When you are trying to change the world, how do you know when you’ve succeeded? Last week, when Skepchick went dark, did it do any good?
Last year, I put together a workshop on skeptical activism with the fantastic Desiree Schell. I thought it might be useful to share some of the components of this workshop in a few blog posts, and to provide some examples of activism that are working or that are not.
More and more, skeptical groups are starting to move into the realm of activism. As we continue to see examples of poor critical thinking, bad information and societal trends toward anti-science positions, many of us want to do more than just talk about it, and try to put campaigns of activism together to try to effect change. But, as skeptics, we also must recognize that we need more than our gut instincts to run successful campaigns.
Even though this is my first in a series of posts on this topic, I thought it might be useful to start with what happens at the end of a campaign. So I’m going to be discussing measuring success of an activism campaign. When you’re putting your campaign together, it’s important to begin with the end in mind. How will you know if your activism was successful?
Identifying how you’ll be measuring success will help you solidify clear objectives for your campaign. If you want to raise awareness about the safety of vaccines, how will you measure that awareness? How will you know if you’ve succeeded?
Last week, thousands of sites, including the Skepchick network, participated in the SOPA blackout, going dark for a day to protest legislation that would tie the hands and freedom of the internet. For a few days after the blackout, I saw several of my less… optimistic friends post a link to this opinion piece regarding the blackout.
This article is a great example of a very common problem I’ve noticed with activism. Allies criticize you because although they agree with your position, they disagree with your tactics. You’re coming on too strong or not strong enough, you’re not pushing hard enough, you’re making the whole movement look bad. Sound familiar?
The only answer to this problem is evidence. If you think your tactics were successful – provide the evidence.
In the case of the SOPA blackout, this critic is saying that what we did was simply not enough. We didn’t put anyone in any real hardship and so the blackout could not possibly work. The writer quotes Snopes:
“Protest schemes that don’t cost the participants any inconvenience, hardship or money remain the most popular, despite their ineffectiveness.”
It’s a valid concern. Many activist campaigns lack ‘teeth’ and therefore fall flat. The Snopes quote above is in reference to the periodic request for people to not buy gas on a particular day of the year to protest rising gas prices. Because these campaigns are badly organized (we get those emails at least once a year; does anyone know if there’s actually a day when it’s happening?) and don’t really get a lot of support, they don’t often succeed. However, I don’t agree with the sentiment that basically says that activism has to be hard and you have to make huge sacrifices to run a successful campaign of activism. Yes, running an activism campaign takes work. But the individuals participating in a campaign can often play a very small, crucial part that requires very little effort from them but contributes to a much larger impact.
In reality, you have to be self-aware, smart and focused to run a successful campaign of activism. The thing about activism is – sometimes it doesn’t work. Sometimes the critics are right. So when you are managing a campaign, it’s really important to understand how you will figure out if you were successful or not.
So, was the SOPA protest a success? Luckily, we have a very clear way to check the evidence on this one.
ProPublica.org tracked the positions of congress members on SOPA the day before and the day after the protest. The effect was clear. The protests cut the official SOPA supporters by 15 congressmen and added 70 opponents. In addition, shortly thereafter, Lamar Smith, the chief sponsor of SOPA pulled the bill altogether.
That’s pretty compelling evidence that the blackout tactics worked. Even if there is still work to be done against PIPA and other similar legislation, it’s hard to argue that the blackout had no impact.
It’s crucial to have measurable objectives when you’re planning a campaign. You may have several objectives – primary and secondary. Your primary objective should be pretty big and should be easy to measure. Did anyone in power change their position? Did a business change their policy? If your objective is to have a certain company stop advertising anti-vaccine organizations, that’s also your measurable outcome. Did they stop, or not?
Keep in mind, however, that NOT achieving your primary objective doesn’t mean your event was a failure. Measuring your secondary objectives, such as positive media hits, internal participation, new relationships, is important when evaluating your progress.
Finally, keep in mind that if you have measurable objectives, even failing to meet your goals is a partial success. Because you know you failed and you can learn from that! So you can throw away those tactics or re-work them into something that will get you better results the next time. You won’t be doing the same thing over and over, in the hopes that it has some sort of impact. So even if you fail, you still win.