Brown Bag discusses using social media for social change

By Ashley Skowronek
Staff Writer

Taming the media monster is easier than you think.

The Brown Bag Lecture series invited Hilary Woodward, digital director for the National Women’s Law Center of Washington D.C., on Friday, April 7, to discuss the ways nonprofits can leverage social media for advocacy and public education.

“Don’t think you have the money and resources to throw at advertising like other big organizations?” Woodward said. “You do. Social media allows us to reach new audiences and have an impact.”

Nonprofits can succeed in using social media by capitalizing on the self-interests of its users by posting content that validates people and gives them a role to play. The goal is to generate content the audience wants to be seen interacting with.

“We share smart things if we want to look smart, funny things if we want to look funny,” Woodward said.

Platforms like Facebook and Twitter reward the most popular, engaging content because they make money off return visitors. User-generated content is converted into views, then transformed into cash through advertisements.

Woodward explains how advocacy groups use social media. (Jason Proleika / Photo Editor)

Understanding the systems’ monetizing processes is key — nonprofits can post content that meets organizational goals, but will not be seen on users’ timelines.

“All of social media is a business,” Woodward said. “Algorithms determine what you see on your newsfeed timeline and are entirely based off how you interact with the platform.”

Facebook’s ability to connect like-minded people and galvanize support has spurred some of the most successful social campaigns in history, including the Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis Ice Bucket Challenge, the Black Lives Matter movement and the Women’s March.

Peer pressure from friends and family was a driving factor of each movement’s success as users could see who was participating in activist events and making donations.

“I think what was more important than the Women’s March being started on Facebook was that it was organized on Facebook,” Woodward said. “Every user had a role to play, their place in it drove smaller posts and change on social media.”

With a slew of users itching to board the bandwagon, the popularity of digital advocacy has given rise to a phenomenon known as “slacktivism,” or actions performed via the internet — like signing an online petition or clicking a button to join an online group — that requires little involvement and does not contribute to change.

Slacktivists were ousted on “Saturday Night Live” on Saturday, April 8, during a digital short starring the host, comedian Louis C. K., entitled, “Thank you, Scott.” In it, he decides to act after seeing atrocities on the news, rising from his couch to march straight to his laptop to update his Twitter bio in solidarity.

“Change doesn’t happen because of social media, but it’s a driver for it,” Woodward said.

One of the National Women’s Law Center’s most effective social media campaigns illuminated racial bias and stereotypes African American girls face in school, resulting in harsher punishments like suspension. The video went viral, receiving seven million views on Facebook and coverage from media outlets nationwide.

“We needed funding and it’s hard to ask for, so we created a video to tell people about a problem,” Woodward said. “The short video was designed for social media. For example, most people watch videos online with no sounds, so we included captions.”

The video sparked a conversation, leading to a gain in supporters and funding for the organization. Woodward cited authenticity as a vital characteristic of channels and content, which is needed to show users that the social media page’s admins care.

“You can be really good at social media and not make a difference in the world,” Woodward said.