Building an eco-system for digital activism

RNW Media’s work is based on digital activism – leveraging the online space to support young people in restrictive settings bring about change in their offline world. The Citizens’ Voice programme uses digital media to provide alternative civic spaces which can stimulate the move from polarised discussion to constructive debate and dialogue. It uses blogging and multi-media content to create and maintain digital platforms and communities where young people from across political, ethnic, racial, regional, religious or other divides can come together in a way that is often impossible offline.

Jahou Nyan is a development journalist, and as part of her Master’s Degree in Data Driven Design at The University of Applied Sciences in Utrecht she completed an internship with the Citizens’ Voice programme. During her time with RNW Media she undertook a major research project into the requirements for what she calls an engagement ecosystem for digital activism.

Re-shaping political discourse
Nyan writes that “the immediacy of social media, its ubiquity and low learning threshold means it has come to dominate all aspects of communications in the 21st Century. In this era, digital activism has become a force for civic engagement and participation. Around the world, people get informed, form opinions, share views and take action based on content circulating on social media networks. And tech-savvy youth, increasingly armed with cheap Chinese smartphones, and cheaper access to social media channels like Facebook and WhatsApp have created a new, virtual commons to reshape political discourse.”

Citizens’ Voice platforms
The premise of her research is that digital activism, like many other forms of online engagement, works in an ecosystem. And just as the success of a species is largely dependent on environmental factors, and its reaction to those circumstances, so is the success of a digital activist platform. Nyan looks at three specific cases in her study: the Citizens’ Voice blogging platforms Benbere, Habari and Yaga based in Mali, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Burundi respectively, each operated by a collective of at least 100 bloggers.

Blogging for change
Using blogs to drive change was a strategic choice for Citizens’ Voice. Young people often prefer to learn from their peers rather than from ‘Big Brother’ or a removed authoritarian voice, which makes blogs a powerful tool, especially when combined with social media. Ongoing dialogue, debate and commentary are central to blogs. That make them a natural fit for the purpose of creating an alternative digital space for discourse. Blogs are also an especially useful way for marginalised groups to carve out a space in which they can set the agenda and thus further Citizens’ Voice goal of inclusion.

Building a better brand
Nyan concludes that for effective digital activism, sites such as Yaga, Benbere and Burundi should adopt some of the branding techniques used by commercial websites to build loyalty and trust in their audience. A Digital Activism Engagement Ecosystem model would work as follows.

An activist organisation undertakes actions online that are received by its target audience. This audience is also influenced by other actors such as the media, which shapes their perception of brand actions. Depending on the brand experience, the target audience engages in a variety of dialogue behaviours with the brand. These behaviours can be observation, participation or co-creation. Prompted by the activist platform, users can engage in online and/or offline actions. Taking action and engaging in this ecosystem leads to activism, loyalty to a cause and personal satisfaction, which in turn leads to more engagement. All elements of the model interact and influence each other, in a continuous feedback loop that is dynamic and non-hierarchical

Click  Digital Activism Engagement Ecosystem to read Jahou Nyanan’s full thesis