Independent Living Movement Ireland

Social Movements and the Use of Online Spaces

In our very last session of Strategies for Change we had Aileen O’Carroll, David Laudy and Maire Ni Mhordha come and talk to us about their research findings to help us understand the good and the bad in relation to using online spaces when campaigning.

Social Movements | ILMI

Aileen and her colleagues were involved in a research project that looked at people who were campaigning for appeal. They were interested in finding out

  1. How they used digital technology in their campaigning work 
  2. How they dealt with conflicts within the groups they were involved in or within the groups who were on the same side.

In total they interviewed 25 people, 23 women and 3 men. The interviewees came from; Abortion Rights Campaign (ARC); Alliance for Choice (AfC); Midwives for Choice (MfC); Migrants and Ethnic Minorities for Reproductive Justice (MERJ); Need Abortion Ireland (NAI); Parents for Choice (PfC); Terminations for Medical Reasons Ireland (TMFR) and Strike for Repeal.

Aileen played us an exert of a recording from an ARC talk about the stresses of campaigning work. It was taken from interviews with Repeal activists conducted for the project “Sharing Best Practices in how Civil Society Organisations use the Internet in Organising and Building for Socio-Economic Rights and Trust” funded by the Irish Research Council (IRC) and sponsored by the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (IHREC).

This piece told the story about the stresses that two women experienced. Elizabeth and Kyle from ARK talks about the stresses of campaigning work.

“I used to be really bad at saying no to things … I think I had a very mild nervous breakdown at one point …we were doing a workshop one time “and it was about self-care” … and “being better at looking after ourselves and we were asked what would happen if we said no and I said I don’t know”. The person giving the workshop said that whatever needed doing probably “wouldn’t happen” … and Elizabeth agreed, but she told us that “that is fine sometimes” that things don’t have to get done.

But Elizabeth was unemployed and she “felt that being part of the campaign was the only valuable thing” that she had going on in her life so “she would work super hard to make sure that it was good”. She had a “fear of stuff going wrong”. Elizabeth recalled having to “meet the guards” … on one occasion. “It was just really stressful; it was me and four guards”. She taught that she would be only “chatting to one guard but there was four of them”. And on the Thursday before the Saturday March they were like…” where are you getting your barricades from” and she taught “what barricades” …” we have done this for several years” and there was “never had any barricades”. Essentially, they told her that “because of … terrorism, people driving their cars into crowds” was not safe and they needed to have barricades. Elizabeth sat there thinking “…barricades manned by a volunteer isn’t going to stop … a truck” driving through a crowd. Elizabeth felt “like you’re being unnecessarily hostile” and the guard was like…” I feel the same”.  Elizabeth also went on to say that she was afraid of conflict and “that she might do something wrong and get called out for it” and then be … “left out of the organisation and that would reflect poorly on other people, so trying to not put a foot out of line … was stressful in campaigning work”.  

Kylie said that “everything about activism” was stressful and it felt like… “doing penance and it’s kind of is sold like that to a lot of people, activism in general”. But she went on to say that activism “can be fun and therapeutic and empowering and healing and that is how you get not burnt-out activists”. The activism that Kylie does now is healing… and makes her more powerful and better and stronger as a person”.

Kylie remembered “being called a killer” … verbally abused and attacked” during her activism and just having to keep going…”. She also talked about “the sheer difficulty of meetings” … “they were exhausting” … everything was “so serious… and relationally how cold things were. It didn’t feel like a place to make friends”. You could not show “any vulnerability” …she felt that she couldn’t say that she was “sad” because she was personally involved, and she could not be there next week because she was “going to be crying”. “There was no self-care … you get called a murderer…people spit at you… threaten to do things to you …and then you just go home, and no one says are you alright or do you want to go for a drink or a coffee” (see – Repeal the Eighth and Reproductive Rights: Sources of stress within campaigning for more on Elizabeth’s and Kylie’s interview and other recordings related to this research). 

Aileen invited the group to answer the following question – What are the sources of stress that you have experienced in your campaigning work? 

Feedback included
  • Being forced to campaign on your own even though it could change the lives of many disabled people – “it was heavy to carry”
  • Being in conflict with the powers that be and the fear of losing your right to travel to complete a college course – college engaged in a fundraiser to fund transport issue – single solution 
  • Being forced to always be in battle with the system, from childhood to adulthood”, it is very time consuming, tiring, sometimes your forced to pick your battles
  • The human interest story framework (media) can be just about the disabled person and not representative of the collective and more often than not the story is framed using negative stereotyping and not appropriately represented the real lives of disabled people – (see – Media Representation of Disabled People).

Learning from the Repeal Campaign Problems that Repeal campaigners Faced: The Downsides of Using Social Media In Campaigning Work with David Laudy  

Takes a Lot of Time and Effort

The first source of stress people encountered when using social media was understanding that “the campaigners felt that they were not all on the same page”.  

  • not everyone used social media and if they did it is the more popular ones
  • social media platforms are not designed for campaign work or social movement work. They are designed to “either steal your personal information; or encourage you sell or encourage virtual social interactions”. 

So, when the campaigners in this research were trying to use these platforms, they talked about “how much time and effort it took to learn and set up a Twitter account or and Instagram account…” one of the participants in the research said that “it was a full-time job”. 

Hence, this is an important element to consider when thinking about using social media in our activism work – the time and energy, and the reality that it can be emotionally draining.  Some of the people also said that “sharing stories about abortion on social media was difficult” – it was “emotionally hard… and a time swamp”.

Drowning in too Much Information

Another thing that people found hard was that there were far too many messages, whether it was a message about organising a meeting or having to stay connected to different WhatsApp groups, some people felt that they were “drowning in too much information and not able to process all of it”. There was “just message after message after message”.

Creating A Permanent Record – Like It or Not

A lot of people in the research also talked about having a permanent record because of using social media. Records of decisions, opinions, discussions …” it’s really a double-edged sword”. What goes up on these platforms stays on these platforms. For example, “you might have said something three months ago, but you regret it now “. 

A Site for Conflict 

A lot of people in the research talked how social media can also cause conflict… people within groups fighting with each other and people outside of the groups also causing conflict. Social media platforms can “allow people to fight with other people…” and the reality is that it is not very easy to interrupt what people are saying on social media – it’s difficult to effectively communicate on social media platforms, you can’t read body language or control negative comments like you can in face-to-face communication. 

David went on to say that some of the abortion rights activists were also really worried about getting abuse from pro-life activists – having to deal with nasty comments. However, conflict within these groups was more of an issue. 

Algorithmic Channelling – Private Monopolies Determine Who Sees You and What You See

There is a lot of academic literature that talks about algorithmic channelling (see – How the Facebook Algorithm Works in 2022 and How to Make it Work for You). Put simply algorithmic channelling is when private monopolies like Facebook or Tick Tock determining who sees you and what you see. David shared that he is involved in a campaign and algorithmic channelling was hugely problematic.  And over the last couple of years “engagement has just gone off the cliff because we can’t afford to pay for people to follow us on Facebook and we can’t afford for people to see us because they have to pay to see our content”. 

State Surveillance – Be Mindful

So, this is about just being aware that governments/states “can keep a close watch on you” or the groups that you are involved in via accessing your social media accounts, this wasn’t an issue for those that were involved in this group, but it can be an issue for other campaign groups. 

What Problems Do We Face Using Digital Tools in Our  Campaigning Work or Organising? 
Feedback Included 
  • Being “ignored or blocked” – issue of discrimination and tried to raise it with the manager of the hotel but they simply just ignored my complaint so tried to reach out via social media and they blocked me 
  • Trying to campaign for a greater access to treatment for my impairment – we are a small cohort and know we have a situation where children under 18 have access to the treatment but adults don’t. We have found that a lot of parents of these children that previously would have been sharing and pushing the campaign on “social media have taken a little bit of a step back”. So, it’s harder to I get the exposure on social media that we previously had
  • Feeling “exposed” and the whole issue around the lack of privacy
  • Stalking via a social media platform, “was quite scary and ended up blocking the person“ so security is an issue as well and lack of privacy 
  • In terms of using apps Instagram for example is “very difficult to use with screen reader’s”, Facebook and WhatsApp are a bit better. But in generally the “problem in terms of access accessibility using these apps”
  • The cost of apps can be another major factor – if you don’t have a zoom license for example and you are forced to use the free version – it can be very annoying 
  • The cost of technology and time is another factor – “having to curate content for social media”
  • Having to “tell our personal stories to highlight issues/barriers” – this can be a huge thing in terms of “individualising problems”, when a lot of disabled people are “clearly trying to engage in collective activism to change things”
  • Never being “able to deal with the collective struggles as we see them“ 
  • Being abused online 
  • Some social media campaigns that misrepresent the issue – A Day in My Wheels – (see – A day in my wheels)  –  perpetuated myths and stereotypes about wheelchair users
  • Isolation and trying to bring in allies can be very time consuming
  • Having to know every single important piece of information about the campaign all the time and keeping up to date – very energy consuming – being available all the time – getting constant messages and having to answer them – “need to say no as I need time off, and turn off”
  • fear of getting it wrong, having to be on top of everything and all the time, fear of making a mistake and it might reflect poorly on the campaign because of something you said or did 
  • being inclusive

Strategies and Solutions for Digital Organizing: What Worked – How Abortion Activists in Ireland Organised For Victory – Máire Ni Mhordha – p.43 – 48 –  see – What Worked? How abortions activists in Ireland organised for victory   

The solutions below are taken from the research that Aileen, David and Máire did with activists from the repeal campaign. Nine different solutions were identified.

  1. Have a moderation group that made sure that all decisions were carried out
  2. Removing inactive members after a certain period of time
  3. Curating conversations within social media applications – quite like moderation, so for example the Parents for Choice Group would have particular threads, so they had an anti-thread also. So, people could go to the space to vent about their experiences with those on the anti-choice side and so instead of having negative or difficult or emotional content popping up across the group it was decided that there would be a particular threat that people could post in and respond to. Having these spaces was good as it helped people to vent emotionally so that spaces were not clogged up with gossip or chat
  4. Multiple application use – campaigners used a variety of tools WhatsApp, Signal, Slack, Facebook, and Messenger – good ways to send quick short messages to people and again sometimes groups used these in a particular way so you could have a WhatsApp group for just campaigning work
  5. Learning to use digital resources – one of the strengths of social media is that most people are already using Instagram, Facebook WhatsApp, Twitter but sometimes people did need to learn how to use these applications tools
  6. Blending online and offline learning – many groups blended online activity with offline activity – using social media to organise, have virtual events and arranged coffee mornings and general group meetings – “found doing this good for building up relationships and helping people to just you know there’s nothing like that energy you get from in person meetings” 
  7. Security – given the nature of the campaign which was obviously very political it was important to have “personal vouching” before people were allowed to enter their social media group  spaces
  8. Resourcing technology – having access to technology and having the funds to get subscriptions, licenses, and training so investment in technology made a great difference. One campaigner who was in a very rural part in Ireland and didn’t have good Internet access was given a mobile broadband device
  9. The right to disconnect – many people spoke about being exhausted and stressed and some mentioned their anxiety levels – continuously being involved in online communication and so in a number of instances groups and individuals took the decision to impose rules like no messages after 10:00 pm. A sheep farmer complained about having to get up early to work and she found that her sleep was interrupted by the constant flow of contact messages and so they collectively decided that no posting after a particular time at night. 
Question to group

How do you deal with online conflict? Select one of the problems that you mentioned earlier, how would you solve it?

Feedback included
  • Have to collectively understand what our values are, what behaviours are appropriate and not appropriate 
  • Have kindness for one another – supporting each other and stand up for each other
  • Respect everyone’s view points and try to make an effort to really understand where other people are coming from and negotiating with people with respect 
  • The importance of disconnecting and turning off – setting boundaries 
  • Being mindful of what goes up on social media – it cannot take it down
  • When you are being criticized and attacked remember there is people with you, there is people against you but the people that you are interested in is those that are in the middle  staying focused on these towin them over
  • In terms of conflict and social media having very clear ground rules is very important, so to get into a Facebook group for example you must agree to all of the conditions, rules etc. 
  • In terms of security and the lack of privacy – if you are using a Facebook page as a group and not as individuals is much better because you are safer and you are not being identified or targeted
  • Keeping up with social media is almost like a type of work so don’t do it from your bedroom ideally and do it in a particular time of the day maybe in the morning not before going to bed. So, setting up boundaries for yourself is important 
  • The frustrations that come with campaigning and having to demand your rights via social media and a lot of frustration around having to share personal stories so it is good to have spaces where you can just vent where there is a designated space like a designated thread where people could just talk about their feelings etc.

Things to Think About Before Using Digital Tools in Our Activism Work – from Aileen, David and Máire

Why do you want to use a Digital Organising Tool? – (e.g. Twitter, WhatsApp, Telegram, Basecamp, YouTube)

  • As a broadcasting tool? 
  • Is it easy to join? 
  • Is important that you can control and monitor your content? 
  • Is it important to get feedback on who is using your tool? 
  • How important is it that your posts persist over time? 
For communicating among members?
(e.g. WhatsApp, Messenger, Telegram, Basecamp, Signal)
  • How important is it to be able to vote and make decisions online?
  • How important are online discussions and forums? 
  • How important is efficient information sharing? 
  • How important is a secure digital tool which others (e.g. the state, opponents) cannot access? 
  • How important is it to control who has access to your online space? 
  • How important is it that your posts persist over time? Or disappear? 
Some Resources

Using Digital Tools to Organise for Social Change

Book, Twitter and Teargas by Zeynep Tufekci –

NGO: @Info_Activism

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