Q&A  | 

Can online activism change the world? With Maribel Tellado

Maribel Tellado García, Campaigns for Mobilization Deputy Manager at Amnesty International: "Online activism can mean the difference between life and death".

Tags: 'Amnesty International' 'hashtag' 'Maribel Tellado' 'online activism' 'slacktivism'


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Maribel Tellado García works at Amnesty International Spain since 2007. As Campaigns for Mobilization Deputy Manager, one of her responsibilities is coordinating Amnesty International's global campaigns and promoting the strategic mobilization of the organization throughout the Spanish territory.

"The online environment has the extraordinary power of mobilizing hundreds of thousands of people for a cause [...] It can mean the difference between life and death".

What is online activism and what are its main manifestations today?

Digital activism uses the Internet as a tool to mobilize public opinion in defense of different causes. Social media in particular has helped it thrive dramatically for it brings users and those who have decision-making power to the same level, be they governors, company managers, representatives of political parties or others.

Social media is an open door to their offices and allows people to reach authorities in real time to exert pressure or generate noise and force them to position themselves on a certain issue.

E-mailing campaigns can be blocked by those to which they’re adressed, but in the case of social media they have a more difficult time closing profiles for the world is watching.

Which are the main platforms for online activism today?

All platforms are valuable and each has its specificity.

Twitter, due to its immediacy and ability to multiply a message, has become an essential platform for actions that require a quick response and the involvement of as many people as possible in the shortest possible time.

Facebook is a particularly interesting channel to create long lasting interest groups. Instagram allows for the use of images as a provocative or inspiring element that makes it easier for people to identify with a cause at first sight.

TikTok, whose main audience is children and teenagers, is a very interesting tool too, for it not only sparks  mobilization in this age group but also fights the different kinds of abuse some minors are subjected to.

Actions that were initially promoted through SMS still exist, but they have been transferred to currently more popular messaging services such as WhatsApp or Telegram. These, although more limited in terms of scope if compared with Twitter, can still multiply actions because they rely on the user’s personal contacts who can relate more easily with the issues raised by the campaings.

The use of memes, images, animated and funny GIFS favor viralization and reach more people. Amnesty International’s #GIFSanidad campaign is an example of this, and in a recent action against sexual violence in Spain we promoted the use of Bernie Sanders-style memes at the inauguration of President Biden.

How has the pandemic impacted online activism?

It has lead us to innovate and put even more weight on online activism.

Platforms initially designed to communicate and meet have also been used as a tool for digital activism. Strikes, concentrations, digital demonstrations and symbolic actions based on photographs, videos or protest messages have been called via Zoom. An example was the action in favor of women’s rights in Poland #ProtestAtHome.

We have added QR codes to activism, profiting from the fact that we have been forced to install the related software to access the menus of bars and restaurants. This was a key element in the #FreeSaudiWomen action we promoted on activists jailed for demanding equality in Saudi Arabia, during the G-20 meeting in November last year.

A very interesting and perhaps less well-known online activism approach is people carrying out online joint investigating efforts on the human rights abuses we flag in Amnesty International. Currently more than 50,000 online activists from 150 countries are collaborating with us on the analysis of data, social media messages, satellite images and other documents.

E.g. through satellite imagery they have helped identify attacks directed against civilians in villages in remote rural areas of Darfur (Sudan), as well as the more than 11,000 buildings destroyed in Raqqa, Syria, as a result of  bombings by coalition forces led by the United States.

Is online activism leading to real changes in the world?

The online environment has the extraordinary power of mobilizing hundreds of thousands of people for a cause.

It sometimes can make the difference between life and death. Last summer a court in South Sudan overturned the death sentence of Magai Matiop Ngong, a boy at the time of the crime. It is very likely that this underaged boy would not have escaped dead had it not been for the more than 765,000 people around the world who showed their support through online actions.

In the United States, police brutality against Black people sparked a wave of global outrage against racism on social media and in support of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, which undoubtedly contributed to major breakthroughs. Through an executive order, President Trump encouraged the creation of incentives to limit the use of force by the police as well as a national database on abuse of police authority.

Argentina’s campaign to legalize abortion gathered online support throughout the world and finally abortion was legalized.

In your opinion, what was the most important online activism movement so far?

Undoubtely, #MeToo.

This movement that emerged in the United States denouncing sexual violence in the world of cinema not only managed to encourage female celebrities to step forward and acknowledge having been abused by powerful men in the film business, thus ending decades of impunity, but set a precedent that spread like wildfire throughout the world.

In Europe, #MeToo has fostered big advances towards lawmaking efforts that make it clear that sex without consent is rape.

And let’s not forget #FridaysForFuture, the global and youth climate movement started by Greta Thunberg which has mobilized millions of young students around the world. The impact of this movement was such that it has helped bring justice to the victims of the climate crisis in places like the Filippines – there, the Human Rights Commission announced that 47 large companies in the fossil fuel sector could be held accountable for violating citizens’ rights due to the damage caused by climate change.

In an article by Manal Al-Sharif in the NYTimes, the Saudi activist explained how the same tools that have allowed many protest movements in the Middle East to grow have also facilitated the persecution and silencing of their supporters. She specifically mentioned Twitter's prepaid service that allows access to a person's entire tweet history, the perfect surveillance tool for authoritarian regimes. Does does the social media business model affect the life of activists?

Unfortunately, it is true that social networks can also be a dangerous place for people who dare to speak out.

Blogging, posting on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or YouTube can be risky when governments want to crack down on activism and freedom of expression, and many people face persecution for their digital activism.

A recent case is that of Yulia Tsvetkova, a young Russian artist and stage director who was arrested and accused of absurd charges of “production and dissemination of pornographic materials” for posting drawings and photographs of the woman’s body on social networks in the frame of a women’s empowerment campaign.

Do initiatives like change.org work?

They sure do, it is very positive that there are platforms that make it easy to support those causes we are in favor of.

In Spain, a 14-year-old boy managed through change.org to suppress the ESO and Baccalaureate tests that the then Minister of Education, Juan Ignacio Wert, had promoted.

On Social media, a well-known example was the Ice Bucket Challenge (2014) promoted by a former Boston college baseball player who was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, ALS. He managed to raise awareness and millions of dollars for associations that treat the disease.

According to The Critical Periphery in the Growth of Social Protests report carried out by researchers from Oxford, NY University and the University of Pennsylvania, the so-called feel-good activists or slackativists - referring to activists who limit themselves to adhere to causes via social networks- are just as important as the most committed activists at the core of the protests in getting the message out. Do you agree?

I think terms like “feel-good activists” or “lazy activists” that refer to online activism not only are derogatory but do not reflect the real interest that people have in supporting just causes.

A person who has little time and signs an online action is as valuable as someone who has more time and can support the same cause by means that demand greater availability.

We all have the right to help build a better world. At Amnesty International we have activists who are solely digital and put a lot of energy and effort into this form of mobilization.

How important is digital activism for Amnesty International?

A lot of. Amnesty International pioneered online activism almost 20 years ago, when we collected 2,300,000 signatures online to prevent two women from being stoned to death in Nigeria. It was 2002 and both Safiya Yakubu Hussaini and, shortly after, Amina Lawal, were acquitted.

Our organization was born in 1967, when the founder, Peter Benenson, wrote an article in which he asked people from all over the world to write letters in favor of some Portuguese students imprisoned for toasting freedom. Today we continue to promote the sending of letters but they are written in a computer. 

Finally, the online environment also helps multiply street activism.