This is part of a series exploring the opportunities and challenges of using mobile technologies to engage and organize communities, produced in partnership with the California Endowment.
With nearly three out of four adults using social media and 95% of all teens being online in the United States, social media tools have become more vital to civic engagement and community based organizations. In Los Angeles, where busy urban lifestyles often make it more difficult for groups to organize and engage with the community, social media becomes key medium for messaging.
Going back to 2006 (eight years is a long time on the Internet), when more than 500,000 people participated in the May Day marches in the Los Angeles area as part of a nationwide movement to draw attention to immigration reform, the Internet was ranked as the sixth place where people found information about the protest actions.
As more people have joined social networking sites since 2006, social media has become an even more important tool in the mobilization of communities. In Los Angeles, this has continued with subsequent immigration activism, and with the Occupy Los Angeles movement that began two and a half years ago.
Data from the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that access to mobile technologies can bridge the divides across different demographic groups. For instance, Latinos, African-Americans, youth, and highly educated and high income households were more likely to use social networking sites on their mobile phone.
I was able to speak with representatives from three Los Angeles area organizations to find out how they utilize social media in their organizing efforts.
The Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, a group dedicated to rescinding Special Order 1, a directive of the Los Angeles Police Department that authorizes LAPD officers to file Suspicious Activity Reports on observed or reported activity, recently received some local press for its hashtag activism.
One of the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition's most recent actions involved using a hashtag that emerged from the #MyNYPD hashtag in late April. #MyNYPD was initiated by the public relations arm of the New York Police Department asking the public to tweet photos of themselves with officers. That push for citizen involvement soon backfired with citizens posting less than flattering photos of the NYPD interacting with the public. The Stop LAPD Spying Coalition soon joined in with #MyLAPD hashtag with their members posting images of police abuse and violence from the Los Angeles Police Department.
Hamid Kahn, a member of the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, explained that social media quickly opens the dialogue of the organization to a diverse audience.
"Social media is where information is shared instantly. For us, it's critical to inform our members using multiple tools. Social media enables us to get information out very effectively, which we were able to do with the #MyLAPD hashtag. Utilizing tools like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, we can help maintain a presence in the community," Kahn said.
The Stop LAPD Spying Coalition also uses social media to alert public officials about their campaigns.
Cookie Partansky, the Communications Coordinator for the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, said that social media also enables coalition members to alert elected officials of their activities.
"Whenever we have an action, we reach out to our local officials who are on social media to alert them about what we are trying to do," Partansky said in reference to a recent action to demand the shutdown of the Joint Regional Intelligence Center or "Fusion Center," a local spy center in Norwalk.
Another Los Angeles area organization utilizing social media for outreach is Khmer Girls in Action (KGA), a Long Beach based community organization that advocates for gender, racial, and economic justice led by young Southeast Asian women. Like the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, KGA uses social media as a tool to further its campaigns.
"We can reach more people through social media, and we can shift the dialogue around our issues," said Justine Calma, the Media and Program Coordinator for KGA. "One issue we have worked on is school discipline -- we can shift the dialogue on social media and get our message out quickly."
Every Student Matters is a student run campaign that aims to promote a positive school climate and alternatives to discipline that removes students from the classroom. Expulsions in the K-12 school system have been linked to incarceration rates for at-risk children in what is commonly referred to as the school-to-prison pipeline.
Noting that there is not a lot of media information about South Asians, Calma added, "To be able to use YouTube to share our stories and write blogs, that's huge for us. We can use these tools to push forth our students' experiences."
Calma said that some of the youth involved with KGA are really active on social media and enjoy publishing their own media about KGA campaigns, events, and activities. Last year, some teens in the organization filmed a short Youtube segment, KGAteentalk, to publicize the kinds of campaigns KGA does and the population that it serves.
KGA utilizes YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Tumblr, but the organization hasn't developed a customized app for the youth it serves. One reason for not investing in its own app is that the organization recognizes the limitations of social media and technology for the population it's reaching out to. The Cambodian community in Long Beach, which is largely low income, still has issues with some households lacking internet service or smart phones. This poses a problem for parental engagement because a lot of homework and communication addressed to parents is sent online, leaving some families out of this dialogue about their students.
In addition to the digital divide, some youth don't participate in social media because they have been victims of cyber bullying. Calma indicated that those teens that have been bullied online can be reluctant to re-engage in social media, even for a cause that they are passionate about.
Another organization working to engage young people is the Youth Justice Coalition (YJC), which works on issues related to juvenile justice. YJC's goal is to change the policies and institutions that have resulted in the mass incarceration of young people of color.
Emilio Lacques-Zapien, an organizer for the YJC, said that his organization strategizes every week about how to use social media in publicizing the organization's message to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline.
The YJC uses Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Lacquez-Zapien said that his organization has found more success in posting images of rallies and protest actions where their members are engaged in on the ground activities. "The pictures really grab people's attention because they feature young people taking power into their own hands," Lacques-Zapien explained.
Currently, the YJC is asking that one percent of the funds that the county and city of Los Angeles spends on law enforcement, the courts, prosecution, and policing be spent on youth development. The YJC estimates that if just one percent of those budgets is redirected to youth development, 25,000 youth jobs could be created in Los Angeles County.
Youth organizers take almost all of the images posted on the YJC's social media accounts according to Lacques-Zapien. He's found that many of the young people will go back and scroll through the photos of the events to find pictures of their fellow organizers. Images cause people to come back to the social media sites more often than text updates do.
Like KGA and the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, the YJC spends more time organizing in person and engaging with members face-to-face than using social media.
The Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, the KGA, and the YJC treat social media as a platform to build relationships and to broaden its message, but these organizations realize the limitations of these tools. Social media does not replace in person engagement and organizing, but it enables information to be passed along quickly and in response to issues that impact the people they represent. And sometimes the use of specific hashtags and images help gain visibility in the traditional media creating a larger awareness of the issues the community-based organizations are promoting.