I'm a JSA Claimant

Now working part-time, volunteers part-time. Cares what happens to UK society full-time

Imajsaclaimant: Social media and activism – How I do it and why

Every week I get asked questions about using social media and why I do it. I did not set out to become a Twitter activist and I am always slightly amused when people suggest I am, as I often find myself questioning whether I am helping or hindering. As far as Twitter is concerned I am certainly not an expert and learn new techniques all the time. However, I do know it can be difficult to get started so what follows are some of the common questions I get asked:

  • In terms of social media activism, what sites do you use?

I use Twitter mainly, but I also have a presence on Facebook and make use of other social media sites such as Reddit and YouTube for finding and hosting information i.e. video clips and pictures. I also use tools and apps to assist me.

  1. Snagit for screenshots and screen-casting,
  2. Bitly for sharing pages,
  3. Newsnow and Google Alerts for finding stories, along with WiredGov.
  • What subjects do you campaign about?

Benefit sanctions was the reason that started me using Twitter, but over time it has broadened to include related issues around the subject of welfare reform, poverty and social inclusion/exclusion. You cannot talk about these issues in isolation, especially if you want to appeal to a wide audience.

  • Have you had a positive response?

I have received death threats, pornographic messages and plenty of trolling, but for the most part the response I receive is positive. My account has grown steadily since I started and the support I get has been brilliant. There are some wonderful people on social media and I have learnt so much from them since I started. People also care about my wellbeing. I happened to mention I had cold feet on one occasion and this fantastic lady knitted me a pair of slipper socks. They are lovely and comfortable.

  • How would you describe your audience?

Most of those that follow are from the left of politics, but there are also a few who describe themselves as compassionate conservatives. I get a lot of people contact me with questions about benefits and others who share their experiences. Some of the stories are very upsetting. I have a good number of academics following who say my tweets have helped them. I also have journalists who often use the stories I share as research for their own articles.

  • Can you remember why you started; was it in response to a particular situation?

In December 2013 I received a benefit sanction for 4 weeks (although it felt much longer than that). I lived without food, power and heating over the Christmas period which had a massively detrimental impact both mentally and physically. It felt like a double punishment as Christmas was taken away. In January 2014 my jobcentre adviser said she was putting me on workfare… in her words as punishment for my ‘lack of discipline’ which resulted in the sanction. That afternoon I went home and swallowed every tablet to end my life. I ended up in hospital and have since been through counselling to overcome the damage that trauma caused.

I started using social media as I felt very isolated. I was afraid to reveal it to friends and family so I joined Twitter. I found a community who offered attention, support and advice, and who were not concerned about my anonymity. At that point I was using Twitter to help overcome the trauma I had been through, but over time this has changed and now I am able to signpost and try to help others.

Back in 2013 I didn’t know what a benefit sanction was. It was never mentioned by any of the jobcentre advisors and I was completely unaware that DWP could punish claimants in this way. After my sanction I started to research online and discovered that there were some real horror stories but very little mainstream media coverage. I went to my Housing Association and none of the experts really knew anything about sanctions – their only concern was bedroom tax. I spoke to my MP and he was evasive, which raised my suspicions that something was going on that I needed to know more about. I discovered that DWP release quarterly sanction statistics – millions of people had received a sanction since their introduction but nobody seemed know or care about it. Knowing all this drove my online activism.

  • Are you an activist in real life?

I joined Unite Community just over a 2 years ago. I found that I wanted to do more than just tweet, so now I am able to combine my social media activities with campaigning in my local area. I find it more fulfilling and social doing both.

  • a ) If so, are your online activities an organising strategy, an extension of your real-life activism?

My online activities are not specifically connected, although when I am campaigning on an issue locally I will also tweet about it. In joining Unite Community I became aware of campaigns across the country. These I now support whenever I can.

  • b) If not, is there a barrier to real life activism you face? (e.g. disability, financial cost etc.)

Cost makes real life activism prohibitive, especially if you live in a rural area where protests tend to be held many miles away. However, online activism provides a more level playing field – if you can use the internet and social media you can use your voice positively. It also means you can join communities that you can harness, support and learn from.

  • What do you see as the advantages and disadvantages or using social media for activist purposes?

I’ve stated some already in previous answers, another would be the ability to reach new audiences. According to twitter analytics my tweets are seen by over  4 million people each month. I would never get that protesting outside a shop in a local town – even in Trafalgar Square, unless I was very lucky. There is also the possibility that journalists see what you are doing and write about it. I have also had contact with politicians and academics – people who influence policy. So with luck online activism can work, as this research shows http://ind.pn/1ICjAw6

The disadvantages could be that you are talking to an audience that already agrees with you. I try to reach new audiences by making use of hashtags – BBC Question Time for example #bbcqt. It takes up a lot of time to do this properly. It can take me 2 or 3 hours to find, read and share articles, along with responding to people and retweeting others. It can become a bit addictive, so you must try to find a balance.

  • It could be argued that with the advent of social media, we now have many ‘experts’ and this can lead to a fragmentation of the message? What would you say to this?

One of the reasons I started tweeting about benefit sanctions is because there were not many others doing it – at least not sensibly. Yes there were some who made a noise and were angry, but much of it was nonsense – memes that were out of date and not researched. Not many people were talking about what it was like on benefits in a manner other people could understand. Nor were they seeing personal stories of people who had been sanctioned – the husband who was sanctioned because he wanted to be with his wife after she had had a stillbirth. The man who was sanctioned because he had a heart attack during a Work Capability Assessment and therefore could not conclude the interview, or the woman sanctioned after she missed an appointment because she was pregnant and suffering from morning sickness. People simply did not know – and many still do not know – this is happening every day all over the UK.

  • For people with disabilities, who perhaps cannot attend demonstrations or meetings, social media activism seems like one answer, how can we stop these voices getting lost?

I think I have answered this in part above, but there is no easy answer. Hard to reach groups often need more support to get online. This is another reason why I joined Unite Community, as they support members to get online and learn IT skills, English as a second language, along with other classes aimed at empowering people.

  • If you were restricted to only following three accounts, who would you follow?

That isn’t a question I could or would want to answer. There are so many that are useful.

  • If someone is thinking about becoming a social media activist, what tips would you give them?
  1. Preparation and research, follow people that interest you and what you’re doing, join in the conversations and respond when people talk to you.
  2. Social media is also visual so a good image, video or piece of text can make your tweet go much further.
  3. Stick to your narrative and don’t tweet too widely on other subjects.
  4. Treat people well and try not to kneejerk a response to a badly worded tweet. It is all too easy to misunderstand what someone is trying to say – being coherent in 140 characters is not easy so be patient with people.
  5. Give yourself time. I am still learning about Twitter 3 years after I started and I still make many mistakes. It also takes time to build up an audience.
  6. Create lists of people you find interesting or useful. I have a list of journalists and a list of academics – both of whom have written about welfare reform. Check them regularly and retweet and reply to them.
  7. Make use of social media tools like Hootsuite, Tweetdeck and bitly.
  8. Also make use of other social media to find new information – I make use of groups and pages on Facebook, follow certain Instagram accounts and regularly read Reddit
  9. Get yourself noticed. One way is to blog or vlog… show that you have a personality and are worth taking an interest in.
  10. Don’t change your avatar every 5 minutes.

If you have questions please post them in the comments and I will try to answer them over the the next week or so.


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This entry was posted on November 27, 2016 by in activism, Social media.
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