Finding a voice in Facebook

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

migrant workers children 311  (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
migrant workers children 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
'We will demonstrate against the government decisionto deport the children of migrant workers after all. The demonstrationwill take place today, Tuesday, at 7:30 p.m. at the corner of Ben-Zionand King George St. We must show the ministers that their voters areagainst deportation of children!" - October 13, 2009 at 7:33 a.m.
Pay close attention to this announcement. Made bythe nonprofit organization, Hot Line for Migrant Workers (HLMW), toprotest the government's threatened deportation of foreign workers'children, this rallying call brought together hundreds of migrants andhuman rights supporters in exactly 12 hours.
The call was not made on the radio, nor was it published in thenewspapers and it certainly did not form the basis of hundreds ofe-mails or phone calls to supporters, rather it is three simplesentences placed by HLMW on the wildly popular social media Web siteFacebook. It was a cry for help that reached thousands of people withinminutes and it highlights the resonance that new Internet media havefor hundreds of local NGOs.
Of course, this particular demonstration was just one of manythat happened over the past six months to protest Interior Minister EliYishai's plans to deport some 1,200 children of migrant workers, but asthe gatherings grew in size toward the end of last year, Prime MinisterBinyamin Netanyahu was finally forced to weigh in on the debate. Heagreed to allow the children to stay at least until the end of Augustto finish up the school year.
"We joined Facebook this past summer when thegovernment launched its campaign to expel the children of migrantworkers," says Shevy Korzen, executive director of HLMW, a nonpartisan,not for profit organization dedicated to promoting the rights ofundocumented migrant workers and refugees, as well as eliminating humantrafficking.
"Events were moving at such a fast pace and even though we havea Web site it could not be updated quickly enough," she says. "Wewanted to organize demonstrations and gather up our supporters in onlya few hours to speak out against the government's policies. Many of oursupporters 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-mailsand worrying that people might not get the message in time."
She says that the NGO also tried utilizingmicro-blogging tool Twitter to keep its supporters updated but "thatdid not really catch on." Instead, the organization focused on buildingup its following on Facebook and, in less than six months, HLMW hasaccumulated some 1,127 "friends," keeping them updated almost hourlywith links to news items from around the world, sparking discussions onthe controversial topics important to the NGO and rallying itsfollowers to take up the causes at ongoing demonstrations.
"We are definitely seeing a much bigger turnout than in thepast," notes Korzen, who says HLMW staff takes it in turn to update thepage throughout the day. "I have also begun to notice that it is notjust the same people showing up at our demonstrations like in the past.Because of Facebook our messages are also reaching those who had notpreviously been involved in our battles.
"This past summer we did not spend a shekel on advertising forour protests. Newspaper advertising has become so expensive and thetruth is that this is just much more effective."
HLMW is just one of a growing number of nonprofit organizationsthat are taking advantage of the new wave of on-line media. Facebook,Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube and other far-reaching social networks canreach hundreds, if not thousands, of people with one click, andnonprofits big and small are realizing they can send their messages outmuch more quickly and cheaply then via traditional media outlets.
But while the benefits of touching thousands at a time areclear, experts warn that there is a downside too. With the centralityof the Internet in our daily lives, they say, the new social mediacould give voice to organizations that are dangerous or havequestionable ethics.
In addition, say those in the know, if organizations do notmobilize such sites correctly, the transparency and the need forconstant 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 doctoratein the field at the University of Haifa's Center for the Study of theInformation Society.
"Since I started my dissertation four years ago, there has beena huge change, with organizations starting to realize how powerfulsocial media can be," she says, adding that these on-line tools allownonprofits to better interact with their public.
Avidar's research, which quizzed hundreds of businesses andnonprofit organizations, found that while Internet use in the country'sthird sector is still fairly underdeveloped, NGOs that are plugged inhave been highly successful at reaching their target audiences andinteracting with supporters and potential supporters.
This on-line medium, she says, "gives a platform to allorganizations, even those without money, so that they can reach out topeople or funders who they might not have been able to get to in thepast."
While that is certainly a bonus of on-line social media,Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center's Prof. Tal Samuel Azran, an expertin new media, warns that giving a voice to smaller groups that in thepast might have been considered inconsequential or fringe is exactlyone of the dangers.
"The Internet is much less predictable than the mainstreammedia," points out Azran, who also teaches at Ben-Gurion University ofthe Negev. "Organizations or movements that found it difficult in thepast to get their message into the mainstream have no problem reachingthousands of people on-line."
Azran highlights the recent controversy over B'Tselem's VideoCamera Distribution Project, which handed out cameras to Palestiniansto record perceived illegal acts perpetrated by IDF soldiers. As theshort clips were pasted on YouTube and other social media Web sites,the images stirred the Western media's imagination and suddenlyB'Tselem's message was projected much further than the confines of asmall supportive community here. The group's message had reached a newaudience.
"This not even post-modernism," says Azran. "This isan example of ultra-post-modernism; it is a totally new concept that isfar outside the mainstream media that we are used to.
"Some organizations today only have a voice orpresence on the Internet. While in the past the mainstream media mighthave labeled them as peripheral, today these organizations can reacheveryone. Even a deviant has the chance to speak out on through theInternet."
"Social media allow all groups the chance to start up a realdialogue with people and share with them their goals," contends Avidar,highlighting that it is all part of free speech and a trend that shouldbe embraced.
"It is up to the public to decide which groups speak to themand which do not. People are not stupid and now they can see thesegroups for themselves."
IN ADDITION to the debate over free speech that comes with newInternet media, Royi Biller, CEO of the newly established NonprofitTech, a public benefit corporation that aims to assist NGOs in findingtheir place among the new technological order, says that Facebook,Twitter and other social media are not beneficial for allorganizations; for some it can actually be damaging.
"Take this example," points out Biller. "If a friend of minejoins Facebook but is not active and never actually responds to me inthat forum, it could hurt our relationship. The same is true for anorganization. If an NGO joins [a social media site], then it needs tobe prepared to create an ongoing dialogue with supporters. The Internetis dynamic and fast-moving; if an organization cannot keep up withthat, then a potential supporter or funder could feel very let down."
Billerbreaks the NGO world into two distinct groups - social rightsorganizations that have been very successful in harnessing social mediaand working them for the purpose of support and spreading ideology, andcharities that work in a more service-oriented capacity, such as soupkitchens or food aid distributors, who have a small staff and cannotcommit to updating their Facebook page or other such social media in atimely fashion.
"If I join the Facebook group of a certain organization and seethat its last activity was six months ago, I would be suspicious aboutwhat this organization was up to," he says. "It does not look good atall.
"I have had calls from some NGOs who are bitterly disappointedwith Facebook. They were told it would produce great results and theyopen a Facebook or Twitter or LinkedIn account expecting to findfunding, but they do not see any quick results. Soon they realizeupdating it is a full-time job and they just do not have the resourcesfor that."
According to Biller, one of the solutions to this is viaGuideStar Israel (www.guidestar.org.il), an on-line portal not yetactive that will eventually list the activities of all nonprofitorganizations here and provide organizations a free forum toperiodically update their activities and post messages. A jointinitiative by the Justice Ministry, Yad Hanadiv (the RothschildFoundation) and the American Jewish Joint DistributionCommittee-Israel, GuideStar is the central project of Nonprofit Techand is based on similar sites in the US and UK.
In the meantime, local social rights organizations are wakingup to the power of on-line media as a way of getting their agendasacross.
"We often had a problem getting our messages in the mainstreammedia," comments Dana Zimmerman, acting director of communications andpublications for Amnesty International-Israel Section, explaining thatAmnesty often focuses on global human rights issues not necessarilyaffecting Israel or the region. "Now, with social media, there issuddenly a big change and it is much simpler and easier for us to reacha wide audience."
One example of this is last week's Flash Mob protest that theNGO organized to highlight the plight of Eritrean asylum seekers. Basedon similar demonstrations worldwide, the organizers invited protestersto lie on the ground in Tel Aviv's Kikar Dizengoff and remain frozenfor several minutes, drawing the attention of passersby to their cause.
The event was posted on Amnesty's Facebook page for three weeksbeforehand and the application also allowed organizers the freedom toembed a video clip of a similar protest at Grand Central Station in NewYork, which enhanced the explanation of exactly what was being planned.Some 200 people showed up for the protest, which was covered by Webportal Walla! and is now featured on Amnesty's Facebook page.
"It is still difficult for us to assess if [social media] havehad an impact on our work," admits Zimmerman. "However, they are a veryuseful tool allowing us to post relevant news items and informationfrom other organizations who are working in the same field."
Yael Edelist, spokeswoman for the Israel Women's Network, saysthe same is true for her organization. "When we started on Facebook ayear ago, the goal was to reach out to younger women who had notusually been our supporters. Now we use Facebook and Twitter to postnews stories from the mainstream media, provide updates about changesin legislation for women and to highlight our own events or those beingorganized 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 outby choosing to advertise its events only on-line. "We believe in thepower of this new media and plan to use them not only to reach the 400Facebook followers we already have but hopefully to reach many morethousands of people."
While Edelist's goals are admirable, University of Haifaprofessor Sheizaf Rafaeli, director of Center for the Study of theInformation Society and head of the Graduate School of Management,believes that organizations must not become complacent or rely tooheavily 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 thatit was YouTube and MySpace. Organizations need to make sure they areusing the most appropriate tool to reach the most people," he says."NGOs need to keep ahead of the game if they really want to takeadvantage of this new reality."