Following the end of my tenure at Human Rights Watch, it’s safe to say I feel all the more invigorated and motivated to advocate for unheard voices demanding justice every day. The way information is canvassed and gathered, is an extremely vital part of how communications of any field sustains and endures. Not shortly after my last reflection blog, I was assigned to various trainings and debriefings with the Press Team, where we reorganized our Twitter calendar to correspond with the release of our reports. Really diving into what Twitter culture is, or content for social media in general that is suitable and efficient for advocacy was a whole other discovery, and I’d like to reflect on an assignment that was not only personally meaningful to me, but really encompasses what I learned during my internship with Human Rights Watch.
Firstly, I witnessed the power of social media to amplify voices in real-time, both in a positive and negative way. One of my assignments involved providing a possible list of counterarguments to utilize when the organization faces inquiries questioning the validity of gun control (with relation to the Second Amendment) and in the context of the rise in crime (with reference to campaigns to policing and reallocating community resources). After all, criminal justice, racial equity, and policing are three very salient issues for the Human Rights Watch U.S. Program, if not the most prioritized. Surely, there was a way for me to really group all of my thoughts together without moving too broadly.
What better way than to dissect the Twitter threads of politicians? A Pew Research article identified the top 10% members of the 117th Congress with the largest followers across Facebook and Twitter and found the median number of followers to be 937,377 followers on Twitter and about 400,000 on Facebook. Politicians with more publicity such as Senator Ted Cruz (4.5 million), which is not far off from Human Rights Watch Twitter followers (4.7 million), Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez with her astronomical following of (12.7 million) are more so outliers. But even with just under 1 million followers on Twitter as the median, that’s about the population of Fort Worth in Texas. That’s still an entire city-worth of followers, and even if a portion of individuals don’t interact or even see the content these politicians post (Congress collectively produces around 74,000 tweets and 33,000 Facebook posts monthly), it’s still a considerable amount of attention and interaction with the content than the average citizen.
This brings me to my second point — the fact that there are mammoth movements and forces between just a couple of characters embodied in a hashtag is surreal. We’re no stranger to hashtags — we’ve seen the #IceBucketChallenge where we scrolled to see who the next celebrity was to dump a bucket of ice on their head after being nominated by others, in efforts to raise awareness for Lou Gehrig’s disease. We also saw social movements go viral with #MeToo, where women finally saw a space where they were empowered to share their stories and recounts of unwanted harassment and advancements by other men in public and domestic spaces. My summer assignment was to focus on #ReparationsNow. And in my assignment with providing the cumulative list of counterarguments to use, I had to really take into account the possibility of misinformation and bias that is consumed by a large number of people (again, the average following of politicians was around 930,000 and we can assume at least a couple hundred or thousands actively view and engage with the information the politician puts out). Because as many potential hashtags have to embody the message of a campaign, it still takes me a moment to decipher if the discourse behind the hashtag is pushing for positive social change, or is full of hostilities.
I won’t specifically name which politician’s Twitter threads I ended up analyzing, but upon actively researching to back up my own claims and arguments, it was a real adventure going through the sources the said politician’s references. At first glance, they are very convincing with their claim and the sources they provide. But it’s absolutely crucial in determining if the source referenced was biased — there are many versions of a singular truth, and people who follow and interact with this type of content may find themselves so inclined to believe what is being said without conducting independent research from non-profit organizations and reputable news outlets.
I will always treasure my time working with HRW. Not only did I discover a new side to advocacy work through public interest communications, but I also met many colleagues and respected associates who spend their entire lives fighting for others. I’d like to also thank the Frank Karel Fellowship—especially Karen Su who oversaw the Fellows and provided us with invaluable support—Burness Communications, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Betsy Karel, and every supporter who has made my internship experience possible. Thank you.