Lessons from Ireland: 5 Basic Steps For Analysing Online Activist Campaigns


imageBarely a day passes during which the abortion debate does not rear its head in Irish media. This is especially true on social media platforms, where the pro-life and pro-choice sides are embroiled in a bitter battle for public opinion in the predominantly Catholic country.

Newspapers and broadcasters continue to cover the topic ad nauseam, but it is on these social media sites where the boundries of the lively debate are pushed further. But just how representative of public opinion is this online debate?

Ireland’s pro-life group Youth Defence boasts a following of more than 70,000 people on Facebook. It has another 1,700 followers on Twitter.

This is dwarfed by pro-life Family & Life’s Facebook following of more than 120,000.

Choice Ireland’s presence seems insignificant by comparison, with a Facebook following of around 4,200 and a Twitter following of fewer than 1,500.

Numbers Not The Whole Story

Despite appearances, Choice Ireland has fought a tough battle online rallying the support of thousands at a number of protests following the widely reported death of Indian dentist Savita Halappanavar at a hospital in Galway last autumn. Halappanavar died from septicemia after she was forced to miscarry her 17-week-old foetus over several days.

News of her death prompted both organised and spontaneous protests in support of legislation clarifying and expanding the right to abortion. Hashtags #RIPSavita or simply #Savita were trending for days and the pro-choice side at first appeared to have the upper hand.

Wendy Lyon from Choice Ireland is responsible for much of her organisations social media campaigning, which she says has provided “a way out” for the under-resourced organisation.

When Choice Ireland formed in 2007, a protest turnout of 150 people was considered a success, Lyon says. The added exposure that social media has provided since has been invaluable.

“If we only had 150 turn up now we’d think it’s a disaster,” Lyon says.

“I think it’s absolutely vital for an organisation as us because we’re a totally voluntary organisation, we don’t have staff or money,” she added.

Pointing to the limited mainstream reporting of a large pro-choice rally last year, Lyon also said that mainstream media was skewed to underrepresent the pro-choice voice.

“We can’t compete with that and that’s exactly why we need social media,” she added.

Where Are the Followers?

By comparison, Youth Defence and Family & Life, which oppose abortion in almost all cases and is strongly against legislation, is a well-funded organisations resourced to run ad campaigns on and offline with large billboards and volunteers frequently spotted on high streets handing out flyers.

Despite its volume of online support, a large portion of its followers are not resident in Ireland.

As an experiment, James Redmond, an editor for the blog rabble.ie, decided to enter a Youth Defence online competition recording his experience at a large pro-life rally in Dublin in January.  According to Redmond, by the time of the deadline only two pieces had been entered. This indicated to him that many of the online following is not in Ireland or actively supporting the organisation.

“It also told me that the demographic that actually supports Youth Defence are not active on social media. That is - despite making a huge attempt to represent themselves as an online savvy, young organisation - their actual followers are not online and are far outside the average demographic that uses Facebook,” added Redmond.

One pro-choice campaigner went to the effort of locating the Twitter following of Youth Defence.  Only about 14 percent of the followers with identifiable locations appeared to reside in Ireland.

Despite repeated requests Youth Defence’s online campaign manager was unavailable for interview.

Considering Poll Data

According to the latest opinion poll by the Irish Times, public mood is more in favour of abortion rights than the online presence of pro-life groups suggest.

A string of questions showed that at least 70 percent of the population believed women whose lives or health is put at risk, including from suicide, should have access to abortion. In cases of rape and incest, 78 percent are in favour of abortion being made available. A sizeable minority of 37 percent believe that a woman should have the right to access abortion where she deems it in her interest.

Digging Deeper: 5 Steps to analysing activist campaigns

These contradictory findings raise questions about the representative nature of social media. Do social media campaigns paint an accurate picture of the general mood? 

1. People behind online campaigns have a vested interest in presenting only one side of the argument and undermining the other. So it is essential to consider the voices behind the campaign.

When American group Invisible Children released Kony 2012 in a self-proclaimed online experiment to raise international awareness about the fugitive Lord’s Resistance Army leader Joseph Kony, it was greeted with a huge international response on social media.
However, Ugandan voices began to emerge heavily criticising the representations made in the film. The issue had been oversimplified, critics said, creating a misleading impression about the power that the LRA still holds. Some critics accused Invisible Children of piggybacking on this issue to gain fame themselves.

2. Look at the people following the campaign. Many social media users have a large online footprint with multiple social media accounts. Often an impressive amount of information about them can be gleaned; accounts are frequently connected through cross-posting. It is worthwhile to examine different social media accounts in your search for details such as location, interests, profession and contact information about individuals.

3. Following does not mean support. Some Twitter accounts become magnets for people who both love and loath them. Controversial views attract attention and interest. Looking at the opinions expressed by the majority rather than the loudest and most active is a better indicator.

4. Always look at both sides of the argument. Opposing sides frequently try to discredit each other and will produce and publish information to will achieve this. Only because information is subjective does not mean it’s wrong.  While Youth Defence like to present itself as a voice of many young people, some of those opposing it uncovered use of stock photos on their website.

5. Social media is only one aspect of any debate and its manifestations offline is another indicator of the public mood. Keeping abreast of polls, protests and mainstream media coverage (at least in countries enjoying press freedom) will help form a more rounded picture.

Tags: twitter, social media, social issues, facebook, abortion,