Millennium Development Goals: 15 years on, social media is shaping policy
Millennium Development Goals: 15 years on, social media is shaping policy
A view from Jonathan Simmons

The Millennium Development Goals have been shaped by digital 'activism flash mobs'

Technology is not a panacea but it has mobilised digital activism, argues Jonathan Simmons, chief experience officer of digital agency Zone.

Today will see the culmination of years of campaigning and activism as the world’s leaders meet in New York to discuss the global development agenda and agree a replacement for the Millennium Development Goals agreed in 2000.

What will be different this time is the way charities, activists and marketers have been able to shape the agenda. Thanks to technology, social campaigning methods and calls to action have changed significantly in the intervening years, and the way digital has been embraced by activism has lessons for anyone pushing a message to the world at large – marketers included.

Too often technology and campaigning ends up in a debate about clicktivism and slacktivism, which misses the point – the digital revolution and the platforms it has spawned have left campaigners with many great tools they can use to shape global policy.

Communications revolution 

Before the communications revolution, proximity to a cause was crucial – activating a movement around an issue that people had no physical contact with was far harder than today, particularly for perceived ‘niche’ causes.

Being directly affected by issues such as female genital mutilation (FGM) was generally the precursor to campaigning on the issue. The opportunity for engagement was limited by the ability to turn up to a meeting or a march, or sign a petition.

Technology is here to stay as part of the campaigner’s toolkit, and we will continue to see millions of people engage in global policy setting

Now, however, an alliance of organisations such as Girl Effect, PLAN and Daughters of Eve has been able to get FGM on to the global agenda. Indeed "girl issues" have become a particular development focus, and one which key brands have become associated with, such as Intel and its support for Girl Rising.

Once attention has been garnered, digital now allows for the rapid mobilisation of those people – either physically or digitally. Probably the optimum example of this is the unplanned beginning of the Arab Spring, and the way within days a mass movement capable of reshaping the geopolitics of an entire region was born.

The power of Twitter, and particularly hashtags, in that regard can never be understated, whatever the results.

This principle extends to simple fundraising, with the Disaster Emergency Committee able to raise £19m in donations within 24 hours of the Nepal earthquake.

The speed in which massive numbers of people can be mobilised has been increased massively, and this ability to create activism flash mobs is an essential part of the digital campaigner’s toolkit.

Just look at how David Cameron was forced into reassessing the UK’s response to the Syrian refugee crisis this month… a single tragic image prompting a mass movement demanding change to coalesce in mere hours.

Technology doesn't solve all challenges

Creating noise is one thing, but often it is just that – noise. But, like marketers, digital activists are now more able to make sure the right people hear the right message. The embracing of social media by many high-level decision makers and influencers has been fantastic for campaigners, allowing them to better understand their motivations and gain insight into how best to influence them.

This insight used to be the preserve of the professional ‘expensive’ lobbyist; now it allows for the precise kind of personalisation that has become the holy grail of brand marketers.

 Technology is not a panacea. It will not ensure justice or equality, but because of technology, millions of people have been engaged in helping campaigners decide what to campaign on

At the other end of this personalisation scale is that thanks to the proliferation of mobile devices in developing countries ­– 80% of the people in Africa now have one ­– the voices and images coming out of those places are unfiltered... and genuine.

It’s easy, now, to show what schoolgirls in Malawi think and highlight the issues affecting them – you just have to ask them. In effect, this means that those whose causes need championing are no longer just abstract images in a 90-second news segment – they have become real, relatable people.

Of course, technology doesn’t solve all of the challenges. It is still incredibly difficult to get people to really care about a cause, and even harder to get them to act. If anything, technology has made this harder, as the global marketplace of ideas is huge and people’s interaction can be minimal.

For campaigners, just as for marketers, technology is not a panacea. It will not ensure justice or equality, but because of technology, millions of people have been engaged in helping campaigners decide what to campaign on.

These evidence-based campaigns have been taken up everywhere and have been heard by politicians. This means the 2015 Sustainable Development Goals will be more authentic than those that have gone before.

Technology is here to stay as part of the campaigner’s toolkit, and we will continue to see millions of people engage in global policy setting – not just a few journalists, lobbyists and decision makers in a room in New York.