The coronavirus pandemic has shown how digital tools can foster online engagement that leads to real benefits for working people.
In response to the pandemic, workers both employed and unemployed have used digital platforms and tools to magnify their voices and meet their needs. They have launched online petition campaigns to demand safer workplaces. Worker centres, unions, and other economic justice groups are broadcasting Facebook and Instagram live events to share information about programs that support workers, offering online training to navigate state unemployment insurance systems, and sending out text blasts asking workers to take direct action.
These uses of digital tools are not new. Mainstream social media platforms, despite serious drawbacks discussed below, have played an important role in a variety of social movements. For example, activists used Facebook and Twitter to coordinate protests during the Arab Spring uprisings in the early 2010s. In the worker justice arena, online engagement using social media platforms that mobilize and organize workers, like Facebook and customized platforms like Coworker, has contributed to impressive actions and campaigns, including teacher strikes in the United States, strikes of Ryanair workers in Europe, and successful efforts to challenge unfair workplace policies in non-union settings around the world.
In many ways, COVID-19 has amplified and accelerated the digital efforts that have already been in motion. In a time of social distancing, people have increasingly relied upon digital tools to support collective action across different sectors, just as they have for a broad spectrum of other social interactions.
However, digital engagement will never replace analog or in-person forms of connection, as we have seen in the recent protests drawing attention to the epidemic of police violence against Black Americans. Nor will tools designed to directly address specific challenges confronting low-wage workers single-handedly transform the broader set of conditions that have produced rising inequality; ongoing expansion of the low-wage economy; and entrenched marginalization based on identity markers like race, gender, and citizenship status. Just as we need to challenge the idea that technological change will inevitably lead to mass unemployment, we also need to resist seeing new technology as supplying a set of easy fixes that secure a just and equitable future of work.
Nonprofits, It’s Time to Own Your Social Media Audience
Social media is both a necessary and perilous tool for the social sector, an engine of awareness, engagement, and fundraising that also perpetuates division and misinformation and faces a looming existential reckoning.
More than 50 percent of non-profits have indicated that they will increase their social media budget this year the most of any digital channel while Giving Tuesday continues to experience steady social-fuelled growth, by some projections due to eclipse $600M in 2020. Yet the current landscape of social media is alarming and ominous. Facebook is a known tool for election interference, and Tim Kendell, a former Facebook executive in charge of monetization, admits the company intentionally made the platform “as addictive as cigarettes.” “Social media preys on the most primal parts of your brain,” he explained, in his prepared remarks to Congress; “The algorithm maximizes your attention by hitting you repeatedly with content that triggers your strongest emotions it aims to provoke, shock, and enrage.” Kendall outlined.
Non-profits must get attention. But what must we do when that attention is being captured on our behalf by destructive, exploitive algorithms that manipulate our emotions and sow division?
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