IFEX 2011 Liveblog: Ramsey George of Tactical Tech Discusses Info-Activism

Ramsey George of the Tactical Technology Collective conducted a session (several times, and in English and Arabic) on new media and advocacy strategies. Basing his talk partly on Tactical Tech’s excellent “10 Tactics for Turning Information into Activism” film (copies of which were offered to participants), he made the point early on that what people are doing online is very similar to what they’re doing offline when it comes to activism. Or, in other words, an authentic online campaign ties in “real life”, but uses new tools.

Ramsey defines info-activism as: “when rights advocates turn information about their issue into action that addresses it”. He asks us: “Does anyone know the difference between data and information? Data is raw numbers, it has no meaning; when it starts to mean something, it becomes information.” He says that what Tactical Tech does is turn data into stories.

“We don’t want to focus on tools too much,” he says, “because they’re the means, not the end.” Targeted advocacy has a goal; the activist knows what she wants to do. She then adds data–numbers, words–turning it into information, and packaging it. “It’s got to be based on something; it has to have a goal,” says Ramsey.

Evidence-based campaigning is the end goal, and Tactical Tech works with individuals and organizations to make that happen. Images, such as the one below from Egypt, play a huge role.

One of the ten tactics is “witnessing.” An example given is that of the Moroccan “Targuist Sniper,” who in 2007 videotaped police agents in the south of the country taking bribes from drivers. The activist’s videos received hundreds of thousands of views.

Though witnessing may not have a huge impact within a country, it can draw global attention to a cause. This happened with Burma’s “Saffron Revolution,” but also more recently with the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, and across the Arab world. In both Egypt and Burma, the regimes–recognizing the threat of digital tools–cut off Internet access.

Safety is also a huge concern for activists using online tools. As WITNESS’s Sam Gregory puts it in Tactical Tech’s video, “we don’t want to double-victimize people who’ve experienced human rights abuses.” Important is helping activists understand potential implications of their work and help them stay safe online.

There are also ways that info activists can ensure their stories aren’t discredited. A recent example from Syria involves a young man whose video was discredited by the regime; the activist then went back and re-recorded himself at each location in the video, showing his identification as well as a newspaper that displayed the date, thus validating the original video.

Ramsey share another video that is a particularly strong example of info-activism:

In the session, we discussed the potential audience for the video–young people, policymakers, gun advocates–as well as what’s particularly effective about the messaging (one thing pointed out: the watermelon is the same size as the young man’s head, causing viewers to visualize the possibility). More information on the campaign is available here.

The ensuing discussion: You need to know who you’re targeting and where your video or image fits into the larger picture; this video, for example, leaves nowhere else to go–it’s essentially the end of a campaign. “This to me fits into a larger strategy,” says Ramsey, “for example, part of the reason young people aren’t afraid of guns is because they don’t understand what could happen.”

Ramsey points out the three-pronged strategy behind rhetorical analysis: Who’s the audience? What’s the message? What tools or strategies are being used?

The next example in the session is, an Egyptian project that has collected various materials used during the January 25 uprising. One document, leaked early on to the Atlantic, was meant to be kept offline and provided all sorts of images and tactics teaching people how to, for example, deal with tear gas.

Lastly, Ramsey shares the Lebanese Khede Kasra campaign, which advocates for gender equality by tackling gender in the Arabic language (the kasra is placed below the word to address a female and above to address a male, but people default to the masculine). “Khede Kasra” has the double meaning of “getting things moving.” The campaign first approached people on the street, offering them a word without the kasra and seeing where they put it by default. The campaign then moved to television, and became very popular, and thus, effective.

Ramsey says: “They took a really simple idea and built a campaign around it.” The campaign even got the attention of Lebanon’s Prime Minister. “What are some of the strategies that made this effective?” asks Ramsey, “they took a good idea and put it on a ton of platforms, but the key bit is that it was participatory, allowing people to act and be a part of the change. It went beyond the things that they produced.”

We also looked at the Tunisian Presidential Airplane campaign, which Sami Ben Gharbia has highlighted as an early Tunisian info-activism campaign that helped activists in that country build their skills over time, later contributing to the effectiveness of digital tools in the January uprising.

“In Western thought, we’re taught three basic ways to argue something: ethos, logos, and pathos,” says Ramsey, “but they left out a fourth one: mythos. Mythology: a belief in something you can see, you don’t know if it’s right and it may not pull on emotion or make logical sense, but it attracts you. This is an incredibly effective way to argue.”

“Also,” points out Ramsey, “Perception is everything; if people believe something to be real, then it is to them.”

Ramsey also argues that you should take time to identify your active allies, allies, neutral parties, opponents, and active opponents, so you can be prepared to know who to work with, against, and so you know who to challenge.

An effective campaign, argues Ramsey, must be participatory, engaging, easily accessible, and simple, but this is sometimes threatening to organizations, because they have to respond to people. When the audience can engage, so too does the organization. “And the simpler the better,” says Ramsey.

Individuals and organizations interested in learning more about how to leverage digital tools for info-activism can visit Tactical Tech’s website or get in touch with Ramsey.

One reply on “IFEX 2011 Liveblog: Ramsey George of Tactical Tech Discusses Info-Activism”

Tactical Tech does an excellent job of guiding activists to focus on strategy before tools and in finding great global case studies, but to say that the use of technology in activism is synonymous with information use is misleading.

Technology use in activism involves both content and connection and to focus on one or the other is to miss part of the bigger picture. This irreducible duality is inherent in the word “social media” itself, the first term denoting the relationships between the people on the platform and the second term denoting the content that these people share through those relationships.

This is not a terminology argument. I’m not arguing that everyone should use the term “digital activism.” I’m arguing for a realization about the implications of the words we use to describe this space and how describing it too narrowly can mislead activists.

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