Digital campaigning for change

When rapper Sofia Ashraf released her “Kodaikanal Won’t” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nSal-ms0vcI) rap song on social media, the fight by Kodaikanal Unilever factory workers against the Mercury Poisoning and the fight for reparations was already nearly 20 years old. Several rights-based organisations and media outfits had extensively covered the incident of mercury dumping and the ill-effects it had led to, with slow movement on the issue, and a non-committal corporation not wanting to take ownership of the issue.

kodaikanal 2Palani hills, Kodaikanal

What Sofia Ashraf’s rap did do, is build a never-seen-before public narrative around the issue. The video was watched by millions of people, tweeted by hundreds of influencers and decision-makers, even Nicki Minaj, whose song tune Sofia’s rap was based on tweeted and amplified it to millions of her followers.

What followed was rapid media coverage across the board by the likes of the New York Times, NPR, Washington Post, and several others. In March 2016, Unilever decided to finally take on the issue and take ownership.

This is, of course, one of the most successful impacts digital campaigning has had in the history of campaigning in India. Since then, India has seen a rise in digital-first campaigns which have created a tremendous amount of impact on the way policies are shaped, and decisions are made. In 2017, journalist Soma Basu’s story on Youth Ki Awaaz about the illegal skin trafficking between Nepal and India had a similar impact. The story, which was read by close to 1 million people and covered by the likes of the Wall Street Journal and the NPR led the Nepal Govt to act on an age-old issue that needed urgent attention – and this is just the beginning of what digital issue success really looks like.

Youth Ki Awaaz has been at the forefront of running many such digital campaigns with the Indian and international development sector to build civic and political participation on issues that need our urgent attention. The campaigning model, based on the tenets of powerful storytelling, intertwined with YKA’s history of community building and organising has led to amplification and impact for several organisations which had never engaged with large audiences before, but are now integrating digital campaigning as a core part of their public advocacy techniques.

From demanding rights for children in street situations with organisations such as Save the Children, to amplifying and spreading awareness about daily acts of violence with the International Justice Mission (IJM) – YKA has covered a wide spectrum of issues while campaigning, and the one key driver for all our campaigns has been the Youth Ki Awaaz community of more than 100,000 writers and close to 4 million monthly readers – all young people, who want to engage with critical issues to create much needed impact, and break the culture of silence around them.

For us, the core of the digital campaigning that we’ve led has had the following key rules we follow:

  1. Keeping the content simple and jargon free: Citizens and wider audiences do not talk in the language of the development sector, hence, it becomes critical that we keep the language simple and approachable for an everyday citizen.
  2. Making it relatable: If we cannot communicate how an issue affects me personally, we’ve lost the audience quicker than the time they took to consume our content.
  3. Driving a single point agenda: Giving people a singular call-to-action with a clear, single, realistic outcome creates a higher buy-in. This is also the principle that platforms like change.org thrive on.
  4. Complete the loop: Not forgetting your community and actively communicating with them after the campaign about its outcomes is as critical as communicating with them during it.
  5. Be patient: Campaigns take months, sometimes years to build. When we started campaigning with Water Aid India on the issue of manual scavenging and sanitation, we knew it was not something people already cared about in large numbers. But with consistent campaigning for 3 years, YKA built a community of more than 25,000 young people that were dedicated to the issue, actively consuming, sharing and amplifying it.

In 2019, digital campaigning is already evolving. It’s upto us to be a part of the tactic that can help us build a wider, much needed community.

By Anshul Tewari

Founder, Youth Ki Awaaz Ashoka Fellow, United Nations ITU Young Innovator INK Fellow, Forbes 30 Under 30


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