Use Social Media to Spur Political Change

Become Famous Using Social Media is playing an increasingly prominent role in our society. Facebook, for example, has more than 600 million users as of January 2011, and it's increasing daily.[1] There have been a number of occasions in evidence already where social media has been put to wide use as a way of spurring political or social change, including the U.S. Republican congressional gains in the Nov 2010 elections,[2], the election of the first black U.S. president, Barack Obama, in 2008,[3] the 2010 Iranian elections, trying to free Sakineh from being stoned to death in violation of human rights laws,[4] challenging the slow response and lackluster sense of responsibility of BP and government officials during the Gulf of Mexico oil spill,[5] to the latest pushes for change sweeping the Arab world in Tunisia, Algeria[6], Egypt,[7] and Libya.[8]

When seeking to make use of the social media to spur political change, there are a number of things you need to take into consideration, including the import of the cause, your own capability with social media, and the need for speed, accuracy, and timely updates. In this article, you'll learn of a few ways that you might be able to take advantage of social media for the purposes of political change.

Note: For the purposes of this article, political change is taken to include changes sought in social institutions, governments, bureaucratic activities, and even the social behaviors and relations of a society.[9]


The realities of social media

  1. Be realistic about the potential of social media to spur political or social change. While social media is becoming one increasingly important factor in guiding how we live and interact in our globally connected world, it's obviously not the only factor. Yet, it's clearly an important factor, especially when it comes to Coordinate a Family Reunion, mobilizing, giving very up-to-the-moment information, and ensuring a morale boost of great immediacy to those participating in political or social change.
    • The real power of social media is in the fact that you, and all of your friends, coworkers, family members, fellow consumers, and everyone else around you regardless of age, gender, class, or employment status, who has access to Build a Social Media Plan, has automatic access to tools of change. For the first time in history, the immediacy and breadth of access allows almost everyone to have a say, or to watch what's happening, or to become actively engaged in supporting and clarifying what is going on.
    • However, bear in mind that other factors feed into political change, such as the time being right, there being enough people ready for change, and the availability of basic essentials such as food, shelter, electricity/energy (it's a bit hard to tweet or update without it), good health, and affordability of the tools giving access to social media platforms. And literacy is a must. And clearly not everyone has access to these tools (for example, in Bhutan, access to the internet is extremely controlled and during a crisis, governments have already shown a willingness to interfere with the communications systems). Nevertheless, given what has already been shown as possible, it's now valid to say that activists and visionaries can seize the opportunity inherent in social media to help spur political change.
  2. Understand the negativity about social media being viewed as a tool for political change. There are the those who argue that social media is not creating political or social change and that it's a poor choice of tool to evoke such change.[10] Others feel that it's overstepping the mark to suggest that social media can serve as a such a tool although it does play a particular role. Yet, recent events showing dissent against authoritarian governments have proven that social media is effective as a participant in spurring political and social change. And as Professor Clay Shirky points out, while detractors may argue that a bunch of people clicking on "Save Darfur" might not be any more helpful than bumper sticker activism, it's wrong to assume from that that people using social media in a concerted and directed way as part of their activist agenda aren't going to be successful doing so.[11] It's recommended that you make up your own mind about the utility and power of social media for you, based on what has already worked for other people and on your own comfort level with using the tools of social media.
  3. Use social media to learn about other perspectives and to grow in deeper understandings. Whatever else social media can or cannot do, it provides a platform for people to present Avoid Conflicting Thoughts and Emotions views free of government indoctrination or silencing, and in a way that permits of a conversation between differing worldviews. This conversation between global citizens can share a wealth of information and ideas that may be new or even confronting to one another but are views all worthy of consideration. Indeed, Professor Clay Shirky believes that this fertile ground for exchange of dissenting and differing views in the public sphere often projected from our home sphere is far more alive and motivating than abstract political ideals.[12]
  4. Seek what's really happening. Another benefit of social media is the lack of sanitization of information provided by the average person holding a cell phone in the thick of the dissent or updating via their laptop in a cafe around the corner from events as they're unfolding. While some people may prefer not to see the graphic images or retelling, it's only by really knowing the full, terrible extent of something that isn't right in society that people can be truly moved to want change. The shock, horror, fear, and disgust of those using social media on-the-ground can be a huge source of motivation and understanding to everyone else reading their commentary and updates. The fact that governments-in-trouble are trying to block access to social media platforms speaks volumes.[13]

Getting your social media activism started

  1. If you haven't already, open your own social media accounts. The more popular the medium, the better. Facebook and Twitter have a large number of users and therefore are currently the best options, although you'll learn about some broader possibilities below.
    • Read How to How to make a new Facebook account, How to How to create a Facebook page for a business, How to How to make a Twitter account for more information.
    • It's preferable that you interact with people as an individual. While companies, organizations, and their ilk are flocking to social media, their aim is to sell and promote their goods and services, which is not quite the same personal connection that you'll have as an individual. Even if you're part of an activist organization, it's still recommended you maintain a unique, accessible individual profile.
  2. Develop a good profile on your social media accounts. Your profile matters a great deal to people making a decision as to whether to follow you or not. If you have a cause, be loud and proud about it and use the linking sections to send people to a relevant website or blog of yours that contains information about what you're doing in terms of the cause or protest. While you don't need to be an expert with a degree as such, you do need to demonstrate that you have knowledge, experience, and a passion for whatever it is you're campaigning about.
  3. Start making as many friends as possible. The greater the number of friends you have in your social media networks, the more influence you will exert in the social media community as a whole. There is power in numbers and the more people who follow your updates, the more likely that your information is being passed on the people well beyond your direct sphere of influence.
  4. Befriend as many influential individuals as possible. Influential individuals are those with a large number of contacts or those in positions of authority. They are also people who have prominent roles, websites, positions, etc., that are relevant to the cause or protest that you're campaigning for. Befriending and sharing the information from these influential people will greatly magnify your sphere of influence.
    • Be aware that social media influential status is not necessary one of fame in other walks of life. You need to look for people who are influential within the social network itself, and within the cause or protest you're concerned about. The person may well have been an unknown before they took up the social media medium and started being effective within it. What matters is that they're known for being influential and they've got a lot of followers who regularly share their information around. One very good source of finding out who is influential is Use Klout.

Broadening the concept of social media

  1. Broaden your connectivity to others by broadening what you perceive as social media. Don't stop at Twitter and Facebook. There is also the rest of the internet, your cell phone (and even the landline phone), word-of-mouth within your walkable community, chatrooms, posters, advertisements. While some of these are more old-fashioned than others, they're still forms of social or citizenry media when produced by the average citizen seeking to engage others in constructive political or social change. Neglecting these other tools can lessen your overall impact. Think laterally and make use of the many possible ways, including ones yet to be thought of – perhaps it's you who will come up with more ideas for inter-citizenry connectivity. For the moment, some great ways to get people interested, concerned, and motivated about a particular cause include (and while these could be alone, they're probably best done in combinations):
    • Facebook group: Make a Facebook group. This will let you maintain regular updates, links, and analysis.
    • Hashtags: Develop a hashtag on Twitter. And keep your own Twitter updates informative, thoughtful, relevant, and current as the issue unfolds and increases.
    • Photos: Use photos on sites like Flickr and Picasa, or through Twitter and Facebook. Graphic images can have tremendous impact on people; images of war have always helped people to better understand the horrors, for instance.
    • Videos: Use video. Add videos to YouTube that show the issue, or are discussions or analyses about the issue. Other successful methods might include photo collages with information superimposed, or even background information for those who might not yet grasp all the issues (never assume anything!).
    • Interviews: Use interviews with people directly affected. If you're in the thick of it, do some citizen journalism and post online, either video or audio. Provide some analysis if needed.
    • Email lists: For example, when your cause celebrates a victory, it's a great idea to do a round-up of the issues and outcome for all your supporters on your email list, such as when a law case is successful in preventing an environmental disaster, or a revolution succeeds and you'd like to thank your social media network for their engagement in the issue.
    • Execute a Successful Survey or petitions: Avaaz[14] is a great example of a site that gets people to sign petitions about major causes, with the aim of being a campaigning community bringing people-powered politics to decision-making worldwide. Sending an email out or using Twitter and Facebook and asking people to sign a petition can be another effective way of getting support and spreading the word.
    • Texting: Use texting on phones. Something as simple as the campaign used by Philippine protest in 2001 where people sent messages "Go 2 ESDA. Wear blk"[13] can be very effective in getting people to one place, wearing colors of solidarity.
    • Advertisements: Fill commonly frequented spaces with ads, such as the current Washington DC metro ad campaign to close Guantanamo. This should segue into social media tools by providing web addresses, Twitter and Facebook links, etc., so that people can check out for more details online and continue following.
    • Good old print media: And don't forget Print Booklets, pamphlets, stickers, and other print items if you're on-the-ground. These old-fashioned methods of information-spreading may be a lot older than the internet but people who rally or demonstrate are just as willing to accept a printed item that might update them on happenings or offer advice and resources. And if the communications systems are clogged by interfering authorities, then the printed word passed out by hand still counts.

Building your own social media activist credentials

  1. Anchor your cause in what you already know, care about, and action in your daily interactions. There isn't much point wanting to be the spark that creates political or social change if it's not of interest to you or is too distant from your own passions and beliefs to be genuine. This is not about simply drumming up a bandwagon of excitement for a current issue; you'll only come across as genuine if you're already known for caring about the issues that have sparked the need for political change. For example, you might consistently tweet or update Facebook about environmental pollution, bureaucratic stuff-ups, democracy issues, corporate greed, or the lack of interest in funding education, etc. From your usual platform, you can extend your discussion, updates and viewpoints to a current issue in need of political change, whether it's as huge as protests of dissent seeking a change of government, or as small but still as significant as a campaign to increase the level of resourcing of education or libraries in your local area.
    • Your interest in democracy, human rights, education, gender equality, nature, the environment, animal welfare, and so forth, can easily keep you informed of and up-to-date about the bigger issues at stake; staying in the flow regularly means that when a particular situation arises or the time has come for real change, you're at the forefront of understanding its import and the necessity to jump in and support the fervor. All the same, don't curtail yourself; provided you have the passion, you can channel your activism and your passion for change into all similar issues grounded on ensuring human dignity, Understand the Basic Principles of the United Nations for all, and consideration for nature and other species.
    • Look for a catalyst for political change. Is there something in the news recently that would cause many to demand change? It is often much easier to promote something once a catalyst has started the process in the first place, provided you're knowledgeable about it.
  2. Get a sense of what motivates people. People are motivated most by affirming visions that describe a better future than the one they're experiencing now. Paint what the future should look like rather than focusing purely on the negatives. By all means be clear about current problems and even consider using examples and photos that goad people into action but don't keep the message on Overcome Negativity all the time. Amplify and describe to people the future possibilities.
    • Try using interactive tools to let people work out things for themselves, to give them a sense of ownership. For example, during the BP oil spill, an interactive map showing how the oil spill was projected to bloom across the ocean over time was tweeted around. This was more effective at concerning people than a whole lot of words. Perhaps use maps, historical timelines, or visual histories to help people better understand what is happening now and why. For example, showing a country's history of repression on a visual timeline might help people less familiar with the happenings grasp the concepts faster and with more accuracy than a whole lot of paragraphs detailing the same information.
    • Read How to win friends and influence people and How to influence people, How to get more followers on Twitter for more details on what to do.
  3. Write passionately about the political change you feel is necessary and that many people would support. You may need to consult others on this prior to proceeding and make sure what you write is legal, factual, and preferably considerate of all people involved in terms of gender, race, and ethnicity. Use blogs, Facebook, websites, and article sites to gt your longer written messages out there, and use your social networking accounts to share the links to your writing.
    • Video and photo essays are as effective as writing online, provided they're well produced. If you're keen on these media, use them to the full extent.

Getting the message out there

  1. Spread your message to as many of your social media contacts as possible. An important element of Teach a Child to Share is also asking your contacts to forward on what you've shared. This is how the power of social media manifests its strength and it is important to encourage others to be agents of change with you. For example, you may ask them to "RT" or retweet your messages on Twitter. The ripple effect of sharing, where if everyone has ten contacts, one person will affect ten, ten hundred, hundred thousand, and thousand ten thousand, is the social media guarantee that when a cause or protest takes hold, and all those connected will hear the message and join in.
    • In return, always do the same for those sharing your message if they're also providing relevant and important information; share their information too.
    • Join with like-minded people and civil society organizations, and share their updates as well as your own.
  2. Know what information you can share. There are many things you can share when the cause or protest takes off but it will depend on what the issue is and whether you're targeting people who are supporting via social media or people who are actively pursuing political change on-the-ground. Some ideas of what you might wish to share include:
    • Background information as to what the cause is, what you believe needs changing and why
    • Information that people can verify if they ask questions or are asked questions
    • What is going on in your area in terms of government, corporate, institutional, or military action (including photos and video, if you can)
    • Tips on how people can protect themselves against riot control agents, arrest, or against search and seizure, etc.
    • Emergency numbers for use in case protesters are arrested; bail options and ways people online might be able to help raise bail if relevant
    • Blueprints of where to go and what supplies to take; whether it's a peaceful demonstration or a riotous protest, keeping people in the know is a way of helping them stay safe and informed
    • Messages of support and solidarity to boost protesters' morale
    • Tips for how to bypass government censorship or read between the lines of propaganda
    • Actions that can be taken by the average citizen not actually participating or not even in the same country, such as filling in petitions, writing to officials and committees, spreading information in their own communities, Donate Money, raising awareness via their own websites or workplaces, etc., and provision of pro forms or templates is often very helpful to guide people.

Avoiding exaggeration

  1. Avoid over-extending your own importance. If you're not "on-the-ground" so to speak, be aware that you're not the frontline but that you do serve as a source of collaborative support. If the cause or protest you're actively promoting is one that involves violence, mayhem, and injury to people, such as during a political clash on the streets involving armies or police, and you're simply relaying the happenings, then you're certainly not experiencing the same hardships that those people on the ground are. Nevertheless, your moral support, your clear and continued collaboration to spread an outcry against the wrongs being committed against your fellow global citizens is a source of strength and solidarity with those who are at the frontline. Provided you remember your supportive and collaborative role in using social media, you'll be able to maintain the level of respect and concern for the dignity of people experiencing incredible hardships without coming across as cloying, condescending, or poorly informed.
    • See yourself as helping to empower others.
    • Be ready to apologize if you do cross the line and become over-zealous or misunderstand the issues. It can happen in the heat of the moment, in the power of the passion and given the nature of being fast online. Don't be arrogant – admit you overstepped the mark and get on with being a supporter or promoter again.
    • Don't retweet or share updates that you don't understand or fully engage with. Take the time to read everything relevant through thoroughly and ensure that it makes sense with you and aligns with your reasons for supporting the cause. In other words, don't just assume that things you've been copied in on are valid or worthy of redistribution without analyzing them first.

Using real life back up

  1. Have a base and its active counterpart in the real world too. People like to connect and help things that are growing, and show results where they can point to. For example, if you are following a petition for "more nature oriented" or "greenery", try doing groundwork in your neighborhood as a role model and upload updates (photos, meetings, work done, and members) in the online format. This will not only engage you in your passion but also help the web community you are interested to attract; as your base grows you will have opportunity to use the web portal of social networking as a mouthpiece for collaboration and a meeting place for common ideas.

Keep the vision steady but powerful

  1. Be patient. It will take time to update yourself with emerging trends in online media as well as the new opinions and technologies and changes in the offline world, especially if you have patience to hear what new members have to say, they are a valuable source of what's happening around the world. However, it is this very process of gradual conversation with others around the world, with opening your mind to other viewpoints and understandings that will result in change according to Professor Clay Shirky.[12] A large part of what you should be aiming to do is to create space for dialog, discussion, conversation, and brainstorming. Some changes will come faster than others, but the process of getting there is very important. Clay Shirky says that protest often comes at the end of all this careful groundwork, not as a replacement for it.[12] Be reassured that a large part of what you're doing is creating that public space in which people can feel comfortable to interact and express their concerns and visions for a preferred future.
    • Understand that "If You Write It, They Will Come"; especially if "it" is an idea who's time has come.
  2. Dream big, dream beyond borders. The internet is incredible in its potential and its ability to sustain relationships; who would have thought of using social media for protest 10 years ago? We're at the beginning of using social networking as a means for reorienting our world and these are exciting times. So much so, that Professor of Philosophy Anthony Weston believes that our online social networking presence can create "an alternative to the UN" in which ongoing direct contact between people solves issues as citizens and civil society rather than through governments alone.[15] He even envisions representative virtual districts, in which we our online presence is as persuasive as, if not more so, our geographical presence. If you think that's exciting, grasp that potential and be a part of helping to ensure that all voices are heard, no matter where our fellow human beings live.
    • Maintain virtual Create a Dialog in with people all around the world; show interest and care about issues that impact people elsewhere. Ultimately, the global market, communications, transportation, environment, shared atmosphere, and shared values of humanity ensure that we're all interlinked anyway, so this is both Benefit from Volunteering and self-serving at once.
    • Given that a few revolutions and changes are already been attributed to social media, this means hope to people in other places in need of massive societal change. They are watching, listening, learning, and waiting their turn. For example, while Africans have huge issues of poverty to contend with, the mobile web has penetrated deeply throughout Africa, to the point where Kenyan blogger Brian Mungeli believes that 2011 is "the year of the social media... [and that the Egyptian revolution] will make more leaders aware of the power of social media and the highly unpredictable youth who dominate the platforms".[16] Rather than simply "watching this space", social media participants are influencing it too.



  • Be ready for authoritarian governments to react poorly in some cases, especially where the social activism via social media is viewed as a large threat. Governments with close control over the communications networks (and let's face it, that's most governments) might feel compelled to shut the networks down. In this case, you'll need to have other ways to manage around this, perhaps including having friends in other countries ready to take up the cause for you should your voice suddenly "disappear" as a result of a shutdown. Think about this in advance and plan accordingly.
  • Find out what the hashtags are for your movement and use them.
  • Don't get discouraged if you don't succeed at first. It often takes much perseverance and trials for major changes to take root.


  • Avoid flaming politics and religious causes unless absolutely necessary. Strong opinions must only be voiced if they are your own. Avoid mob mentality "this should be" rather go for "this... is what we/I propose cause it will help this...".
  • Political change that involves tanks, snipers, and torture is no game. People get injured, they disappear, and they get killed; be very, very careful if you're in the thick of it and you're also putting yourself out loud and clear as someone who is using social media to spark change.
  • Be careful of how you get involved in politics. In some cases you could leave yourself open to being persecuted, prosecuted, or both. You might end up on government blacklists and only find out when you arrive at another country's airport and get your entry declined. Know what you're getting involved in, how it might impact you and what risks you might be facing.
  • If the issue is controversial in nature, you may have to face legal challenges and/or feisty opinion or commentary attacking you. Be ready for them rather than avoiding them. It's a necessary precaution towards change that may force many people to let go or sacrifice something they are accustomed to.
  • If someone has a better idea, allow him/her space in your campaign and mentor them. Everyone needs a voice and not all have the expertise and skills you may be enjoying.
  • It may be at times, after a long running of success, that things may change in ways you never anticipated. Learn from them and improve your skills accordingly.
  • A cause that helps you in your daily life is a good point to start your campaign with rather than a cause you have heard about being good. Apply, inspect, form a creative plan, and then promote.

Things You'll Need

  • Computer access
  • Time, and an idea whose time has come

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Sources and Citations

  1. "Goldman to clients: Facebook has 600 million users". MSNBC. January 5, 2011. Retrieved July January 15, 2011.
  4. Wikipedia,
  5. Douglas MacMillan, Facebook, Twitter Users Vent Wrath Over Oil Spill,
  6. Alex Lantier, Riots shake Tunisia and Algeria,
  7. Ian Douglas, The real use of social media in the Egyptian revolution,
  8. ABC News, Witness describes Libyan crackdown,
  9. Wikipedia, Social Change,
  10. Bill Doskoch, Why social media sucks as a political change tool,
  11. Clay Shirky, The Political Power of Social Media,,
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 Clay Shirky, The Political Power of Social Media,
  13. 13.0 13.1 Clay Shirky, The Political Power of Social Media,
  15. Anthony Weston, How to Re-Imagine the World, p. 33, (2007), ISBN 978-0-86571-594-3
  16. John Mokwetsi, The fall of dictatorial regimes in Egypt and Tunisia has largely been attributed to social media collaboration,