The social media efforts which recently brought global attention to Palestinian nonviolent resistance (Khader Adnan) and to the impact of Israeli occupation on Palestinian intimate and family relationships (Love Under Apartheid) did not do so by chance. Neither effort could have succeeded without a sound understanding of several key social media concepts. Although several news articles and blog posts have reported on these campaigns, none have yet explored the question of why the efforts were effective. This question is particularly salient for activists seeking to derive insights to inform future campaigns, such as the emerging campaign in support of another Palestinian hunger striker, Hana al-Shalabi.
Comparing the ways in which these two campaigns unfolded can illuminate the extent to which subtle differences in goals, interactivity, and approaches to planning can impact the overall shape of a social media effort. Thematically, the emphasis of Love Under Apartheid was on a set of ongoing sociopolitical issues, presented in a way that encouraged empathy and reflection. In the case of Khader Adnan, imprisoned for months and never charged with any crime, the emphasis was on raising awareness of a specific unfolding story (Adnan’s hunger strike), and encouraging specific actions in a context of extreme urgency. Let’s explore how this played out.
Defining the Goals
Activist Tanya Keilani was inspired to organize “Love Under Apartheid” after learning of the many occupation-related obstacles that a Palestinian friend was encountering in the course of planning her wedding. “I was really upset that her future was so uncertain; love is hard enough to navigate without such policies. I knew there were more stories out there,” says Keilani. “So often, Palestinians are spoken for; I wanted to create a space where Palestinians could speak for themselves about issues deeply important to them.”
The social media campaign surrounding the hunger strike of Khader Adnan, the longest in Palestinian history, was less centralized than Love Under Apartheid, but was likewise conceived with clear goals in mind. First and foremost was to increase the visibility of Adnan’s strike (itself designed to draw attention to the plight of Palestinian political prisoners) within the social media sphere. As this goal was achieved, a related goal quickly emerged as well: to encourage mainstream media outlets to report on the story, which had received scant attention, by making it increasingly difficult to ignore. It was also widely believed that such mainstream media attention would be necessary to apply sufficient pressure to prompt to Israel to comply with Adnan’s demands, thus ending his hunger strike and saving his life.
Choosing The Right Channels
To achieve their goals with Love Under Apartheid, Keilani and her colleagues had to identify what social media channels were best suited to the forms of content and interaction they wished to promote. “Twitter and Facebook were obvious choices,” she says, “but it was really useful to release a promotional video that was entertaining, well made, and easily accessible to multiple audiences, and to host the video on a site normally untouched by political campaigns (FunnyOrDie).”
A key advantage with Twitter is the ease with which a user can contribute original content to a public conversation, or rebroadcast a received message to one’s own network (often, with a single click). Facebook requires slightly more effort on the part of the user, but offers the added bonus of thumbnail images to promote content to which a message is linking. The presence of a thumbnail image is known to have a dramatic impact on the likelihood that a Facebook post will be “Liked” or “Shared”. Video content, in part because of the immersive quality that results from combining a moving image with an audio component, tends to inspire more redistribution on the part of users, and is thus more likely to achieve the critical mass required to “go viral”.
In the case of Khader Adnan, Twitter’s ease of use contributed to that platform becoming the primary channel for the campaign. Further, journalists are increasingly turning to Twitter for leads, more so than other social media outlets, particularly with respect to breaking stories. The same simplicity that makes Twitter easier to use for content creation contributes, along with its flatter structure, to making it a richer, more usable source for real-time news information. Facebook and other tools were used in the Khader Adnan campaign as well, particularly once activists began creating and sharing original imagery in support of the campaign, such as the infographic produced by the Visualizing Palestine project, but the Twitter component predominated throughout.
Because both Twitter and Facebook offer the ability to share links to online video (or images), with the latter platform enabling the links to be accompanied by a thumbnail image, utilizing this combination of channels in a coordinated effort can often achieve a synergistic effect. Users can be offered a broader range of opportunities to participate in the conversation, and content distributed on each channel can be used to draw traffic to each of the others.
A social media campaign that utilizes multiple channels synergistically, with each channel employed in a manner that leverages its unique strengths toward the achievement of a common goal, possesses exponentially more potential than a set of less-connected efforts.
How Twitter Trends Work
Many Twitter campaigns are intended to cause a targeted term to “trend”. That is, to cause it to be promoted via a special section of Twitter’s web interface, greatly increasing its visibility. Most campaigns focus on a special type of term called a “hashtag”, which is effectively a category label preceded by a hash sign (#).
The Twitter website’s recently introduced “Discover” tab showcases stories related to the top ten trending terms at any given time, which remain in their position for six hours after they begin trending. Needless to say, this feature increases the visibility of a term considerably more than that term’s inclusion on a simple text-based list. This is so desirable that the fee charged by Twitter to have a targeted term artificially promoted to the top of the trending terms list is $120,000. For activists, as the Electronic Intifada’s Jalal Abukhater put it, “organizing a trending hashtag for Khader Adnan is just like organizing a large protest on the corner of the busiest and most crowded street in a city.”
Despite popular misconceptions, Twitter’s list of “trending” terms does not simply indicate what terms are popular at any given time. Rather, it indicates what terms are manifesting sudden popularity. As Twitter spokesperson Matt Graves explains, “We look at trending topics as a reflection of what people are talking about more right now in this moment, than they were a minute ago, an hour ago or a day ago.”
Understanding this principle is key to landing a targeted term among those that are trending. Not only is it necessary to induce large numbers of users to tweet using a given term, but to prevent that term from being tweeted to any significant degree until a designated time. The absence of such a sudden spike in popularity, despite a large overall popularity, is believed to have greatly limited the appearance of terms related to the Occupy movement among those that have trended. The key to avoiding this disappointing fate is coordination.
Planned Sponaneity and Controlled Chaos
In order to avoid the hashtags selected for the campaign from being introduced to the Twittersphere prior to a designated time (thus reducing the chance of getting them to trend), the hashtags were privately communicated to individual Twitter users. While some participants communicated the tags broadly across their personal networks, others focused on contacting specific Twitter users whom they perceived as being influential. As a result of this approach, and despite a handful of minor “leaks”, hashtags such as “#Khader61days” repeatedly exploded onto Twitter en masse at the targeted time (usually at 10:00 P.M. Palestinian time), and achieved the goal of appearing among Twitter’s top trending terms.
Organizers were careful to remind participants to avoid the use of multiple related hashtags in the same tweet, a phenomenon believed to have contributed to the trending difficulties experienced by the Occupy movement. Participants were also reminded to follow Twitter rules surrounding the use of hashtags, such as being certain to “add value to the conversation” with each use of the same hashtag (in practice, this largely means to avoid repeatedly posting identical or nearly identical content along with the hashtag). Failure to comply with the rules can result in tweets being filtered out of Twitter’s search index (and from consideration in the trending algorithm). In extreme cases, violators’ accounts may even be suspended.
Despite the very strategic way in which the initial Khader Adnan Twitter campaign was planned (using the hashtag “#DyingToLive”), some elements were implemented post-launch. As activist Leila Saleh notes, upon seeing the campaign’s initial impact, “We didn’t want the attention to die down. We decided to broaden our horizons and make it a daily thing. We created an unofficial Twitter account for Khader, set up a Gmail account, and a blog for solidarity posts from people all over the world to send to his wife, Randa.” In addition, many Facebook and Twitter users temporarily changed their profile images to graphics designed to draw further attention to the campaign.This introduced a degree of multi-channel synergy that was not present in the initial Twitter-only effort.
As the campaign unfolded, organizers honed their approach, and each wave brought increased sophistication to the effort as new lessons were learned and incorporated. As seen in the below example from the successor campaign in support of Hana al-Shalabi, one of these lessons was to encourage participants to prepare tweets (which are limited to 140 characters) in advance of the designated time, leaving enough room for the as-yet-unannounced hashtag.
All the Ducks in a Row
Love Under Apartheid was designed to incorporate many different elements from the beginning, and so its planning took a different and more centralized form. In addition to the primary “Checkpoint Date” video and the efforts to promote it on Facebook and Twitter, the campaign also included a website (containing many other videos), a separate Facebook page, various promotional graphics, a press release, and even a direct action component. “Because we were working with Palestinians locally and abroad and with multiple artists, editors and contributors,” says Keilani, “it was important that our team was very organized so that every aspect of the project was ready in time for the launch.” It was particularly important, she notes, to have all the elements, especially the press release, ready for simultanous launch before Valentine’s Day. In this way, the campaign was able to generate buzz that could lead to media coverage on Valentine’s Day itself, when the content would be most topical, and thus most likely to receive press attention. “By February 13th, we trended worldwide on Twitter,” Keilani says. “This allowed news sites to hear about and then cover Love Under Apartheid, which in turn brought us more exposure.”
New Media, New Challenges
The “tidal wave” of content aimed at encouraging mainstream media coverage, though effective, was not without its critics. As Robert Mackey, author of the New York Times’ The Lede blog, told Alex B. Kane of Mondoweiss, “I dislike the use of Twitter to press journalists to cover events, because I use the social network to find reports or commentary on the news from bloggers, journalists and eyewitnesses… Organized efforts to make certain subjects more prominent seems to make Twitter less useful to me by changing the signal to noise ratio.”
Activists using social media in this way should be aware that journalists do vary in the ways in which they themselves utilize social media, and many undoubtedly hold views similar to Mackey’s. It’s worth paying attention to the growing body of literature focused on the means by which professional journalists engage with social media. This is an evolving landscape, however. As the level of social media “noise” seems destined to increase irrespective of its use in these sorts of campaigns, journalists who draw on social media may increasingly need to rely upon aggregation and filtering tools designed to highlight the highest quality, most relevant content. As such tools proliferate, learning how generate high-quality content that can successfully pass through such filters will become an important science in itself.
The unique context of Palestine solidarity activism provides its own challenges and opportunities in the realm of social media. I asked Love Under Apartheid’s Tanya Keilani to summarize what factors she felt had contributed most to the effort’s success:
“Love Under Apartheid was a successful campaign in part because it was timely, conceptually strong, and allowed for new ways to communicate struggle. I believe expression and exchange are central to activist work… Israeli occupation intends to extinguish the Palestinian right to life as more than a subjected and violated mass; the stories of Love Under Apartheid and the Khader Adnan Twitter/media campaign shed paternalistic victimhood and demand the right to love and live with dignity.”