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Why Raising Awareness is Easier Yet Harder Than Ever

While tutoring a student I was recently asked this question: What are the limitations of non-governmental organisations? (VCE Global Politics, hit me up! Need cash, and not ashamed that I’m whoring out my blog for flagrant self-promotion). Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are the advocacy grassroots movements that link ordinary citizens and politicians of different countries together in joint effort for the greater good of the world. One would like to think that they are one of the global actors least bound by red tape and conflict of interests.

While NGOs’ main objectives are to raise awareness on any issue under the sun: world peace and security (Amnesty International), environmental conservation and animal rights (Greenpeace, World Wildlife Fund), development in Third World countries (MMI, SIFE), they also enact some kick-ass change in public policy. By raising awareness, NGOs push the responsibility onto people like you and me to put pressure on our governments to do the right thing. How easy is it to raise awareness exactly? Social media has obviously played its part. Distributing consumer guides, fundraising, protest rallies, election sabotage are all well-known techniques for raising awareness. For the global women’s movement, International Women’s Day, “Activity on International Women’s Day has skyrocketed over the last five years due to the rise of social media…Our [Twitter] community with around 10,000 followers is phenomenal for sharing videos, information and news as it happens. Offline large scale women’s rallies have become even larger through the use of social media.” 

But when activists and lobby groups speak of raising awareness it always seems to me as if awareness is a giant, sleeping dragon that has to be roused, something that is detached and simply not at the fore of our daily concerns. In a sense it’s true – this is where their limitations hit the brick wall, so to speak. Idealistically, NGOs are tapping into a universal desire in all of us to contribute to the bettering of the world we live in. We want to be included, and we want to make a difference. But are we our own enemies where it matters?

In a dawn of social media where the sun never sets on the empire of the internet, our attention span is but a rainbow. Which means, it’s capable of incredible shades and distance, but very, very short-lived. We’re all shallow wellsprings of instant information and mercurial curiosity that flashes from story to story. Our brains are besieged from all directions – overstimulated and occupied with Facebook this, Twitter that, status updates, photos, comments, ‘Likes’, other people’s news. Which can of course be good or bad depending on what objective you’re trying to achieve.

New communications technologies have made raising awareness infinitely easier than it was in the past, but paradoxically now it’s even harder to hold onto the attention once it’s earned. There are more topics vying for our interest than ever. Scientists estimate that we have on average 60,000 thoughts a day – but 95-98% of them are the same recurring thoughts. Basic logic tells us that it would be extremely difficult to find space in our hearts and brains for all of these, while taking on new and equally pressing concerns at the same time.

Remember Kony 2012? Thanks to producer Jason Russel’s 93 million view video Invisible Children‘s campaign escalated quickly, yes, but it also de-escalated just as fast. People no longer postulate passionately about the Ugandan warlord’s crimes against humanity – there’s other stuff to care about now. But should this make activists throw up their pamphlets and posters in despair? No – unlike before the campaign, now there’s an established base that can be mobilised, meaning that people’s interests can still be tapped into and open for future engagement. The dragon is simply napping with one eye closed.

Regular updates to prod it awake every so often are crucial – like academic, romantic, sporting interests, it’s best to progress with consistent milestones in mind. NGOs should disseminate information slowly and steadily to its members and the wider public. Availability heuristic, a strategy of probability is what you call that phenomenon where frequent exposure to an issue makes the issue seem more common and important. A normal example: repeated exposure to violent crime by mainstream media readies us to think that criminals are on the rampage. In Germany, while there has been a real 41% decline in murder, respondents instead assumed a 27% increase based on misrepresentation in the popular media.

In the case of NGOs, while it’s true that people often avoid volunteers on the side of the road, the point to make is that at least it gets into our heads that: Hey, this issue is big, it’s in my face, maybe I should take a look at it further down the track. It’s all to do with priming us for potential interest.

So to keep a long answer short, the very tool that advances NGOs’ quest to raise awareness has, in a larger sense, diminished our human power to stay aware. Historically we’ve come a long way. But if only we could delete some of the online clutter at the forefront of our minds, then the jobs of NGOs would be made much easier.

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