The 10 Most Popular Blog Posts for 2012

eVentures in Cyberland: Through the Web 2.0 Looking Glass, and What Communicators Found There! turned 3 years old this fall, and 2012 was my blog’s best year.

Even though I post less often now that I’ve returned to semi-full-time work, the blog on average attracted some 2,000 unique visitors a month this year. That’s up from a dismal low of 50 unique visitors a month when I first started out in 2009 and an average of 500 unique visitors a month in 2010 and 1,400 unique visitors a month in 2011.  I’m humbled that my feed has grown into my greatest source of visitors.

To wrap out 2012, here’s a list of the top 10 blog posts you, the readers, found most interesting this year. It seems leading online communities was the year’s hottest topic.

1. Castrating Hate-Fueled Leaderless Web 2.0 Swarms?
2. Web 2.0 Suicide, Not Armageddon, Komen’s Problem
3. Video Clip of the Month: Leading Online Communities
4. Limits on Federal Public Relations Activities? Sort of…
5. Mobilizing Grassroots Communities with Social Media
6. HOW TO: Unleash the ‘Crowd’ to Create Change
7. Video Clip of the Month: Precise Strategies Liberate
8. Using #SMEM Lessons Learned for Public Diplomacy
9. Video Clip of the Month: Women Who Tech Promo
10. Understanding Values from Around the World

Stay tuned for an even bigger and brighter 2013. I’m so thankful to be taking this journey through cyberland with all of you.

8 Ways to Stop Misinformation in Its Tracks

Editor’s Note: I usually refrain from discussing politics. Last week’s U.S. Senate theatrics, however, were way too Animal Farmish to resist addressing.

The truth will not always set you free when Web 2.0 unleashes scary boogeymen.

That sounds harsh but sadly illustrating my point is last week’s U.S. Senate vote killing U.S. ratification of a United Nations treaty aimed at bringing the rest of the world in line with U.S. standards on how to treat the disabled. Most Senate Republicans voted against the treaty even while former Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.)—a disabled World War II veteran and American hero—visited the Senate floor to show his support. Many also did so despite receiving personal phone calls in support of the treaty from former President George H.W. Bush and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.)—who suffered disabling injuries in Vietnam and is also an American hero.

Instead, all but eight Republican senators caved to the party’s fringe, which had been raising baseless fears about the treaty compromising U.S. sovereignty, hurting U.S. parents’ rights to educate their children at home, forcing abortions, and leading to the euthanasia of disabled children. The treaty’s defeat appears to me to be a classic case of a priori solutions—when supporters of a governmental action (i.e., refusing to work within the United Nations system) create a solution a priori (before the fact) and then offer it when a convenient problem appears. Under a priori solutions theory, supporters of the particular course of governmental action will attach widely feared problems (willfully or accidentally as the case may be) to the desired action to maximize support.

You need to be particularly strategic in how you go about countering a priori solutions and myths, even when truth is on your side. A priori solutions and myths benefit from appearing before the issue, both chronologically and psychologically, making them particularly hard to counter.

Here are eight ways to counter intentional or accidental misinformation:

1. Don’t fight perception. When countering misinformation, avoid framing your message in a way that contradicts widespread perceptions, even if these perceptions are wrong. Perceptions lag reality, and fighting perceptions will only trick the brain into perceiving you as the liar, even when you are the one telling the truth.

2. Don’t repeat the myth. When countering misinformation, avoid repeating the myth. If you do, people will only remember the myth as false in the short term. Repeating misinformation makes it more accessible in memory, and one of the brain’s subconscious rules of thumb is that easily recalled things are true. So paradoxically, in the long term, denying or countering misinformation will make people remember the myth as true.

3. Inoculate against misinformation. If you must repeat the myth to get your message out, warn your audience before repeating the myth that misinformation is coming. Likewise, if you are aware early on a myth will be used to persuade people to mistrust reality, briefly explain and refute the myth ahead of time. This builds resistance in a way similar to a vaccine inoculating against viral attacks.

4. Remember less is more. When you present the “real” facts, make sure not to make them too complicated. Keep your main message short, sweet, and simple. Trying to persuade with more than three key points will trigger skepticism and/or cause people to tune you out. If people can process your statements quickly, however, they will automatically associate quick and easy with truthfulness.

5. Trigger mental pictures. If something is easy to picture, it’s easier to recall and likely to seem more honest and believable. Again, one of the brain’s subconscious rules of thumb is that easily recalled things are true.

6. Affirm identity. Another way to help people recognize misinformation for what it is is to reinforce their sense of identity. People want to see themselves as consistent, so emphasizing how their past actions conflict with the myth or a priori solution can work well.

7. Explain the myth spreaders’ motivations. To convince people to rethink their perceptions, you need to explain to them why the myth spread in the first place. Ideally, you need to be able to explain the motivations for any deliberate misinformation.

8. Remember the principle of consensus. The principle of consensus tells us, when people are unsure how to act in certain situations, they tend to look to authorities and/or their peers to see how they should respond.

The and/or above is a big one.

Strong peer pressure to vote down the treaty caused many Republican Senators last week to ignore the personal appeals of their party’s most respected senior statesmen. Instead, they gave them the same level of deference many teenagers would give police officers asking them not to drive drunk.

Never underestimate the power of peer pressure (and Web 2.0-fueled propaganda) to circumvent the most respected authority.

Can Social Media Build Peace and Understanding?

My compassion turned to shock after reading the caption of a photo of mourners at the funeral of a child killed in an Israeli attack in Gaza earlier this month. The caption indicated the photo’s main subject, an elderly woman wearing a bright blue leopard print head scarf, was making the victory sign as women grieved in the background.

When I first saw the photo I assumed she was making the peace sign, perhaps to signal her frustration with the fighting between Hamas and Israel. Mothers and grandmothers yearning for peace is a totally different interpretation than somebody perceiving the death of a child as a victory of some kind.

Then I thought of all the photos I’ve seen in recent years, largely via Twitter, of Tunisians, Egyptians, and Libyans making the V sign. In the context of their Revolution 2.0s, I had definitely interpreted their hand gestures as a hopeful victory sign, not something to do with stopping war. But then I remembered recently seeing a photo of a Tunisian woman making the V sign at a rally protesting a woman being charged with indecency after being raped by policemen. Neither peace nor victory seemed to make sense in that context.

The more I thought about it, I wondered if Middle Eastern usage of the V sign just does not translate properly through a Western lens. Does the elderly woman in the photo even speak English and know the word “victory”? Is she familiar enough with the Latin alphabet to know what the letter “V” is? If she does not know the word “victory” and has no idea what the letter “V” is, could she possibly mean something different altogether, something closer to unity or solidarity? Without a way of contacting the photographer or the woman in the photo, I am just left wondering whether the caption, written through a Western lens, was spot on or only superficially accurate.

Now to my point.

Much media attention has been given to Israel and Hamas’s use of social media during the recent conflict. Both sides were appealing to world opinion to make the case that the other side does not respect human rights. I do not think it is a stretch to state propaganda was used, and deciphering the truth in an atmosphere clouded with propaganda (and the painful emotions of war) is hard… especially when you have a limited understanding of the cultures being depicted.

Thanks to Andy Carvin (see bottom of story linked), my tweet stream was filled with updates from real people at the frontlines of the recent conflict. While I found viewing these tweets a little depressing, I find hope in social media’s growing ability to connect us with civilians who do not have any agenda but do have on-the-ground situational awareness. When you see a tweet with a photo of an explosion near somebody’s home you can quickly read the person’s tweet stream to discern context and credibility (boosted if retweeted by Andy Carvin). Likewise, when you see a tweet with a photo of people making the V sign, you have a more clear idea whether they mean peace, victory, unity/solidarity, or something else entirely.

Most importantly, you can ask the source directly if you are unsure.

In other words, social media’s self-cleaning oven “auto-correct” properties gives ordinary citizens the power to further understanding between people and break down the good-versus-evil stereotypes that propaganda can perpetuate to justify war.

My fingers are crossed the path to elusive Middle East peace lies in this direction.

HOW TO: Craft Calls to Action that Overcome Barriers

Don't need hurdles... I can fly!!!Why would people ignore your call to action even when you effectively grabbed  their attention and engaged them emotionally?

Most often, your messaging failed to provide solutions to barriers stopping them from taking action.

There are six common barriers to action:

1. Hard. Your call to action must be perceived as easy to do—either immediately (e.g., “give $15 now without leaving Facebook” versus making people click off to another site to support your cause) or within a definite timeframe and context (e.g., pick a designated driver before you go to a bar instead of “make sure your friends do not drive drunk”).

2. Too abstract. Asking people to “save the earth” or “eat healthy” will accomplish little. Instead, make the complex simple and focus on easy actions that will make a difference (e.g., ask people to replace incandescent light bulbs with LEDs or drink water instead of soda pop or juice).

3. Impossible to visualize. Related to numbers one and two above, people need to be able to form a mental picture of themselves doing the action you desire (e.g., ask people to send an already written letter to a politician via email rather than asking them to support “stopping war”). Simply put, if they cannot visualize it, they won’t do it.

4. Too risky. Make sure your call to action does not ask people to spend an inordinate amount of time or money on your cause and carefully consider any concerns they might have about putting their reputation on the line. Help people become active in your cause by making a series of small asks before any big ones or focus your efforts on interpersonal influencers who can create social pressure to act.

5. Not a priority. In many cases, people have too many other commitments and choose to ignore a call to action. Find a way to increase the urgency (e.g., have donations matched dollar for dollar or participate in a fundraising competition on a specific day. Or, like number four above, focus your efforts on interpersonal influencers who can create social pressure to act).   

6. Forgettable. Make your call to action short, simple, and memorable (e.g., think the environmental mantra “Reduce. Reuse. Recycle,” not something long-winded about reducing the amount of solid waste your household produces, recycling your newspapers and plastics…).

Your turn? Did I forget any key barriers to action? Please let me know in the comments section below!

Mobilizing Grassroots Communities with Social Media

Editor’s Note: Shonali Burke recently let me know about some exciting public relations work she is doing for the nonprofit Center for Community Change and connected me with Zack Langway, its digital campaign director. Zack is also the digital campaign director for its nonprofit sister organization, the Campaign for Community Change. Both organizations are doing some innovative work using social media for grassroots organizing of low-income people and people of color. Zack agreed to answer some questions about how they do it, and his responses below are just fascinating. Read on…

Korean drummers participating in Center for Community Change rallyQ: What is the most important way social media has changed grassroots organizing, particularly reaching faith, low-income, and hard-to-reach communities?

A: Social media, as part of an online organizing strategy, is a natural marriage of community organizing and 21st-century technology. The world is getting bigger, but technology is bringing us closer and closer together. I don’t see online organizing as a change to grassroots organizing, but rather a complement. Where we might have spent hundreds of hours pounding the pavement and knocking on doors to let people know about an issue, today we can rally thousands of people in a few hours. For example, in late September we got involved in an effort to stop Towson University from allowing a “White Student Union” hate group. In a few hours we were able to rally 1,200 signatures to the University President, and as of today, some 4,000 people have signed on to this message. We’ve also been able to use social media to keep our community notified of our progress and how their action made an impact.

Q: How do you quickly and cost effectively determine which social network (i.e., Twitter, Facebook, Meetup, etc.) would connect and mobilize a specific grassroots community best?

As an organization, we’re pretty platform-agnostic when we’re figuring out the best way to mobilize a community. We meet communities where they are. It’s the same as organizing any community—if you knock on their door, you’re more likely to get a response than leaving a note and saying, “Hey, meet me at my office at noon.” We knock on digital doors—sometimes that means through mobile and SMS, sometimes that means through Facebook, and so on—but we try to build community around an issue where we know from experience the community exists. There’s not a science to it—it’s trial and error sometimes—but the more we try, the more we test new tactics and theories in our online organizing work, the more we are learning about our communities, where they are, and how we can better mobilize them in the future.

Q: Do you ever determine a specific audience would be best reached through traditional offline organizing?

A: Well, we know that not all of our communities are online. It’s something that as online organizers we hear a lot of—“our people aren’t there, so why should I be organizing there?” Truth is, a lot of our communities are online. People of color have high adoption rates of mobile technologies—smart phones and not-so-smart phones that can receive SMS updates, messages from Twitter, and ultimately connect them to power in their community through the phone in their pocket. But again, that’s not 100 percent of our community. So we use online tactics as a complement to offline work. We figure out ways to identify at community events who could be a digital activist. We leverage tactics that bridge online-offline gaps, like asking folks in an online faith community to print a petition and circulate it at their place of worship.

Q: How important is identifying and connecting network leaders in your online organizing strategies?

A: We do a lot of one-to-one outreach, and it is on two levels: we want to support and receive support from community leaders in their own online engagement, and we want to get to know the “face behind the Facebook,” so to speak, in reaching out to other online organizers in the progressive movement. Each partner in any coalition and each organization in any movement has a slightly separate set of goals, values, and desired outcomes, but aligning online organizing to reciprocally amplify each other’s message is a big part of what we strive to do.

Q: What is your best success story in mobilizing faith, low-income, and hard-to-reach communities with social media?

A: There are so many successes in mobilizing hard-to-reach communities. We are working with Sunflower Community Action in both urban and rural areas Kansas to mobilize immigrant communities and allies to turn around an anti-immigrant wave of sentiment. Our work with the Ohio Organizing Campaign continues to be paying off with an increased growth in supporters via email and social media channels as well as amplifying the work that the organizers on the ground are doing with rapid response campaigns and live coverage of Community Congress’ around the state. But I think the most inspiring work I’ve been a part of this year is in Minnesota, where we are working with a great faith-based group, ISAIAH. They are identifying, organizing, and empowering people of faith to vote NO on a voter restriction amendment that would require state-issued photo ID to vote. ISAIAH is creating a community that includes urban and rural Minnesotans, students and senior citizens, and people who may have never considered themselves “activists”—all people of faith that know voting is a right that cannot be denied because someone can’t afford a trek to get a photo ID, or because someone is serving in the military and can’t show a photo ID when submitting an absentee ballot, as the amendment requires. The notion that photo IDs prevent voter fraud is itself a fraud—we see in Minnesota , as in every other state, that this is a problem that is so small, it’s nearly nonexistent. So we are working with ISAIAH to talk with people of faith, people that believe that inclusion is a moral right and know that voting is an undeniable right in our democracy—and we are seeing unprecedented levels of activity and action in the online communities we’re establishing for people of faith to get involved with the fight to defeat the initiative.

Special thanks to Shonali for connecting me with Zack!