The controversial top five digital campaigns of all time

These are the best digital campaigns for social change ever. Full stop. No question.

Or are they? Who are we to say which are the best? Well, we have twice been named Third Sector Digital Campaign of the Week in the past year (though er, there must have been 52 claims to that fame!)  Certainly it’s a hard task deciding which campaigns are best, in part because there’s no simple measure of what a good campaign is, especially in digital.

But as we recruit for an exciting new digital campaigning role (apply here!), we thought we’d lay down a few controversial loves of ours to spark the debate about who should and shouldn’t make it into the list. What do you think? We’d love your comments.

1. Abolishing the slave trade… in the 1700s

“Not a digital campaign at all” you cry! Maybe so, but 200 years ago it spawned some of the most popular online campaigning tactics we all know and love (or hate) today.

Would petitions be so popular and the likes of Change.orgAvaaz and 38 Degrees exist if activists hadn’t ridden on horseback round the country collecting signatures and presenting them to Parliament? (Ah, the good old days: Parliament had to stop its business for them to read out the names every time a petition appeared!)

They invented the first well-known infographic — exposing the inhumanly cramped conditions in slave ships. Information was beautiful (or terrifying) back then too.

And much more.  Yah boo to many campaigns of today, digital and otherwise.

Strengths: Many.

Weaknesses: Computers and the internet hadn’t been invented yet, but they didn’t let that stop them. Modern-day slavery is sadly still around today, although they made a massive change at the time.

2. Book burning, anyone?

Have you ever tried inviting people to a ‘book burning party’?  If you do (like these people), you’ll get a pretty strong reaction.

This was the inspired, creative, not-uncontroversial campaign to save a library and raise taxes (maybe we should have made them number one just for getting public support for higher taxes!). Watch the video or read what happened to get the full lowdown.

Strengths: Cheap (a few lawn signs – everything else digital). Creative. Quickly changed public opinion. Clear outcome: a vote.

Weaknesses:  Is it a one-hit wonder? Will these kinds of shock tactics build a longer term movement? 

3. Twitter freedom of speech is brilliant/terrible/dead

Cast your mind back to 2009. Three thousand miles away 30,000 people in Ivory Coast, one of the poorest countries in the world, claim to have been injured by Trafigura, a company dumping toxic sludge. The company’s being hit by one of the biggest lawsuits in history…  But no-one even knows about it, because they go to court and get an injunction and stop the press reporting on it, PLUS a ‘super-injunction’ stopping them even talking about the fact they’re being stopped from reporting on it.

Modern madness, right? So what happened? A combination of a brave MP, journalists – and tweeters. Twitter played a big role in lifting the lid on what was happening, revealing the scandal, injunctions-be-damned, just one example of how valuable a free Twitter is.

But more recently the milk has soured.

The same freedoms meant tweeters felt they were free to virtually tar and feather someone as a paedophile. So surely it’s right to curb this with our libel laws?

Or are we in danger of losing one of the most valuable modern forums for free speech?  And what about the threats to social media after Leveson?

Strengths: A free Twitter means people power can beat legal, corporate and political power. That can be an amazing and wonderful thing.

Weaknesses: The halo of Twitter free speech is looking both tarnished and threatened. Also, exactly which people have the people power on Twitter? It’s still a case of having the skills, education, time and internet access to use them, a challenge for campaigners who want to genuinely empower.  

4. Your knife or your life

The Met are not known for innovative attitude- and behaviour-change campaigning, but they did this – dramatic, engaging, it’s hooked in more than a million people.

The campaign is a series of YouTube videos where you see what’s happening through the eyes of a teenager and you click on-screen to choose what happens next. Every choice you make has a consequence… It’s hard to describe what it feels like being stabbed to death on screen.

A controversial choice because: does it even work? That’s really the question – and we don’t know the answer. And how do you even measure the success of something that’s so ambitiously trying to change attitudes and behaviour change, which are notoriously hard to assess? We love the ambition, creativity and execution though.

Strengths: Like all good communications it’s story-based. It’s also visceral, heart-stopping, simple and original. It goes to where many young people are at: on YouTube.

Weaknesses: We haven’t seen any evaluation of what it actually changed – are fewer young people carrying knives as a result or is this just a cool set of videos? We’d love to know.

5. We Are Spartacus (we are not big charities)

While many disability charities (including us) were struggling to mount big public campaigns to oppose welfare reforms that were unfair to disabled people, an unexpected one took off.

Forget Kirk Douglas (or the remake), We Are Spartacus is a group of disabled people starting a grassroots online campaign, not content with what was happening and intent on getting their views to the Government in a big way. They used free blogs, Freedom of Information requests and crowdsourced responses, they pushed and pushed — and broke through into the Twittersphere, galvanizing many people and helped to influence what was happening in Parliament.

Some disability charities (including us) struggled to know quite how to engage with We Are Spartacus at first and we’re still learning – because although we often have the same goals, at times we work so differently.

But this one is controversial above all because it poses some tough questions for us and every other big charity out there: if they can do this with next to no resources, why aren’t we achieving a whole lot more with our digital campaigning?

Awkwardness and challenges can be good though. Right?!

Strengths: Without money or a traditional organisation, they’ve helped to reshape disabled people’s online campaigning.

Weaknesses: Disabled adults in the UK are three times more likely NOT to have access to the internet as other people, so there’s still a big challenge to engage disabled people in digital campaigning.

Who didn’t make the cut?

Any top five is of course going to miss out some big-hitters. Controversially, here are some that didn’t make it in:

Obama [Yawn, right?] OK yes, we all know the Obama campaigns have done some great things online, including email-marketing-on-heat and got large numbers of people donating and taking part. Hope, yes. But where’s the change we all believed in?

Kony 2012 We also couldn’t bear to include Kony because it so often gets missed that the Kony campaign started in the real world through lots of hard work building support on student campuses, before it went digital. Amongst other criticisms we have, it was the wrong campaign goal (do we really need more military action) and what about the views of the people whose own lives were affected??

Avaaz, 38 Degrees,… We’re interested in what the big online campaigning sites are doing and hope to work with them more. But the tough part we have to do is start campaigns from scratch, which are often about lots of hard graft and creativity rather than a quick win. So, sorry guys: not for this list.

Thunderclap It’s an interesting idea and we’ve certainly tried it out. We haven’t heard of it actually changing much though, and we’re concerned that campaigning organisations (including us) could use it as a substitute for creating real social media conversations that genuinely get loads of people talking and tweeting. Have you heard different? Check it out here if Thunderclapping’s new to you.

The Arab Spring and many other campaigns elsewhere in the world So much has been written about the role of social media in the Arab Spring but we feel we just don’t know enough to include it here. Also: there are probably many other exciting digital campaigns in parts of the world we’re not well enough connected to to know about.

Britain Cares It’s our current campaign, so we have to give it a plug! Check out our film with Stephen Fry and exciting/zany photos people are sending in.

And more… Hope you enjoyed our (hopefully) thought-provoking list. What would you add?! And if you’re interested enough to read this far, would you like to apply for our exciting digital campaigning role or could you share it with your networks?  Thanks! 🙂