Follow the same principles for protesting online as you would offline
This article was republished with permission from the author and Change.org Foundation.
As campaigners at Change.org, we dedicate much of our time helping petition starters on our platform escalate their campaigns toward achieving victory. Often, this means helping them organise in-person demonstrations in public spaces. But when coronavirus and #StayAtHome happened, we needed to get more creative in supporting twice as many petitions we saw on our platform.
One of these petitions we supported in a unique way was a breakout campaign started by Berlin-based freelance fashion designer Tonia Merz. As one of many independent workers who felt the economic burden brought by the pandemic, she started this petition, which asked the government for a universal basic income during the corona crisis. As the campaign was progressing, we formed a network of supporters which included other organisations in Germany that were active advocates of universal basic income even before COVID-19 happened.
Together with Tonia and our partners, we decided to experiment with applying certain principles in organising in-person demonstrations to an online setting. That decision translated into a 12-hour digital demonstration on Twitter aimed at escalating the campaign enough to get a decision maker’s attention.
Here are the key principles that we found made this experiment successful:
1. Coalition-building: Collaborate with other committed individuals.
Tonia herself was proactive in gathering support for her petition from the very start. Her campaign attracted local media and drew attention and support from local organisations that advocated universal basic income in Germany.
So we started a chat group where we coordinated constantly. Tonia met with these organisations online and worked alongside our team at Change.org Deutschland in order to plan what we can do next…
2. Planning: Decide what to accomplish and how.
We wanted to escalate the campaign to its decision-makers. So as a group, we hatched the idea of organising a digital protest on Twitter that would grant us as many supporters as all our social media accounts combined could reach. We agreed on a date, March 26th, and exchanged updates and ideas on what our organisations planned on doing and contributing to the campaign demonstration.
3. Communicating your message: Prepare your content.
Tonia continued engaging with campaign supporters through her petition page on Change.org by regularly posting updates and prompts. Meanwhile, our partner organisations continued promoting the campaign to their network of advocates. It wasn’t long before more campaign supporters flooded our pages with their sentiments, personal stories, and even ideas for protesting given local restrictions. We collected these and set them aside as content for the demo.
To communicate our message more clearly, we also agreed on creating a brand for the campaign (rather than using our organisational brands). This helped avoid crowding out the campaign message.
4. Program-mapping: Envision what the demonstration will contain.
Unlike in-person protests, it’s difficult to tell who and how many people are engaged in the demonstration as it unfolds. And with a platform like Twitter where content flows 24/7, competing for people’s attention is not that easy to do.
To recreate the experience of being in a demonstration, we fashioned our content to what a public, in-person demonstration would look like; we prepared welcome tweets with instructions on how to join the movement, a video message from Tonia, quotes from petition supporters (to resemble protest speeches), a video response from a decision-maker (the highlight), retweets of posts by people who participated in the demonstration, and a graphic that summarised what transpired over the 12 hours of “rallying” online.
We prepared at least 30 posts the day before the event and anticipated creating more throughout the day.
5. Engagement: Remember to interact with your supporters as you go.
As a group, we launched the digital demonstration simultaneously from our Twitter accounts at exactly 7:00 AM. We stayed on high alert throughout the day, ready to engage with our virtual guests and prompt them to Tweet our target decision-makers.
We also retweeted our how-to post every two hours or so for those who were logging in later in the day and made sure to use the campaign hashtag, #GrundeinkommenJetzt (“Basic income now”), in every post. Consistency and responsiveness were vital.
Finally, we kept a sharp eye out for campaign developments that we could turn into more Twitter content. One excellent example of this was knowing that one of our decision-makers scheduled to give a live interview that day with a well-known local Youtuber. We grabbed the opportunity of possibly getting a comment from him by Tweeting at the decision-maker and instructing our campaign supporters to do the same. He commented on the campaign during his interview and we immediately published a clip of his response.
6. Closing: Recap the events and keep the momentum going.
Towards the afternoon of March 26th, #GrundeinkommenJetzt became the number one trending hashtag on Twitter in Germany, gaining more than 5,000 Tweets. This achievement was in large part due to the steady growth of organic content from followers and participants of the digital demonstration.
So at 7:01 PM, we closed the demonstration with a post that summarised the impact of our event. But more than just putting a cap on the protest, we felt it was important to thank our followers for their participation and to inform them of what they helped the campaign to achieve. It was also an effective way for us to motivate more people to continue the conversation. True enough, more Tweets rolled in that evening and in the following days.