What can Ice Buckets, Boko Haram, and Monica Lewinsky teach us about turning hashtags into results?

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What can Ice Buckets, Boko Haram, and Monica Lewinsky teach us about turning hashtags into results?

Non Profits, businesses, social movements, even governments dream of using social media to inspire mass mobilizations around important issues.

The Ice Bucket Challenge, for instance, reportedly raised over $100 million for the ALS Association during the summer of 2014.

Political movements, such as those fostering the Color Revolutions and the Arab Spring, used social media to organize demonstrations.  Governments attempted to shut them down.

After terrorist group Boko Haram kidnapped 276 schoolgirls in Chibok, Nigeria, the #BringBackOurGirls” campaign went viral. First Lady Michelle Obama and several celebrities publicly called for the girls’ release.

David Francis writes in Foreign Policy, however, that little effective work has been done to find and rescue the 219 girls who remain missing.  Corruption and human rights abuses in the Nigerian government as well as serious coordination challenges have undermined the cause.

Nonetheless, social media can mobilize outrage and public shame.  On several occasions, these efforts call attention to critically important issues such as gross violations of human rights, especially in places not covered by the news media.

The double-edged sword is the use of social media for character assassination and public humiliation.  Regardless of your views on Monica Lewinsky, her Ted talk sends an important cautionary note.

Analysis. Social media can be a powerful tool in raising awareness, creating forums for bespoke conversations, and prompting highly accessible actions. Social media’s mobilization effects, however, seem more limited when important or difficult obstacles to action need to be overcome.

The more pernicious effects center on public shaming.  On a wide range of issues, social media can create narratives that rapidly become conventional wisdom. As noted above, these can be very important on issues such as gross violations of human rights, corruption, and criminality.

Shaming narratives, however, may also be formed by vested interests with asymmetric information who are quick to take advantage of public ignorance.

Demonization can generate outrage, but may also restrict important policy options. As information is gathered that presents a more balanced picture, leaders may choose not to spend the political capital necessary to challenge and overcome conventional wisdom.  This can result in poor policy decisions, prolonged conflicts, and missed opportunities.

What this means for your impact:

1. Social media is highly useful in raising awareness and prompting highly accessible actions;

2. Translating hashtags into results is far more difficult when important challenges or obstacles stand in the way of coordinated action;

3. Rapid narrative formation is a double-edged sword. Leaders should “keep their powder dry” and investigate the other sides of issues before bandwagoning.  Vested interests may be the first with a narrative, but are not necessarily the first with the truth.

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Christopher D. Kolenda is President and CEO of Kolenda Strategic Leadership which helps NonProfits maximize their impact and leadership.  He commanded Paratroopers in combat and served as Senior Advisor to the Department of Defense Senior Leadership and to three Commanders of International Forces (ISAF) over four tours in Afghanistan.  See his two books on applied leadership and strategy: Leadership: The Warrior’s Art and The Counterinsurgency Challenge.  Follow me @KSLCEO

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Kolenda Strategic Leadership LLC

Kolenda Strategic Leadership LLC