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An Online Advocacy Code of Ethics

The disrespectful, condescending, and untruthful #Kony2012 video first enraged me (to the point of trolling an email list in fury), and then made me think.  While masterfully pernicious in its story-telling, it embodies much that is wrong with online advocacy: deceptive manipulation of emotions, oversimplification and omission of facts to create the narrative, and utter disrespect towards those on whose behalf this particular group purports to advocate.  

I am deliberately not linking to it here - it does not need more coverage. Google it if you have no idea what I am talking about. 

I was arguing via email with people who made me want to bang my head against a wall.  

Online campaigners on the list were enamored by the 37+ million views of the video, the presumably many dollars donated to the group, and the possibly eventual policy impact the group may achieve (which may or may not have unintended consequences for the Ugandan individuals in question).  

They argued that the ‘awareness’ raised by so many people watching this video was phenomenal.  They loved the tactics proposed - the plastering of walls in the middle of the night, the action kit, the bracelets - as ‘engaging.’  

I tried, admittedly clumsily, to make a point that there is more to tactics and effective messaging in online advocacy - that there has to be some measure of ethics and morality, a commitment to honesty, and respect for those on whose behalf advocacy is conducted. (And yes, advocacy, by definition and unlike organizing, is ‘for’ and ‘on behalf’ of others.)  

So, why not a code of conduct, a code of ethics for online advocates and online campaigners who work for and on behalf of specific groups of people within the realm of social causes.  

PR people have a code of ethics, online marketers do, advertisers certainly do - so why not the people who are marketers, PR people, advertisers, campaigners but for causes and social issues.

So, here it goes. It is short, to the point and may be missing some things or get some stuff wrong. It’s not the end, it’s the beginning.  It’s meant to spark discussion so that #Kony2012 won’t happen again - at least not this way.  

One caveat - I am not really an online campaigner. I run some nonprofit projects that essentially live online and so play one some of the time. It’s not my full-time job and I am probably not even very good at it, compared to the people who live and breathe online comms for causes. If you are, and I get it wrong, please fix it! 

Lastly, special thanks for Lina Srivastava who helped clarify several points in the middle of the night. 

An Online Advocacy Code of Conduct

Definition: “Advocacy is a political process by an individual or a group that aims to influence public-policy and resource allocation decisions within political, economic, and social systems and institutions.” (wikipedia)

Respectful and ethical advocacy works in partnership with the people it supports, and ultimately takes their side. Advocacy promotes social inclusion, equality and social justice.

Online advocacy, specifically, involves taking existing advocacy work to the Web, email, all social media, and any other online channels, creating new ways to gain support for the specific issues, cause, or individuals.


We, as online campaigners, understand that we serve the public interest by acting as responsible advocates for the people, organizations, and issues that we represent.

Our work is guided by: Respect for the people on whose behalf we advocate and the audience we are trying to engage; relevance of the issues and proposed solutions to the people on whose behalf we advocate, and resonance with their identity, culture, and recognized challenges.

We further provide an accurate and truthful voice in the marketplace of ideas, facts, and viewpoints in support of an informed public debate, and an engaged and active citizenry. 

Our Conduct Must be Guided By:

1. Integrity: First, do no Harm. This means consciously avoiding harmful actions, omissions, or unintended consequences of information and campaigns.

2. Respect: We recognize that our work is best served by respecting the agency and ultimate self-advocacy of the individuals or groups on whose behalf we advocate. We also recognize that our field is best served when we respect the audiences we target to make informed and intelligent choices about the causes and issues they engage in. In online advocacy campaigns, we do not condone depictions that in any way undermine human dignity or any form of discrimination, including that based upon race, national origin, religion, sex or age. We do not condone playing on fear or superstition in online advocacy campaigns.

3. Honesty: In all of our online advocacy campaigns, we promote honesty and transparency in our practices and methods. Information that we provide in all forms of online communications should be legal, decent, honest and truthful. Information provided as part of online advocacy campaigns should not contain any statement or visual presentation which directly or by implication, omission, ambiguity or exaggerated claim is likely to mislead our intended audience.

We believe that online advocacy is a creative endeavor that strives to convince our audience that our issues and causes are important, necessary, or valuable but we reject all forms of deception of manipulation in the process of engaging with our audience. We further believe that it is imperative to be accurate in all communications, to act promptly to correct erroneous communications, to investigate the truthfulness and accuracy of information released by us on behalf of organizations that we work for, to clearly reveal the sponsors for causes and the interests represented, and to disclose any financial interests we might have (such as consulting contracts) with organizations or causes that we represent.

4. Responsibility: We believe that working with or in any way targeting vulnerable populations such as children and youth requires particular sensitivity and care, given their particular credulity and inexperience.

5. Privacy: We respect the privacy of of our audience as well as those of our beneficiaries, and encourage practices that promote the most effective means to promote such privacy.

This includes but is not limited to: Information collected from audiences should be confidential and used only for expressed purposes. All data, especially confidential data, should be safeguarded against unauthorized access. The expressed wishes of others with regard to any communication should be respected via opt-in communications with clear ways to opt out. We also note that it is critical for us to abide by respectful and privacy-protecting use of images, video, and audio, especially of children or other vulnerable populations.

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