Digital Media And Mass Mobilisation Post Paris Attacks

26 November 2015

Karen Burke

Sam BarrattLast year, Avaaz reported that The People’s Climate March was the “biggest climate mobilisation in history”. Following the terrorist attacks in Paris on 13 November, the authorities have taken the decision to cancel the march that was due to take place in the French capital on November 29 - just before the COP 21 United Nations Climate Change Conference. Nevertheless, Avaaz is estimating a record turnout of people for the climate march in 2,100 places around the world. GEN chatted to Sam Barratt, Avaaz Communications Director, about the role digital media has played in mobilising people to manifest.  

Avaaz 1 The People's Climate March on Sunday 21 September 2014 

What effect have the terrorist attacks in Paris had on The People's Climate March?

The terror attacks in Paris sadly led to the authorities taking the unprecedented move of cancelling a march which would seen 400,000 people take to the streets.  However, we still have over 2,100 march’s taking place around the world and the march's of London, Paris and Sao Paolo will all be really big. 

But more than that, on Sunday in towns, villages and cities around the world, people will be marching on behalf of the citizens of Paris so that their voices aren't silenced. For the past six months, all our efforts have gone into making this an unprecedented day about saving the planet and now it has the added significance of showing how citizens will respond to terror with a shared humanity that strives to create collective solutions against the planetary crisis, no matter what the odds. 

We expect this march to be bigger than last year despite the Paris cancellation, but it's important to note that it is not comparable to what happened last year. This march is one of hope over fear and will send a clear message to leaders that people want action on climate just 24 hours before they sit down for talks in Paris.

Do you consider there is a risk of overload of information and saturation regarding the Paris conference? Could it turn people off?

Every single day of this conference, thousands of people around world will be taking to the streets, flooding their politicians with messages and taking direct action in capitals around. Far from from being turned off, people will be changing the course of history and pushing their politicians to lead. 

One way of framing this is that the huge marches on Sunday 29 November are the curtain- raiser for scenes one, two and three. While the media only covers events at the beginning and the end, every week at Avaaz people are engaging throughout the acts and Paris is just one stage of many from around the world.  

 Avaaz 3

Crowd at the People’s Climate March event in Kathmandu

What happens in Paris could result in a sunset clause on fossil fuels which will have market and political implications beyond our imaginations. Paris is a moment in history and we hope editors think with all their creativity to tell the story, and not just point the camera at the conference hall.

What role did the media play in making last year’s and this year’s march so successful in terms of the number of people who marched?

We have seen a transformation in how the media has covered this issue and editors have been leaders in that shift. Last year, journalists told a story of new and different climate movement was emerging which we saw on the streets last November. Now the story is how it's showing up to change the world. 

So far this year, pretty much every editor, reporter or producer I have spoken to has been keen to engage deeply in telling this new story. I think that the climate march's that took place last year were an important trigger moment which may also have contributed to the New York Times and Washington Post investing more in their climate coverage and other new initiatives like the Climate Publishers Network coming together.   

Do you think some media organisations are taking too much of an activist's role, like The Guardian with its campaign « keep it in the ground »? How would you analyse this new trend? 

Too often, the media plays the role of the critical or in some cases cynical voice -- looking for a false balance which leaves people unsure. I think that what the Guardian did was a great experiment to inspire people to go beyond the story. We do this every day with our campaigns that aim to authentically connect with people, fill them with hope and possibility as to how ordinary people are changing the world. It really works. Keep it in the ground is a great case-study for all editors to look at and ask themselves, how could we do this? And if not, why not? 


The Guardian's Keep It In The Ground Campaign 
Photograph: Sipa Press/REX Shutterstock

NGOs becoming media and media becoming NGOs: is it good for democratic debate? 

Sure. Both, have the objective of holding power to account.  At Avaaz, we have 42 million people that we’re communicating every week -- if we were a newspaper, we would be up there as one of the most read in the world. But if anything, a lot of media is actually failing democracy with so much of it owned by a media mafia that back parties that will support their interests. Or digital media that doesn’t necessarily have a public service remit. There is chaos in the media at the moment, and it could go either way.  

Are you monitoring the role that digital media is playing in mobilising people to march? 

Yes. Digital media is playing an absolutely critical role in getting people to attend and engage in this issue. We’ve been working closely with YouTube on a project with their leading vloggers asking people to sign the Avaaz 100% clean campaign, which over 100,000 people did in less than 24 hours. This is where the audience is and we’re engaging with a range of major players on this front and are still exploring new opportunities at this late stage. 

Do you think digital media has more influence over people’s decision to attend a march than traditional print media and broadcasts?

I don’t think it splits like that. What we learned from last year is that getting people to march is a range of different taps on the shoulder. It’s the ad in the Underground or Metro, the message from a friend on Facebook that they’ll be going, a leaflet handed out or a piece you read online. It’s this cloud of influence that matters. Where the media comes in is telling the story of how these events played a significant role in influencing change. 

How are you using digital media platforms? Can you give us some examples of how Avaaz is engaging with people?

Over the past few months, we have been developing campaigns across the world that have been calling on people to RSVP that they will be coming to the marches. Already thousands of people have said they have indicated they will march. We also have a sophisticated call out programme to march leaders where we have given them a kit to help them mobilise their community, town or city. 

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Over 30 civil society organisations participated in the march through Paris on 21 September 2014 to call on the French government to take a strong lead on climate change

We are working with YouTube, Facebook and Google on this issue. We also had some really big partners in place with outlets in Paris around the march -- which sadly have had to change -- but we now have a new exciting initiative where we will be getting people from across the world to send photos of them holding their shoes, or sending them for us to display with thousands of others in Paris. The story of how this march is being put on contains a vast array of on and offline plans that is pretty incredible.

Would you say that it is possible to organise a mass event using digital platforms alone - without the help of traditional media? Is it  the beginning of a disintermediation process? 

People will march this weekend not because they like walking, but because they are demanding their leaders listen to their call. It’s tough to imagine this working purely with digital media. While many citizens look at a diverse range of sources, most global decision makers still read a narrow range of elite outlets and the direct line between traditional media and political leaders remains intact. This is starting to crack but we need far more plurality, diversity and independence within the media so democracy and a range of voice can be heard.

Are Avaaz / European Climate Foundation in partnership with any media organisations for the People’s Climate March this year?

We have prioritised digital partnerships with major reach rather than specific media outlets with the likes of YouTube and Facebook. We are also working closely with The Guardian, CNN, Al Jazeera, BBC around the issue -- all of whom have made major significant editorial commitments to cover Paris and the march’s in a big way. More and more global media are now focussing on London now with Indian and other major European media now looking to cover the opening of Paris with a people powered-story from the UK and then connecting it to other countries.  We hope this becomes a front-page story in the media across the world as the COP opens and is seen, shared and liked by millions, and will send a loud and clear message to politicians that 100% clean energy is 100% possible.

See Also:

Data Journalism Is Disrupting Climate Change

Data Journalism Disrupting Climate Change


Photos of People's Climate March courtesy of Avaaz