The relevance of social media in activism and its impact in the protection of Human Rights:

The World in Action


Tathiana Flores Acuna, Ph.D.

(December 1, 2012)

We are living special times. We thought that technology would save us time; but, paradoxically, we always find more and more ways to be “busy”: Twitter, Facebook, Google+… These technical achievements have resulted in our living in a connected and much smaller world, giving us the opportunity to be aware of  the latest news from across the globe in just in a matter of seconds.  And of course it is not just good news, we now know about the commission of atrocities and violations worldwide at the very moment that they are happening. This sense of immediacy helps us to feel someone else’s suffering as our own and feel violent events in other parts of the world as if they were in our own neighborhood.  

As a Human Rights advocate and legal counsel for Human Rights issues, I think that this feeling of solidarity finds its most effective expression in the existence of a global and powerful initiative such as AVAAZ. According to its website, AVAAZ is the activist community that brings together the power of a peoples' voice to decision centers worldwide. This organization (or should I say, movement?) was created to organize citizens of all nations to close the gap between the world we have and the world most people everywhere want to achieve. It is a civic organization with more than 16 million members from 164 countries whose initiatives are translated from more than 15 languages. When we support their initiatives for a just cause, we can do so from our comfortable offices anywhere.  It makes activism much easier! From a sofa or chair!  Shall we call it “cyberactivism”?

“Cyberactivism” actually began some decades ago through initiatives from Human Rights institutions and organizations which proposed a certain form of e-voluntarism. This voluntarism through emails were sent to multiple recipients to encourage people to take part in getting the word out.  There were "chain emails" and chain letters sent out as a way of protesting against nefarious actions of States, from multinationals and from non-state actors who violated human rights or had a negative impact on the environment. 

With time, these efforts had a global impact. I would like to mention two examples, both coming from AVAAZ: the

"AVAAZ: the first was a campaign against “Corrective Violence” in South Africa.  This is where the government started a policy of rape against lesbians in order to “heal” them."
first was a campaign against “Corrective Violence” in South Africa.  This is where the government started a policy of rape against lesbians in order to “heal” them. At the beginning, the initiative against this horrendous policy came from a group of local activists and it was completely ignored by the government. However, as the petition reached 170,000 signatures, the South African government started to pay attention to the initiative. To date, it has reached more than 900,000 signatures. The world is watching!

The second is an example of the power of how social media can quickly help people:  AVAAZ gathered more than 500,000 signatures in only 36 hours to promote the participation of civil society in the formulation of a law against corruption and in so doing, supported the initiative of Anna Hazare, the well known 73 year old Indian activist. Mr. Hazare had declared a hunger strike until the government accepted the participation of civil society in shaping a new and strong anti-corruption law. Four days after he took action, the massive protest of the population obliged the Indian government to formally accept all of Hazare’s petitions.

These two examples illustrate the political weight that thousands of supporting signatures coming from all over the world have for political authorities.  It is undoubtedly a phenomenon that strengthens local efforts internationally, in which the access to multiple nationalities and languages through the internet has a phenomenal multiplying effect that can reach worldwide support in a matter of hours. This “cyberactivism” allows local initiatives to reach the support of international citizens who then become a strong solidarity force that impacts, as a kind of political boomerang, on local politics. 

Two more elements must be added to this equation:  on the one hand, the financial potential of this international support and, on the other, the impact that these initiatives have in the global fight for Human Rights.

We are at the forefront of a new kind of citizenship, the global citizen who cares about Human Rights violations wherever they occur, whether they be, say–mining companies in Kenya, Ecuador or the Philippines–the world is watching!  This new way of activism allows more engagement for "9 to 5" employees.  They are working in jobs not at all related to Human Rights but they want to reach out. This global citizen can now be fully dedicated to a cause as an activist and keep their breadwinning job!  Moreover, even in the case of full-time activists and Human Rights professionals, it would be impossible to be working for more than one cause at a time. The AVAAZ system allows all peoples to inform themselves about a campaign and–if convinced about its importance–support it fully with a signature, the magic power of a click!  This is like being in a continuous referendum, similar to the exercise of a direct democracy:  global consciousness with global impact!

There is another interesting phenomenon: the online activists that offer voluntary service from home, better known as virtual volunteerism or virtual volunteering.  This is true for the volunteer system of the United Nations.  They connect volunteers with organizations that work–for just one example–in the field of sustainable human development. Such volunteers contribute their knowledge and expertise in tackling different challenges from their homes and offices!  The people in the world are helping one another!

Finally, I would like to mention the incredible role of TED. This non-profit organization owes its name to the abbreviation of its three main themes: Technology, Entertainment and Design, dedicated to “Ideas worth spreading”.

TED is mainly known for its yearly Conference and for its TED Talks which cover a broad spectrum of subjects ranging from art and design, to politics, education and global affairs. According to Wikipedia-which is in itself a laudable example of the impact of social era on the creation and dissemination of knowledge–there are more than 900 TED Talks available online for consultation and free download. These talks have been seen more than 400 million times and have been translated into 80 languages. Examples like TED for online learning and distance tutoring help the less-advantaged economic classes become educated.  They make possible the sacred human right to education!

Negative Effects

As seems to be the case in almost all human endeavors, people also find bad ways to use social media. Amongst many examples, I would first like to mention the famous case of the film, Project X, a comedy produced by Todd Phillips.  The film is based on a true story and is about a video taken during a party in a quiet neighborhood in California that turns into chaos. Project X, filmed in Los Angeles and launched on March 2 of 2012, has originated several parties that imitate the film in which Facebook is used as a means to spread invitations to thousands of youngsters.

This is what happened in Cavan County in Ireland, where last July an invitation was made public on Facebook:  hundreds of young people began to congregate in front of the house of the person who sent the original invitation. Apparently, from the actual 20 to 40 friends invited, the party became-with the help of Facebook-a mob of more than 500!  This case had a precedent last year in Australia, in which a teenager had to cancel her Sweet-16 Party under similar mis-posting of her invitation: more than 18,000 guests showed up thanks to the viral power of the internet! The most recent example happened in the city of Haren in The Netherlands: 600 police officers had to intervene in front of a crowd of more than 4,000 teens who wanted to participate in a party!  In this case, police detained 34 people after noticing they had T-Shirts with the words “Project X Haren” written on them.

On the other side of the equation, we have examples of States that acknowledge the power of social media by prohibiting or blocking access. This is true in China and Iran. China counters the power of social media with a highly sophisticated system to filter and control information. Despite that it is calculated that China has approximately 450 million internet users, their use is regulated by the Ministry of Industry and Technologic Information through a very efficient internet control system based on a filter known as “Just in Time” that can block searches of certain words or facts, as well as any material considered as controversial by the State. To mention an illustrative case, just recently the New York Times published an article about the family of Wen Jibao concerning their multimillionaire businesses. This article was blocked in a matter of hours. 

As the New York Times notes, China maintains the world’s most extensive and sophisticated system for Internet censorship, employing tens of thousands of people to monitor what is said, to delete entries that contravene the country’s extensive (and unpublished) regulations, and even write new entries that are favorable to the government. In Iran, we have even more extensive control, they are creating their own world wide web. Last September, Al Jazeera published that Iran plans to replace Google and G-Mail with its own internet as well as its own search engine system. Currently, Iran has one of the most extensive internet filters in the world taking down internet sites thought by the State to be offensive, making many sites inaccessible for the average Iranian. Moreover, any site which contains opinions considered as anti-government are blocked continuously.

Social Media's Potential for Mankind 

We cannot now imagine an organization or business, whatever its size, without a web page or an account in Facebook or Google+ or Linked-In.  Most of us take the ability to have followers, fans and “friends” for granted. As I wrote above, we even can support political, social and Human Rights campaigns on the internet. Social media has become a permanent source of innovation, with multiplying effects worldwide, in those countries that promote freedom and Human Rights.

These new means have already shown the reach and impact for people everywhere in the continuous fight for respect for humanity and the promotion of Human Rights. The future path of social media is uncertain. It will depend on our constant vigilance to ensure social media gives the highest benefit for humanity.  

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Author Bio

Tathiana Flores Acuna

Dr. Tathiana Flores Acuna is a former judge in Costa Rica, she worked as Trust Fund Liaison Officer at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, as Regional Legal Adviser for the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. Currently, Dr. Flores Acuna is working as United Nations consultant in the field of International Humanitarian Law at the Commission on Human Rights of the Philippines. She recently traveled through Vietnam and Cambodia studying the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge and the Vietnam War.


Sculptor Pépé Grégoire:

Entitled, Getemperde-Vrijheid (in Dutch)/Tempered Freedom

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How to cite the above article in APA format:

Flores-Acuna, T. (2012).  The Impact of the Social Era on Human Rights:  The World in Action.  The Journal of 

        Social Era Knowledge, Volume 1, Issue 1.  Retrieved from