations like in the past. Because of Facebook our messages are also reaching those who had not previously been involved in our battles.



"This past summer we did not spend a shekel on advertising for our protests. Newspaper advertising has become so expensive and the truth is that this is just much more effective."



HLMW is just one of a growing number of nonprofit organizations that are taking advantage of the new wave of on-line media. Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube and other far-reaching social networks can reach hundreds, if not thousands, of people with one click, and nonprofits big and small are realizing they can send their messages out much more quickly and cheaply then via traditional media outlets.



But while the benefits of touching thousands at a time are clear, experts warn that there is a downside too. With the centrality of the Internet in our daily lives, they say, the new social media could give voice to organizations that are dangerous or have questionable ethics.



In addition, say those in the know, if organizations do not mobilize such sites correctly, the transparency and the need for constant monitoring could cause serious damage to their reputations.



"THERE HAS been a huge trend in nonprofits using social media," comments Ruth Avidar, who is in the process of completing her doctorate in the field at the University of Haifa's Center for the Study of the Information Society.



"Since I started my dissertation four years ago, there has been a huge change, with organizations starting to realize how powerful social media can be," she says, adding that these on-line tools allow nonprofits to better interact with their public.



Avidar's research, which quizzed hundreds of businesses and nonprofit organizations, found that while Internet use in the country's third sector is still fairly underdeveloped, NGOs that are plugged in have been highly successful at reaching their target audiences and interacting with supporters and potential supporters.



This on-line medium, she says, "gives a platform to all organizations, even those without money, so that they can reach out to people or funders who they might not have been able to get to in the past."



While that is certainly a bonus of on-line social media, Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center's Prof. Tal Samuel Azran, an expert in new media, warns that giving a voice to smaller groups that in the past might have been considered inconsequential or fringe is exactly one of the dangers.



"The Internet is much less predictable than the mainstream media," points out Azran, who also teaches at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. "Organizations or movements that found it difficult in the past to get their message into the mainstream have no problem reaching thousands of people on-line."



Azran highlights the recent controversy over B'Tselem's Video Camera Distribution Project, which handed out cameras to Palestinians to record perceived illegal acts perpetrated by IDF soldiers. As the short clips were pasted on YouTube and other social media Web sites, the images stirred the Western media's imagination and suddenly B'Tselem's message was projected much further than the confines of a small supportive community here. The group's message had reached a new audience.

"This not even post-modernism," says Azran. "This is an example of ultra-post-modernism; it is a totally new concept that is far outside the mainstream media that we are used to.


"Some organizations today only have a voice or presence on the Internet. While in the past the mainstream media might have labeled them as peripheral, today these organizations can reach everyone. Even a deviant has the chance to speak out on through the Internet."



"Social media allow all groups the chance to start up a real dialogue with people and share with them their goals," contends Avidar, highlighting that it is all part of free speech and a trend that should be embraced.



"It is up to the public to decide which groups speak to them and which do not. People are not stupid and now they can see these groups for themselves."



IN ADDITION to the debate over free speech that comes with new Internet media, Royi Biller, CEO of the newly established Nonprofit Tech, a public benefit corporation that aims to assist NGOs in finding their place among the new technological order, says that Facebook, Twitter and other social media are not beneficial for all organizations; for some it can actually be damaging.



"Take this example," points out Biller. "If a friend of mine joins Facebook but is not active and never actually responds to me in that forum, it could hurt our relationship. The same is true for an organization. If an NGO joins [a social media site], then it needs to be prepared to create an ongoing dialogue with supporters. The Internet is dynamic and fast-moving; if an organization cannot keep up with that, then a potential supporter or funder could feel very let down."



Biller breaks the NGO world into two distinct groups - social rights organizations that have been very successful in harnessing social media and working them for the purpose of support and spreading ideology, and charities that work in a more service-oriented capacity, such as soup kitchens or food aid distributors, who have a small staff and cannot commit to updating their Facebook page or other such social media in a timely fashion.



"If I join the Facebook group of a certain organization and see that its last activity was six months ago, I would be suspicious about what this organization was up to," he says. "It does not look good at all.



"I have had calls from some NGOs who are bitterly disappointed with Facebook. They were told it would produce great results and they open a Facebook or Twitter or LinkedIn account expecting to find funding, but they do not see any quick results. Soon they realize updating it is a full-time job and they just do not have the resources for that."



According to Biller, one of the solutions to this is via GuideStar Israel (www.guidestar.org.il), an on-line portal not yet active that will eventually list the activities of all nonprofit organizations here and provide organizations a free forum to periodically update their activities and post messages. A joint initiative by the Justice Ministry, Yad Hanadiv (the Rothschild Foundation) and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee-Israel, GuideStar is the central project of Nonprofit Tech and is based on similar sites in the US and UK.



In the meantime, local social rights organizations are waking up to the power of on-line media as a way of getting their agendas across.



"We often had a problem getting our messages in the mainstream media," comments Dana Zimmerman, acting director of communications and publications for Amnesty International-Israel Section, explaining that Amnesty often focuses on global human rights issues not necessarily affecting Israel or the region. "Now, with social media, there is suddenly a big change and it is much simpler and easier for us to reach a wide audience."



One example of this is last week's Flash Mob protest that the NGO organized to highlight the plight of Eritrean asylum seekers. Based on similar demonstrations worldwide, the organizers invited protesters to lie on the ground in Tel Aviv's Kikar Dizengoff and remain frozen for several minutes, drawing the attention of passersby to their cause.



The event was posted on Amnesty's Facebook page for three weeks beforehand and the application also allowed organizers the freedom to embed a video clip of a similar protest at Grand Central Station in New York, which enhanced the explanation of exactly what was being planned. Some 200 people showed up for the protest, which was covered by Web portal Walla! and is now featured on Amnesty's Facebook page.



"It is still difficult for us to assess if [social media] have had an impact on our work," admits Zimmerman. "However, they are a very useful tool allowing us to post relevant news items and information from other organizations who are working in the same field."



Yael Edelist, spokeswoman for the Israel Women's Network, says the same is true for her organization. "When we started on Facebook a year ago, the goal was to reach out to younger women who had not usually been our supporters. Now we use Facebook and Twitter to post news stories from the mainstream media, provide updates about changes in legislation for women and to highlight our own events or those being organized by other groups important to us.



"It was becoming very expensive to advertise in newspapers," she added, saying that the organization does not feel it has lost out by choosing to advertise its events only on-line. "We believe in the power of this new media and plan to use them not only to reach the 400 Facebook followers we already have but hopefully to reach many more thousands of people."



While Edelist's goals are admirable, University of Haifa professor Sheizaf Rafaeli, director of Center for the Study of the Information Society and head of the Graduate School of Management, believes that organizations must not become complacent or rely too heavily on the social media. They need to keep thinking one step ahead, he urges.



"This year it's Facebook, last year it was Twitter, before that it was YouTube and MySpace. Organizations need to make sure they are using the most appropriate tool to reach the most people," he says. "NGOs need to keep ahead of the game if they really want to take advantage of this new reality."

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