Essay: Social media and non-governmental organizations (NGOs)

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  • Social media and non-governmental organizations (NGOs)
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The rise of the internet has given non-governmental organizations (NGOs) a lot of possibilities in terms of communication. Internet offers them various outlets to communicate from, such as websites and social media like Facebook and Twitter. Various research has confirmed that NGOs have not yet succeeded in using their website effectively (Kingstom & Stam, 2013; Lovejoy & Saxton, 2012). Kingston and Stam conclude that many NGOs use their website to ‘further existing agendas’ (2013:92). Lovejoy and Saxton see this as a failure of NGOs to use their websites as a ‘strategic, interactive stakeholder engagement tool’ (2012:337). They think this is because NGOs do not have the expertise or the staff to create interactive sites with feedback options and discussion boards. However, the advent of social media have taken away this excuse (Lovejoy & Saxton, 2012:337). As Auger summarizes: ‘Long gone are the days when organizations could consider themselves technologically up-to-date simply because they developed a website (2013:371). The definition of social media is somewhat broad and frequently misunderstood. Kaplan and Haenlein define social media as “a group of Internet-based applications that build on the ideological and technological foundations of Web 2.0, and that allow the creation and exchange of User Generated Content’ (2010:61). Boyd and Elisson define social networking sites as ‘web-based services that (1) construct a public or semi-public profile within a bounded system, (2) articulate a list of other users with whom they share a connection, and (3) view and traverse their list of connection and those made by others within the system’ (2007:211). A third conceptualization of social media provided by Scott states: ‘Social media provide the way people share ideas, content, thoughts, and relationships online. Social media differ from so0called mainstream media in that anyone can create, comment on, and add to social media content. Social media can take the form of text, audio, video, images, and communities’ (2011:38). Harris and Phillips-Anderson have summarized these multiple facets of social media in one definition:
‘Social media are user-centered Internet applications constructed on the foundations of Web 2.0 that allow members to generate and share a variety of content, either original or from secondary sources, including text, audio, videio, and images, construct a profile, build relationships with other users, engage in two-way communication providing and receiving feedback either privately or through a channel that is open to the public, and engage in an exploration of other network connections through lists and groups based upon interests and commonalities’ (2014:65).
The possibilities of social media are endless, because people can be reached easier and faster than ever before. As Auger has noted, “organizations may promote and persuade using the various platforms and tools of social media, potentially reaching anyone in cyberspace” (2013:369). While many individuals, companies and other organizations are engaging in social media, it is especially important for nonprofit organizations to do so. Former studies agree on the reasons why non-profits should use social media. Auger, for example, notes that social media can help find individual support in the form of donations and volunteers (2013:369). Weberling goes further by stating that a communication strategy has become extremely important, because competition for funding is growing (2012:108). Another reason why NGOs should use social media is because they rely on general public support for their very existence (Auger, 2013:369). This is because a NGO’s legitimacy derives directly from its constituency. Social media make it relatively easy and cheap to establish such connections. As Saxton, Guo and Brown state, “the increasingly sophisticated second-generation Web technologies enable an intensity of interactions between organizations and citizens and consumers in ways not previously possible’ (2007:144). Lastly several scholars point to the fact that social media can be used to reach certain stakeholders such as politicians and the media (Lovejoy & Saxton, 2012:338; Golbeck, Grimes, & Rogers, 2010; Greenberg & MacAulay, 2009). Users of social media have a myriad of opportunities to join political affinity groups, interact with political institutions and candidates, and discuss political information with other citizens (Himelboim et al., 2012:92). This is especially useful for the purpose of advocacy, but social media also have a positive impact on advocacy, because they increase the speed, reach, and effectiveness of communication and mobilization efforts (Obar, Zube & Lampe, 2014:5). It allows advocacy groups to cultivate supporters and distribute information at relatively low cost (Harris & Phillips-Anderson, 2014:84-85). Social media’s interactive, decentralized environment offers a low-cost way for organizations to mobilize supporters, foster dialogic interactions with large audiences, and attract attention to issues that might otherwise be ignored by traditional media (Bortree & Seltzer, 2009; Lovejoy, Waters, & Saxton, 2012) (Guo & Saxton, 2013:60).
Advocacy goes further than advocating for a certain cause or viewpoint. As Obar, Zube and Lampe conceptualized advocacy in their research, advocacy must be seen in its political context. It can be described as a systematic effort by specific actors who aim to further or achieve specific policy goals (2013:4). It is suggested by Weberling that nonprofit advocacy can be divided into two categories: direct and indirect advocacy (2012:110). When citizens are encouraged to participate in an organization’s activities as an individual, rather than as a representative of the organization, the tactics are referred to as indirect advocacy (McCarthy & Castelli, 2002). Direct advocacy involves putting direct pressure onto certain stakeholders, such as policy makers (Weberling, 2012:110). In a study by Guo and Saxton, eleven advocacy tactics of NGOs via social media were identified: research, media advocacy, direct lobbying, grassroots lobbying, public events and direct action, judicial advocacy, public education, coalition building, administrative lobbying, voter registration and education, and expert testimony (2010). In 2012, Lovejoy and Saxton built further on these tactics by identifying three key communicative functions on Twitter ‘ information, community, and action. The action function applies on advocacy, because this function covers all messages of NGOs that aim to get followers to do something for the organization – anything from donating money or buying T-shirts to attending events and engaging in advocacy campaigns (Guo & Saxton, 2013:61). In a later research, Guo and Saxton tested these three communicative functions and proposed the so-called ‘three stage-pyramid model of social-media based advocacy’: reaching out to people, keeping the flame alive, and stepping up to action. This pyramid model of mobilization’driven relationship-building offers a framework for understanding the process through which nonprofit organizations utilize targeted stakeholder communication on social media to effect social change (2013:74). At stage one, the organization’s priority is to reach out and bring awareness of the cause to the public. The messages sent by the organization are predominantly informational and serve to support the public education tactic. At stage two, the organization’s priority switches to sustaining communities of interest and networks of supporters. The messages, in turn, focus more on community building and direct interactive conversations between organizations and their publics. At stage three, the organization’s priority becomes mobilization, which the organization achieves through a smaller number of targeted ‘call to action’ messages (Guo & Saxton, 2013:74).
When used effectively, organizations can use social media to further advance their advocacy efforts. As Obar, Zube and Lampe have found in their empirical studies, social media help connect individuals to advocacy groups and thus can strengthen outreach efforts (2012:13). Under this goal, awareness is created and the visibility of the organizations is strengthened. A second potential of social media is helping promote engagement with citizens and certain audiences, also known as community building (Obar, Zube & Lampe, 2012:13). Social media can also strengthen collective action efforts through an increased speed and social media are cost-effective tools that enable advocacy organizations to do more for less (Obar, Zube & Lampe, 2013:14). However, critics warn of “slacktivism” or “clicktivism” when organizations try to promote activism via the internet. These terms refer to the weak ties established via social media, which can bring a million people to a Facebook page but fail to mobilize a thousand people in the street to actually effect change (Obar, Zube & Lampe, 2012:2).
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Research on the use of Twitter for the purpose of advocacy has highlighted several things. Many studies have confirmed that most organizations use Twitter for one-way information dissemination only (Lovejoy, Waters & Saxton, 2012:316; Bortree & Seltzer, 2009; Xifra & Grau, 2010). Conversely, in their examination of the American Red Cross’s use of social media, Briones, Kuch, Liu, and Jin discovered the use of two-way dialogue, in particular in development of relationships with younger constituents, the local community, and the media (2011). However, there seems to be a general pattern that organizations have not yet realized the full potential of social media ‘for building agendas with various publics’ (Weberling, 2012:109). Especially advocacy organizations fail to fully utilize the potential of social media (Guo & Saxton, 2013:60; Edwards & Hoefer, 2010). This could be seen as strange, because in a research by Obar, Zube and Lampe on the use of social media by more than 50 advocacy groups found that most of these groups believe that social media are ‘effective tools for facilitating civic engagement and collective action’ (2013:18). In their conclusion they state that more research is needed to assess the extent to which social media are capable of facilitating various forms of political communication (2012:2). Guo and Saxton also note that little is known about the content of social media of advocacy organizations, and that message-level analyses are needed to better understand the role of social media in advocacy work (2013:61). This research will try to combine these suggestions. First of all, it will provide a strategy for the use of Twitter for the NHC. Besides this, it will try to contribute to the literature of social media-based advocacy.

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