Your Twitter feed—heretofore filled with tweets about Justin Bieber and #ThingsWhitePeopleInvented—might soon be filled with messages about AIDS in Africa. Same with your Facebook news feed. Are you suddenly going to be following and friending more earnest people? No, but some of the most influential social media people around are going to start caring more.
At least that’s what Randi Zuckerberg hopes. And Zuckerberg—Mark’s sister and the former head of marketing at Facebook—has quite a bit of pull with social media types. That’s why she announced today at Davos that her new company, R to Z Media, is working with the UN to direct some of her post-Facebook time to creating what she’s calling a "social media syndicate" that’s going to coordinate the "1,000 most influential individual publishers" to push out important messages raising awareness and offering tips on how to help solve world issues. Zuckerberg tells Co.Exist: "The goal is to help provide a structure for passionate social changers to unite them." They’re starting today with the announcement of the program and its first mission: Join the fight to end mother-to-child AIDS transmission by 2015.
Ending that type of AIDS is an important part of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and is a quest on which many organizations—like ONE, with its online AIDS Quilt—are hard at work. Currently, about 400,000 babies are born with AIDS each year, a rather cruel sentence for a human being new to this world. But while 400,000 seems like a daunting number to shrink to zero in just 48 months, experts say the goal is achievable, as long as governments (mostly in Africa), businesses, and NGOs work hard on prevention and distribution. All it will take is medicine for the infected mothers that costs as little as 40 cents a day.
What that means for the "social media syndicate" is that, instead of one influential social media user focusing on malaria, while another tries to focus support on global hunger, Zuckerberg is going to try to get everyone focused on one issue at a time. "Right now you have a lot of different people who stand for different causes," she says. "They’re all tweeting and Facebooking and lending their voices to these causes, but not in a unified manner." Now, they’ll be doing one action-oriented message a month about this issue until it’s solved.
So where do you, Twitter user and person who vaguely cares about AIDS in Africa but mostly are just happy to sit at your computer, come in? By following these 1,000 influencers and magnifying their message. Zuckerberg is bullish on the idea that the collection of voices that social media allows can affect global change. "[At Facebook] I had a front-row seat to seeing how social media was helping with the Haiti earthquake, with Japan, with the Arab Spring," says Zuckerberg. "And so after I left, I really wanted to work on how to coordinate all of these online social media voices in order to address the world’s most pressing needs in a more unified way."
And what will these social media messages do? The proverbial "raising awareness" and also putting pressure on people to act. Last year, in a small test, Zuckerberg had 60 influential people start tweeting about malaria and trying to get the World Health Organization to increase its spending on malaria, which it did (though it’s unclear about the causation there). So they have some evidence that this can work, though whether it will keep working when employed over and over again remains harder to judge. Right now, the syndicate’s only goal is to reach 100 million impressions about the campaign, though it hopes to find ways to measure the impact, either in dollars raised or people influenced.
Looking forward, Zuckerberg wants the "social media syndicate" to serve as a sort of instant fire brigade for raising funds and awareness after global disasters. This might be an easier sell, and with easier metrics. It’s pretty simple to ask for donations and to show how much money you’ve raised for victims (though a recent study found that social media wasn’t a very effective way to motivate donations for Haiti).
But will tweets just raising awareness really have a major effect? Zuckerberg cites social media outpourings against the recent SOPA anti-piracy bill (which was pulled after a coordinated online opposition campaign last week) and the support and discussion of Occupy Wall Street as examples of the ways social media can galvanize support behind an issue and make real change. The SOPA fight was "one of the first examples I’ve seen where there was coordinated messaging from millions and millions of people that had extraordinary impact and extraordinary social pressure that actually affected the decision around the issues."
Those are two telling examples. Because if you’ve been listening to anything Occupy Wall Street has said, you know that your tweets and phone calls aren’t what made politicians think twice about SOPA. You can feel as though you participated in the process by not going on the Internet last week, but it was the full force (and massive dollars) of companies like Google and Facebook that made the bill’s supporters blink, not the fact that some people on Tumblr were mad. And while income inequality has taken center stage in recent political discussions, which shows some influence of the OWS movement, it’s not as if there is anything happening to drastically readjust our current economic system. A tweet can only go so far, and it shouldn’t make you feel like you’ve done your part to help stop AIDS. You haven’t.