Tag Archives: digital

fake news, folklore & friendships

gossipIt wasn’t getting a journalism degree, or being a journalist, that made me a skeptic when it comes to sensational stories. It was a folklore class. Urban Folklore 371, to be exact. It was a very popular class at Western Kentucky University back in the late 1980s, both for people getting a degree in folklore studies and for people needing humanities courses for whatever their degree program was, like me. Class studies focused on contemporary, largely non-religious-based legends, customs and beliefs in the USA. One class might focus on watching a film about the games kids play on a playground and how those games explore the things they fear – marriage, childbirth, stranger danger, being ostracized by their peers, etc. Another class might review the difference versions of the “vanishing hitchhiker” story and why such stories are so popular in so many different cultures, and how the story changes over time.

I heard at least one student say, “That’s not a true story?! I always thought it was!” at least once in every class. Because of that class, I realized there were legends being told as truth all around me, by friends, by family, even by newspapers. “I heard it from my cousin” or “My friend saw it in a newspaper” or “My Mom saw it on Oprah” was usually the preface to some outlandish story told as fact. But the class taught me that, in fact, no woman was ever killed by spiders nesting in her elaborate hairdo, that there has never been a killer with a hook for a hand that attacked a couple in a parked car in a nearby town, that there is no actor who has never had a gerbil removed from his anus, and on and on and on.

I became the “um – that’s not true” girl at various places where I worked. And then via email. And I still am, now on social media. And what I have learned from being little Ms. Debunker is that people REALLY do NOT like these stories debunked. In fact, pointing out the facts that prove these stories aren’t true, no matter how gently I try to do it, often makes people very angry.

Back in the 1990s, a friend sent me yet another forwarded email. This time, the text said the email was from Microsoft Founder Bill Gates, that he’d written a program that would trace everyone to whom the email message was sent, and that he was beta testing the program. The email encouraged people to forward the message and said that if it reaches 1,000 people, everyone on the list would receive $1,000. Of course, it wasn’t true – I knew it as soon as I saw it. She’d sent me several of these type of emails – one that said people that forwarded the message would get a free trip to Disney World, another said we’d all get free computers, and on and on. I had been deleting them, but I was tired of it. So I looked online, found a site that debunked the myth, and sent her the link. I didn’t make any judgement statements; I just said, “This is a myth. Here’s more info. You might want to let everyone know you sent to, as well as the person you got it from,” or something similar.

She was not happy with me. In fact, it almost ended our friendship. She told me that the Internet was “a place for having fun” and “you can’t win if you don’t play” and what did she have to lose by forwarding the message even if it sounded fishy?

And that kind of reaction kept happening. Three new friends I made back in 2010, after I’d moved back to the USA, all unfriended me on Facebook the same day, outraged that I pointed out several things they were posting as their status updates – about how Facebook was going to start charging users, about how putting up a disclaimer on your Facebook page would stop the company from being able to sell your information, and on and on – were all urban legends, all untrue. Their reaction was almost verbatim of what that friend via email had said: Facebook is “a place for having fun” and “it’s better to be safe and share it” and what did they have to lose by sharing the message even if it sounded fishy? Also, they said they did not have time to “check every single thing online.”

Now, in 2016, I have friends that are furious with me for posting science-based web sites that debunk their posts from quack sites like the “Food Babe” claiming that GMOs cause cancer or that vaccines cause autism (to be clear, these are MYTHS). Two journalists – JOURNALISTS – were mad at me when I pointed out that a status update one had shared – it urged users to use the Facebook check-in function to say they were at Standing Rock in North Dakota, that this would somehow prevent the Morton County Sheriff’s Department there from geotargeting DAPL protesters – was promoting false information. I wasn’t just annoyed by the message – I found it imprudent, and yet another example of slackervism or slacktivism: people truly wishing to assist the protesters were checking in on Facebook rather than doing something that would REALLY make a difference, like sending funds to support the protest efforts or writing their Congressional representatives in support of the protesters. It also misdirects people from the nefarious ways law enforcement really does surveil people on social media. I would have thought journalists would know better than engage in such behavior.

Contemporary legends online cause harm, and it’s bothered me long before the Standing Rock/Facebook book check-in myth. Since 2004, I have been gathering and sharing examples of how rumors and urban / contemporary myths often interfere with relief and development activities, and government initiatives, including public health initiatives — even bringing such to a grinding halt. These myths create ongoing misunderstandings among communities and cultures, prevent people from seeking help, encourage people to engage in unhealthy and even dangerous practices, cultivate mistrust of people and institutions, and have even lead to mobs of people attacking someone or others for no reason other than something they heard from a friend of a friend of a friend. With the advent of social media like Twitter and Facebook, as well as just text messaging among cell phones, spreading misinformation is easier than ever.

Based on my experience as a researcher and a communications practitioner, and everything I’ve read – and I read a LOT on this subject – rumors that interfere with development and aid/relief efforts and government health initiatives come from:

  • misinterpretations of what a person or community is seeing, hearing or experiencing,
  • from previous community experiences or their cultural beliefs,
  • willful misrepresentation by people who, for whatever reason, want to derail a development or relief activity,
  • unintentional but inappropriate or hard-to-understand words or actions by a communicator, or
  • the desire of an individual or community to believe an alternative narrative, a desire that is stronger than the facts

That list of bullet points was central to the long list I made of recommendations on preventing folklore, rumors and urban myths from interfering with such initiatives. I made that list to help aid workers, particularly people leading public health initiatives. For years, I’ve updated that list and felt really good about it being comprehensive and realistic, and I’ve employed some of the methods myself in my work.

But are these recommendations enough anymore? I’m not sure. Because BuzzFeed reported that fake news stories about the USA Presidential election this year generated more engagement on Facebook than the top election stories from 19 major news outlets COMBINED – that included major news outlets such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, and NBC News, and on and on. And a new study from Stanford researchers evaluated students’ ability to assess information sources, and described the results as “dismaying,” “bleak” and a “threat to democracy,” as reported by NPR News. Researchers said students displayed a “stunning and dismaying consistency” in their responses, getting duped again and again. The researchers weren’t looking for high-level analysis of data but just a “reasonable bar” of, for instance, telling fake accounts from real ones, activist groups from neutral sources and ads from articles. And the students failed. Miserably. And then there’s my own experience seeing the reaction a lot of people have to references to sites like snopes.com or truthorfiction.com or hoax-slayer.com or the Pulitzer Prize-winning site Politico that debunk myths; those people claim that “These sites aren’t true. They’re biased.” And that’s that – just a simple dismissal, so they can continue to cling to falsehoods.

National Public Radio did a story a few days ago about a man in Los Angeles who decided to build fake news sites that publish outrageous, blatantly false stories that promote stories that extreme far-right groups in the USA (also known as “alt-right”) would love to believe; he thought that when these stories were picked up by white supremacist web sites and promoted as true, he and others, particularly major media outlets, would be able to point out that the stories were entirely fiction, created only as bait, and that the white supremacists were promoting such as fact. But instead, thousands of people with no formal association with white supremacists groups shared these stories as fact – reaching millions more people. He wrote one fake story for one of his fake sites on how customers in Colorado marijuana shops were using food stamps to buy pot. Again, this story is NOT TRUE. But it led to a state representative in Colorado proposing actual legislation to prevent people from using their food stamps to buy marijuana; a state legislator was creating legislation and outrage based on something that had never happened.

BTW, to see these fake news sites for yourself, just go to Google and search for snopes is biased, and you will get a long list of links to fake news sites, most right-wing, all fighting against debunking fact-based sites like Snopes. I refuse to name those fake news sites because I don’t want them to get any more traffic than they already do.

Competent decision-making depends on people – the decision-makers – having reliable, accurate facts put in a meaningful and appropriate context. Reason – the power of the mind to think, understand and form judgments by a process of logic – relies on being able to evaluate information regarding credibility and truth. But fact-based decision-making, the idea of being logical and using reason and intellect, have become things to eschew. The Modis Operandi for many is go with your gut, not with the facts. Go not for truth, but truthiness.

I always thought that last bullet in my list of why people believe myths, “the desire of an individual or community to believe an alternative narrative, a desire that is stronger than the facts,” was easy to address. Now, given all the aforementioned, I’m not at all sure.

I’m going to keep calling out myths whenever I see them, and if it costs me Facebook friends, so be it. I prefer the truth, even when the truth hurts, even when the truth causes me to have to reconsider an opinion. There is a growing lack of media literacy and science literacy in the USA – and, indeed, the world. And the consequences of this could be catastrophic – if they haven’t been already. People need to be able to not just access information, but also to analyze it and evaluate the source. That’s just not happening. And I’ve no idea how to change things.

Also see:

8:10 am Nov. 28, 2016 Update: Filippo Menczer, Professor of Computer Science and Informatics and Director of the Center for Complex Networks and Systems Research at Indiana University, Bloomington, authored the article Why Fake News Is So Incredibly Effective, published in Time and The Conversation. Excerpts: “Our lab got a personal lesson in this when our own research project became the subject of a vicious misinformation campaign in the run-up to the 2014 U.S. midterm elections. When we investigated what was happening, we found fake news stories about our research being predominantly shared by Twitter users within one partisan echo chamber, a large and homogeneous community of politically active users. These people were quick to retweet and impervious to debunking information.” Also of note: “We developed the BotOrNot tool to detect social bots. It’s not perfect, but accurate enough to uncover persuasion campaigns in the Brexit and antivax movements… our lab is building a platform called Hoaxy to track and visualize the spread of unverified claims and corresponding fact-checking on social media. That will give us real-world data, with which we can inform our simulated social networks. Then we can test possible approaches to fighting fake news.”

1:05 pm Nov. 29, 2016 Updates:

Donald Trump and the Rise of Alt-Reality Media: You think the truth took a hit last year? It’s about to get worse. A lot worse. from Politico.

For Some, Scientists Aren’t The Authority On Science from NPR

Dec. 3, 2016 Updates:

Spread of Fake News Provokes Anxiety in Italy from The New York Times

Dec. 6, 2016 Updates:

A North Carolina man read online that a pizza restaurant in northwest Washington, DC, was harboring young children as sex slaves as part of a child-abuse ring, so he drove six hours from his home to the restaurant, and not long after arriving, he fired from an assault-like AR-15 rifle. No one was injured, and he’s been arrested, but, as The New York Times notes,  “the shooting underscores the stubborn lasting power of fake news and how hard it is to stamp out. Debunking false news articles can sometimes stoke the outrage of the believers, leading fake news purveyors to feed that appetite with more misinformation. Efforts by social media companies to control the spread of these stories are limited, and shutting one online discussion thread down simply pushes the fake news creators to move to another space online. The articles were exposed as false by publications including The New York Times, The Washington Post and the fact-checking website Snopes. But the debunking did not squash the conspiracy theories about the pizzeria — instead, it led to the opposite. ‘The reason why it’s so hard to stop fake news is that the facts don’t change people’s minds,’ said Leslie Harris, a former president of the Center for Democracy & Technology, a nonprofit that promotes free speech and open internet policies.”

Dec. 9, 2016 update

“Fakes, News and the Election: A New Taxonomy for the Study of Misleading Information within the Hybrid Media System”

Giglietto, Fabio and Iannelli, Laura and Rossi, Luca and Valeriani, Augusto

November 30, 2016. Convegno AssoComPol 2016 (Urbino, 15-17 Dicembre 2016), Forthcoming. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2878774

Abstract:
The widely unexpected outcome of the 2016 US Presidential election prompted a broad debate on the role played by “fake-news” circulating on social media during political campaigns. Despite a relatively vast amount of existing literature on the topic, a general lack of conceptual coherence and a rapidly changing news eco-system hinder the development of effective strategies to tackle the issue. Leveraging on four strands of research in the existing scholarship, the paper introduces a radically new model aimed at describing the process through which misleading information spreads within the hybrid media system in the post-truth era. The application of the model results in four different typologies of propagations. These typologies are used to describe real cases of misleading information from the 2016 US Presidential election. The paper discusses the contribution and implication of the model in tackling the issue of misleading information on a theoretical, empirical, and practical level.

Al Gore Campaign Pioneered Virtual Volunteering

algoreweblaunch
Back in 2000, when Al Gore ran for President of the USA, his campaign championed virtual volunteering, including microvolunteering, by recruiting online volunteers to help online with his election efforts. I was getting ready to leave the Virtual Volunteering Project at the time, to work for UNDP/UNV in Germany, and was not able to document these pioneering efforts at the time. I remembered this effort recently, per the current (and seemingly never-ending) Presidential campaign in the USA, and went digging on archive.org to find the original materials from that campaign regarding this work with online volunteers. They are worth looking at – they are still an excellent example of how to clarify expectations for a virtual volunteering role, something I emphasize again and again in The Last Virtual Volunteering Guidebook. They also show that virtual volunteering, including microvlunteering, is NOT a new idea.

He even had an “app” for people with personal digital assistants (PDAs), the precursor to the smart phone.

Somewhere on the archived Gore-for-President site is also a mention of either online volunteering or virtual volunteering, but I can’t find it anymore…

And by the way: Al Gore never claimed he invented the Internet. But he was most certainly one of the visionaries responsible for helping to bring it into being, by fostering its development in a legislative sense.

Also see:

Volunteers are more important than social media in Presidential elections

A volunteerism blog, not a political one

papers on cyberactivism by women in Iran & Azerbaijan

angryjayneIf you are interested in digital engagement or human rights advocacy anywhere, it’s worth your time to read the following papers. In addition, both concern women’s engagement and feminism specifically. The most exciting things happening regarding cyber activism, in my opinion, are happening in countries outside North America and Western Europe, particularly in countries where freedom of expression is not assured by law nor practice.

(1) Women’s voices: The journey towards cyberfeminism in Iran, by Mansoureh Shojaee, Part of the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University Working Paper Series.

The working paper looks at the history of Iranian media by and for women, culminating in cyberfeminism. The main focus are women’s websites and cyber campaigns dedicated to improving women’s rights, and how they helped to mobilize Iranian women’s movements. There are two main case studies: The main case study on websites is the “Feminist School” as an important site for feminist discourse and women’s movements managed from inside Iran. The main case study in relation to cyber campaigns is the “My stealthy freedom” campaign which is undertaken from outside Iran. Through these two case studies, the paper aims to answer the following questions: To what extent and how do these sites provide strategic opportunities for the Iranian women’s movement to advocating gender equality and women’s rights? And did the cyber campaign help to build coalitions between women’s movements inside Iran and diaspora activism outside of Iran? The case studies are based on the author’s earlier work on the history of the women’ movement, interviews with leaders and directors of women’s websites and directors of mobilizing cyber campaigns along with self-reflective and discourse analysis of the websites and campaigns.

(2) Azerbaijani Women, Online Mediatized Activism and Offline Mass Mobilization by Ilkin Mehrabov, Karlstad University, Sweden

Abstract: Despite its post-Soviet history, Azerbaijan is an under-investigated country in academic research—compared with the other former constituencies, such as the Baltic countries or Russia, of the USSR—and gender questions of the contemporary Azerbaijani society are even less touched on. Within the current context of the post-“Arab Spring” era of mediatized connectivity and collective political engagement, this article looks into and analyzes how Azerbaijani women participate in different online and offline social and political movements, and if (and how) they are impeded by the increased state authoritarianism in Azerbaijan. Using data, obtained from online information resources, yearly reports of human rights organizations, focus group discussions, and interviews, the study detects four major activist constellations within the Azerbaijani field of gendered politics. Based on the analysis of conditions of detected groups, the article claims that flash mobs, a tactic employed mainly by liberal activists, emerge as the promising way in overcoming the normative nature of Azerbaijani patriarchal society, thus providing an opportunity for normalization and internalization of the feeling of being on the street and acting in concert with others—the practices which might lead towards an increasing participation of (especially young) women in the political processes of the country.

Kentucky, Tennessee, other parts of USA need digital access help

logoBack in the 1990s, I got into a heated debate somewhere online with someone who said community technology centers and computer literacy programs would be gone by the turn of the century. I knew there would always be a need for such groups, at least in my lifetime. And, sadly, I was right.

I love my home state of Kentucky oh-so-much. I lived there until I was 22, and really enjoy visiting whenever I can. I plan on retiring there some day. I think it’s an amazing state. But I also know that Kentucky has quite a few people who are under-educated, even illiterate, that are living in poverty, that are struggling with nutritional needs, health care, dental care and more. And when it comes to Internet speed, Kentucky is stuck in the slow lane – this story is from 2014, but not much has changed 2 years later.

But in addition, Kentucky, and its neighbor, Tennessee, don’t have many computer literacy projects or digital equity programs outside of its grade schools. Seniors, people in their 40s and over struggling with unemployment, and many others in those two states lack computer literacy skills: they don’t know how to use word processing programs, they don’t understand the Internet, they don’t understand online safety, and they may not even understand what’s installed on their smart phones. The nearest NetSquared group for Kentucky or Tennessee? St. Louis. Chicago. Columbus. Atlanta. Hundreds of miles away for most people in those two states. SeniorNet doesn’t serve either state. There is nothing in Kentucky or Tennessee – and probably a lot of other US states – like there is in big US cities known for their tech-savviness, or even like there is in many large cities in Africa. Portland, Oregon has FreeGeek and an NTEN Nonprofit Tech Club, Austin, Texas has Austin FreeNet and also an NTEN Nonprofit Tech Club, and San Francisco has more programs helping various communities with digital empowerment than I care to try to list here. Heck, I even discovered the Crook County, Oregon Mobile Computer Lab in Paulina, Oregon on a motorcycle ride a few years ago.

Not that there aren’t organizations expressing the need for such in these two states – and others, probably. ElderServe in Louisville needs a volunteer to teach basic computer skills such as how to operate a computer, email, Google, Facebook, etc. to its senior participants. The Louisville, Kentucky public library hosts computer literacy classes at many of their sites. Goodwill Industries of Middle Tennessee has computer classes for clients. in Nashville.

Does the University of Kentucky do anything regarding building the digital literacy of high-poverty communities or under-served people? Western Kentucky University? Eastern Kentucky University? Murray State University? University of Tennessee? Middle Tennessee State University? University of Memphis? Vanderbilt? Not that I could find. I used the names of these universitys, or the largest cities in these two states, and phrases like digital literacy, computer training elderly, and computer literacy at-risk teens to search.

Computer literacy projects, digital equity programs, “access for all” groups, geeks4good initiatives – even in 2016, these kinds of initiatives are still needed, not just in developing countries, but right here in the USA, and not just in Kentucky and Tennessee. I have no doubt that such initiatives could easily recruit qualified, committed onsite and online volunteers in these areas, and attract funding. There are lots of people that would love to teach classes, market the classes, find places for the classes, and build web sites for programs providing these services. Photos of seniors, rural people, at-risk youth and others engaged in these programs, and their testimonials after their participation, would be oh-so-attractive to sponsors.

If you want to start such a program in Kentucky, Tennesee, or wherever you are, there are lots of resources to help you:

  • NetSquared
  • Start a Cyber Seniors program
  • See the San Francisco Bay Area’s Community Technology Network for a model program
  • Archived web pages from CTC Net and its members: go to archive.org and search for www.ctcnet.org and look at any of the web pages from mid 2005 and look up the CTCNet Center Start Up Manual and the CTC Toolkit, with resources regarding
    preparing a business plan, identifying potential partners, determining program focus, staffing, evaluation, budgeting and funding
  • United Nations Information Technology Service (UNITeS) contributions to the UNESCO Multimedia Training Kit, a list of the content UNITeS provided UNESCO in 2005. The overall kit was meant to provide trainers in telecentres, community media organizations, civil society organizations and the development sector with a set of modular training materials on information communications technologies; the materials were intended for use by trainers in face-to-face workshops rather than for self-instruction by learners. UNITeS contributions were regarding volunteer engagement in these community tech initiatives.

And I hope if you do start such an initiative, you will share information about such in the comments below!

Update: for clarification, I’m talking about digital literacy and access for all citizens – I’m not talking about a company hiring people to code or expanding its company operations in either state.

April 17, 2017 update: on a related note: “Tennessee will literally be paying AT&T to provide a service 1000 times slower than what Chattanooga could provide without subsidies.”

Virtual volunteering: it’s oh-so-personal

logoThe 20th anniversary of the launch of the Virtual Volunteering Project is approaching! I count it as December 1, 1996, actually, though I could be off by a few days. It was probably summertime 20 years ago that the project was funded, actually.

All that was on my mind when I read that World Pulse, a global nonprofit organization, put out a call for stories that explore the role of technology in our lives and its potential to bring positive change:

At World Pulse, we see so many signs of the good. Every day, women and men creatively embrace tech tools to solve the pressing problems facing our communities and our world. From mobile apps designed to track incidents of violence against women to crowdfunding platforms that put money in the hands of social entrepreneurs, technology is making so much possible for women everywhere.

What technologies have the most potential to make a difference in your community? Do you have a story about using communication technology to form meaningful relationships or bridge a geographical divide? Maybe you are part of a group using technology to mobilize for change.

I submitted my own story for this challenge, noting:

I’ve been researching virtual volunteering for more than 20 years now, and the biggest shock for most people that aren’t familiar with the practice and hear me talk about it at length is just how close I feel to so many of the volunteers and volunteer-involving agencies all over the world. They are my friends and colleagues, just as real as people I work with onsite, face-to-face. These are all real people with hopes and fears and challenging ideas and humor and talents. So many of these online relationships, established through email and Twitter and online communities, are so very, very personal to me.

I mean that from the bottom of my heart.

By the time I left the Virtual Volunteering Project, I had worked with  more than 300 online volunteers. I could tell you so many things about many of them: their career goals, their music tastes, what they enjoyed doing as online volunteers, what they DIDN’T enjoy, and on and on. No, I didn’t know them all that intimately – not all of them wanted to be known that intimately, and there just isn’t enough time in the day to get to know 300 people that well, online or off. At least one of my online volunteers had mental disabilities, and his doctor was one of his references; I got to talk with that doctor once on the phone, and he told me what a huge impact virtual volunteering had had on this particular volunteer. I hung up the phone and cried – I’d had no idea.

I kept working with online volunteers when I took over the UN’s Online Volunteering service, then also a part of NetAid, in February 2001, and a year later, one of the online volunteers died that I had been working with since joining the UN Volunteers program headquarters. She was very young, killed in an accident. I was shattered. We had often IM’d each other, just chatting over this and that. She’d formed a nonprofit with other online volunteers she met through volunteering online with UNV. I was also heartened that, when I sent an email to the entire UNV organization announcing her death, something any program manager did for a volunteer killed in the field, the head of the organization then, Sharon Capeling-Alakija, immediately directed her staff to write the online volunteer’s parents a letter of condolence, just as UNV does when a UN Volunteer dies.

That’s why I get so weary of explaining over and over to people new to virtual volunteering, or skeptical of the practice without reading anything about it, that this volunteering is not impersonal. As I said in an email to someone that blogged disparagingly about virtual volunteering, saying that, as a result of it, “volunteering has the potential to lose its social and community-building benefits”:

Your blog assumes onsite volunteers work in groups and have lots of interaction. This is often not the case. MANY onsite volunteers work in isolation: they arrive, they receive an orientation and training, and then spend their time alone in a room stuffing envelopes, or sorting in-kind donations, or checking inventory, or cleaning something, etc. You cannot assume that onsite volunteering automatically means lots of personal interactions.

I’ve studied virtual volunteering since the mid 1990s, and what I’ve found is just as much or as little social and community-building benefits as any other volunteering. It all depends on the culture of management: is the manager of online volunteers one who provides lots of personal interactions, or one that gives a task and then interacts only at the request of the volunteer? Whether or not any kind of volunteering has social or community-building benefits depends on the manager and the culture of the organization, not necessarily the task being done onsite or online.

Working with virtual volunteering? It’s personal. At least it is for me.

vvbooklittleThere is lots more information about what it’s like to work with online volunteers in The LAST Virtual Volunteering Guidebook, available both as a traditional printed book and as a digital book. The advice is based on both extensive research of virtual volunteering practices at a variety of organizations all over the world and my own experience working with online volunteers – I’ve now worked with more than 1000, some of whom I’m still friends with online, some of whom have become friends offline as well. And if you are about to write about virtual volunteering, but you don’t want to read the guidebook, then PLEASE, at least, first read these Myths About Virtual Volunteering.

Safety in virtual volunteering

Between my Google Alerts and those whom I follow on Twitter, I see a story at least once a day about the engagement of online volunteers. I put the most interesting or unique ones on the Virtual Volunteering Wiki. It’s so wonderful to see virtual volunteering oh-so-mainstream. I’m not at all surprised: by the 1990s, it was already impossible to track every organization involving online volunteers – there were so many! If there is anyone out there still talking about any form of virtual volunteering – digital volunteers, micro volunteering, crowd sourcing, ework, etc. – as “new”, you have to wonder: have they been under a rock?

But I do have a concern: many of these virtual volunteering initiatives don’t seem to have thought about online safety. Too many, in my opinion, are focused on creating a really complex, feature-rich web site for volunteers to use to sign up and contribute their time and skills, but not thinking about risk management – protecting clients and volunteers.

As Susan Ellis and I say in The LAST Virtual Volunteering Guidebook, and I say in any workshop related to virtual volunteering:

Relatively speaking, the Internet is no more or less safe than any other public space, such as a school, faith community, or sports stadium. Fears of exploitation, abuse, or exposure to sexually-explicit or violent material should not prevent an agency from engaging in virtual volunteering, any more than such fears should prevent the involve­ment of volunteers onsite. There is risk in any vol­unteering, online or face-to-face. The challenge is to minimize and manage such risk. (page 112)

Do you have to interview every candidate for online volunteering? Do you have to check professional references on every candidate for online volunteering? Do you have to conduct a criminal background check on every online volunteer? No, you don’t have to do any of these things IF the tasks they will do as volunteers don’t warrant such – they aren’t going to work with clients, they aren’t going to work with other online volunteers and know their names, they aren’t going to have access to confidential information, they won’t have access to any online systems in such a way that they could even accidentially harm such, etc. Again, back to a quote from The LAST Virtual Volunteering Guidebook.:

Every organization will have different interview­ ing and screening methods based on what services volunteers provide and its workplace culture. Even for volunteers working onsite, the issues involved in volunteering for a beach cleanup or simple clerical work are not the same as issues involved in volun­teering to tutor young children or manage an orga­nization’s computer systems.

The same is true for online volunteers. Your screening approach will be different for a volun­teer designing a Web page than for one creating a private online area where your staff and clients will interact and the online volunteer will have far more access to client contact and other confidential information. (page 41)

If an online volunteering role does warrant some degree of screening – and not all do, but most do – then you have to decide how much there will be, and how it will be conducted. First and foremost is that you must follow the law. For instance, many states require a criminal background check on any volunteers that will work with children one-on-one. A volunteer who will come to a classroom one time to speak about his or her job may not be required by law to undergo a criminal background check, but someone who will talk with a child, one-on-one, even if they will always be in a room with other adults and children, probably is required by law to undergo such – apply the same principles to online volunteers in determining what screening is required. Should the online volunteering candidate be interviewed? If the person is new and is doing any task that requires at least some expertise – web page development, translating text from one language to another, moderating an online discussion group, designing a newsletter, editing a brochure, etc. – yes, absolutely! Many more tips for screening online volunteers to ensure they really can do the task that they have signed up for, and have the time to do so, can be found in The LAST Virtual Volunteering Guidebook.

My favorite resource on screening volunteers, online or offline, that will work with clients in any capacity, is free to download: Screening Volunteers to Prevent Child Sexual Abuse: A Community Guide for Youth Organizations. Point one under the section on what to do before the organization starts screening volunteers is this: “Develop criteria that define how screening information will be used to determine an applicant’s suitability.” That will be different for every organization, depending on their mission and the work volunteers will do. You have to think about not only worst-case scenarios – screening out people that might sexually and/or financially-exploit clients, other volunteers, etc. – but also about people who don’t have the skills necessary for the work, people who don’t have the temperament for the challenges, and people who really don’t have time to volunteer, as all of those scenarios, while not criminal, can be harmful to your organization and those it serves.

You also have to clearly define what behavior is inappropriate on the part of online volunteers, how you will communicate that to volunteers, the consequences of inappropriate behavior, and how you are going to be aware of such behavior. As we note in the guidebook, a way to absolutely ensure safety in online interactions between volunteers and clients is to set up a private sys­tem through which all messages are sent, reviewed by staff before they can be read by the intended recipient, stripped of all personal identifying information by the moderator, archived for the record, etc., but that such a system can ruin an attempt to create trusting, caring relationships between volunteers and clients (and we provide a powerful example of how such a super-safe system ended up almost derailing an online mentoring program). Your efforts to ensure safety must balance with your program goals.

Among the many suggestions we make in The LAST Virtual Volunteering Guidebook, regarding online safety is this:

The best way to ensure that clients and vol­unteers are having positive online experiences is for program staff to stay in frequent touch with both, to encourage an atmosphere of open communication. Also, it is fundamental that you establish and clearly (and frequently) communicate policies regarding online exchanges between volunteers and clients. (page 114)

Clearly, explicitly inform applicants for volunteering about your organization’s policies and procedures regarding safety, abuse prevention, and all aspects of risk management, as well as circumstances that would lead to a volunteer being dismissed. Be explicit. Also share your code of conduct or statement of ethics in writing. Ask applicants if they have a problem with any of the policies and procedures, code of ethics, etc.; such a discussion will help you find out if applicants are uncomfortable with any aspect of such, which can be an indicator that they are an inappropriate candidate. Even though it is not legally binding, require applicants to sign a document that states they understand and agree to adhere to your policies and procedures and code of conduct; again, this can help you find out if an applicant is uncomfortable with any aspect of such, which can be an indicator that they are an inappropriate candidate. It also affirms to volunteers that you make the safety of your volunteers, staff and clients a priority, which can encourage new volunteers to take such precautions with the utmost seriousness.

vvbooklittleThere are lots more suggestions and specifics about risk management, online safety, ensuring client confidentiality and setting boundaries for relationships in virtual volunteering in The LAST Virtual Volunteering Guidebook, available both as a traditional printed book and as a digital book. Suggestions for risk management are found throughout the book, in the chapters regarding developing and revising policies, designing assignments for online volunteers, interviewing and screening online volunteers, orienting and training online volunteers, basic techniques for working with online volunteers, and online volunteers working directly with clients, as well as the chapter written for online volunteers themselves. Our advice is based on both virtual volunteering practices, including micro volunteering and crowdsourcing, and the proven fundamentals of onsite, face-to-face, traditional volunteer management.

Also see:

Keeping volunteers safe – & keeping everyone safe with volunteers

Why don’t they tell? Would they at your org?

Safety of volunteers contributes to a shelter closing

Why Do So Few Women Edit Wikipedia? Insights into virtual volunteering

wikipediaJulia Bear of Stony Brook University’s College of Business and Benjamin Collier of Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar published “Where are the Women in Wikipedia? Understanding the Different Psychological Experiences of Men and Women in Wikipedia” in the journal Sex Roles in January 2016.

Those that contribute information and edit Wikipedia, help others on the site, are called Wikipedians, and are online volunteers. So this study relates to virtual volunteering without ever actually saying that phrase.

From the abstract of the paper:

“We proposed that masculine norms for behavior in Wikipedia, which may be further exacerbated by the disinhibiting nature of an online, anonymous environment, lead to different psychological experiences for women and men, which, in turn, explain gender differences in contribution behavior. We hypothesized that, among a sample of individuals who occasionally contribute to Wikipedia, women would report less confidence in their expertise, more discomfort with editing others’ work, and more negative responses to critical feedback compared to men, all of which are crucial aspects of contributing to Wikipedia. We also hypothesized that gender differences in these psychological experiences would explain women’s lower contribution rate compared to men in this sample… Significant gender differences were found in confidence in expertise, discomfort with editing, and response to critical feedback. Women reported less confidence in their expertise, expressed greater discomfort with editing (which typically involves conflict) and reported more negative responses to critical feedback compared to men. Mediation analyses revealed that confidence in expertise and discomfort with editing partially mediated the gender difference in number of articles edited, the standard measure for contribution to Wikipedia. Implications for the gender gap in Wikipedia and in organizations more generally are discussed.”

Their study is summarized in this 02 June 2016 article “Why Do So Few Women Edit Wikipedia?” That article notes that Jimmy Wales, the founder of the Wikimedia Foundation, which runs the site, said that the organization failed to meet its goal of increasing women’s participation to 25% by 2015, despite launching several initiatives.

This is great information for anyone that works with online volunteers – or wants to. While most reviews of the makeup of online volunteers at organizations, at least in the USA, show more women than men participating, and women providing more hours during their service, Wikipedia attracts far more men in its online volunteer ranks. Your organization might also be unconsciously excluding a particular group of people from participating, and this study can help you think about ways to find that out. Kudos to the Wikimedia Foundation for acknowledging this gender gap problem and wanting to address it.

vvbooklittleInformation about this study of the gender gap among Wikipedians has been added to the Virtual Volunteering Wiki list of research regarding virtual volunteering, the most comprehensive list you will find anywhere of such, with information about virtual volunteering research dating back to 1997 (though most starts in 2000). Wikipedia’s engagement of online volunteers is talked about in The LAST Virtual Volunteering Guidebook, available both as a traditional printed book and as a digital book. The book is for anyone that works with volunteers – the marketing manager, the director of client services, and on and on – not just the official manager of volunteers.

February 10, 2017 update: @Wikimujeres_ES: voluntarias de Wikimedia que intenta reducir la brecha de género incorporando nuevas editoras y generando más contenidos relacionados con mujeres (Volunteers from Wikimedia who are trying to reduce the gender gap on the service, by incorporating new female Wikimedia editors and by generating more content related to women). Here is the web site of this volunteer effort. Here’s a nice 09 January 2017 article by the Association for Progressive Communications about their efforts, in English.

Also see:

Even if all your volunteers are “traditional”, you need to explore virtual volunteering

Even if your program’s volunteers are working onsite, and you frequently interact with them onsite, face-to-face, here are 11 easy ways you should be using the Internet and text messaging to support and involve those volunteers:

  • Have a list of volunteers and their accomplishments on your organization’s web site, and regularly update that list. Photos of volunteers in action are great too. This says to your volunteers, “Your contributions matter to us – YOU matter to us.” It also helps anyone who visits your web site understand that you value volunteers, and helps others at your organization see volunteer engagement as important as financial donations, client relations, and program activities.
  • Profile a volunteer and his or her accomplishments at least twice a month on your program’s Facebook page, Twitter account and other social media. Do this for all the same reasons mentioned in the first bullet.
  • Have an online discussion group for all volunteers, where information of value ot your volunteers is regularly posted, questions are regularly posed, and feedback regularly sought. Use this group to remind volunteers of new policies, or changes in policies, as well. All volunteers should stay on the group when they go on maternity leave, or take a break from volunteering for any reason, to keep them engaged with the organization.
  • Use text messaging to remind volunteers of work shifts, very special events or critical deadlines.
  • Create a policy for volunteers regarding the taking of photos during their service times, and regarding how they should share them and how they should tag them, including how they should tag your organization.
  • Encourage volunteers to allow such photos to be used by your organization, with permission.
  • Invite volunteers to write a blog on behalf of your organization, and if you track volunteer hours, count this time in tracking their service time.
  • Post your volunteer policies online. If you don’t want to share them with the public, post them in a password-protected area. If you have an online discussion group on Yahoo, you can post these in the “files” section, which an be accessed by your group members at any time.
  • Create a one-minute video showcasing the contributions of your volunteers – showing them in action, showing them laughing, etc. – and post it to YouTube or Vimeo, and link it from your web site and all your social media accounts.
  • Look for software that would allow volunteers to submit their completed service hours and volunteering accomplishments online, via their own devices, from wherever they want to, and to be able to see their hours and accomplishments to date.
  • Suggest an app or other online tool – or more than one – that would be particularly helpful for your volunteers as a part of their service. For instance, if a significant number of volunteers take mass transit to get to your location, is there a free app available that could help them buy tickets and find bus and train schedules on demand? If volunteers need to record their mileage during volunteer activities or record hours worked, is there a good, free app you can recommend to them for that? Are there health-related apps your volunteers could use in their work with clients regarding health issues? If volunteers are assisting people in domestic violence situations, do they know about apps that could help them identify places where clients could seek shelter immediately? If volunteers are assisting people living in poverty, do they know about apps that could help them identify free summer meal programs for children?

Please, no “our volunteers are seniors and don’t use the Internet” excuses (the facts dispute this), nor “our clients are homeless/refugees and don’t have smart phones” (again, the facts say otherwise). If you don’t believe most of these folks are online, fine, but there are enough of them online that you need to adopt these 10 simple activities. To do so demonstrates that your program is competent, organized, supportive, even transparent. To not do so will turn young volunteers away, hide the importance and impact of volunteer engagement from both the public and from people at your organization, and make some people suspicious of your stated abilities to meet your mission.

vvbooklittleWant more ideas for using computers, tablets, smart phones, even old-fashioned cell phones, to support and involve volunteers? Or want to create tasks specifically for volunteers to do online, remotely?  The LAST Virtual Volunteering Guidebook has all of this information and more. It’s available both as a traditional printed book and as a digital book. It’s written in a style so that the suggestions can be used with any online tools, both those in use now and those that will become popular after, say, Facebook goes the way of America Online. This is a resource for anyone that works with volunteers – the marketing manager, the director of client services, and on and on – not just the official manager of volunteers.

And if you have more simple ideas for easy ways an organization or program can use the Internet and text messaging to support and involve volunteers, please offer such in the comments below.

Also see why we called it The LAST Virtual Volunteering Guidebook.

Request to all those training re: volunteer management

Are you teaching a volunteer management 101 class, where you talk about the basics of successfully managing volunteers?

Are you going to teach a workshop on how to identify tasks for volunteers?

Are you going to teach a workshop on how to recruit volunteers?

Are you going to teach a workshop on how to keep volunteers engaged/volunteer retainment?

Are you going to teach a workshop on how to recognize/honor volunteers?

If you said yes to any of these questions, then here’s a thought. Actually, it’s a very strong suggestion: you absolutely should include virtual volunteering, whether or not you ever say the phrase virtual volunteering. You absolutely should talk about how to use the Internet – email, a web site, social media, third-party web sites – in each and every aspect of those basics of volunteer management. No exceptions. No excuses.

Consider this: no high-quality marketing workshop about event promotion would not talk about the Internet. No high-quality HR seminar or webinar would talk about worker recruitment and not talk about the Internet. No high-quality management class about better-supporting large numbers of employees in their work would not talk about digital networking tools. So why do those that work with volunteers settle for volunteer management workshops, even on the most basic subject, that don’t integrate into the class the Internet use regarding supporting and involving volunteers?

I hear a lot of excuses for consultants and other workshop leaders who don’t talk about Internet tools in a course regarding the management of volunteers:

  • The volunteer managers I’m working with don’t work with volunteers that use the Internet or text messing
  • The volunteer managers I’m working with are at organizations focused on the arts or the environment or animals or homelessness and therefore don’t need to talk about the Internet or text messaging
  • There’s a separate workshop for talking about digital tools
  • The volunteer managers I’m working with have volunteers that are over 55

ARGH! Not one of those excuses is valid for not integrating talk of the Internet throughout any volunteer workshop addressing basic topics like recruitment, retainment, task identification, etc. NOT ONE. In fact, I think anyone who attends a workshop on working with volunteers, especially a volunteer management 101 course, whether hosted by a volunteer center, a nonprofit support center, or a college or university, whether online or onsite, should ask for at least a partial refund if virtual volunteering is not fully integrated into the course (it’s either not mentioned at all or is briefly mentioned at the end of the class). There is NO excuse for this, it shows a lack of competency on the part of the workshop leader and it’s time to demand better!

As Susan Ellis and I note in The LAST Virtual Volunteering Guidebook, virtual volunteering should not be a separate topic amid discussions about volunteer engagement and management. Instead, virtual volunteering needs to be fully integrated into all such discussions and trainings. No more segregation at the end of the book or workshop! The consequences of not integrating Internet use into volunteer management 101 workshops? It ill-prepares people for working with volunteers. It also immediately contributes to the stereotype that nonprofits are out-of-touch and old-fashioned.

vvbooklittleWe called it The LAST Virtual Volunteering Guidebook not because we don’t think there will be more to say about virtual volunteering in the future, not because we don’t think there will be new developments on the subject, but because we really hope it’s the last book focused only on virtual volunteering, because we hope all books written about working with volunteers, whether in general or regarding a very specific part of the management of volunteers, like mentoring or risk management or recruitment or board member support or whatever, will now fully integrate the use of the Internet/digital tools in their suggestions. We hope that every workshop on any aspect of volunteer management, and every certificate regarding the management of volunteers, will fully integrate the various uses of the Internet in their suggestions. There’s no excuse not to!

Building a team culture among remote workers: yoga, cocktails & games

Workforce.com has an outstanding article from February of this year, This Party’s Electric: Culture, Cocktails and Remote Co-workers, about some creative, effective ways companies have created a sense of team among remote workers. This article is about paid employees, but these practices would also work for those engaging online volunteers, in many scenarios.

The article notes that:

  • All 70 of the employees at FlexJobs, a telecommuting job service, work virtually, and many employees have never met in the same room, in-person. To build team culture, the FlexJobs leadership team uses collaboration technology to come up with fun ways to help employees develop relationships outside of work, including a twice-monthly virtual yoga class over Skype run by an employee with a yoga certification, and a trivia-themed happy hour using Sococo, an online virtual workplace, where employee teams gather in virtual rooms to brainstorm answers to questions posted by the CEO. “You would be surprised by how well it all works,” said Carol Cochran, FlexJob’s director of people and culture.
  • Katie Evans, senior communications manager at Upwork, an online talent marketplace formerly known as Elance-oDesk, created a “get to know you” exercise, and had remote employees submit three facts about themselves. She shared the facts anonymously with the team, then employees met using Google Hangouts video to guess which facts went with which person. “I thought it would last for 30 minutes, but it lasted two hours,” she said. “Everyone had a lot of fun.” The party made her realize that you don’t need to be live and in person to build company morale, and you don’t need to use complicated technology to make virtual celebrations fun. “The value is in the face time and storytelling, not the platform,” she said. Now she hosts quarterly all-company parties and smaller teams have begun using collaboration tools for team coffees and weekly “rocks and roses” meetings where everyone shares their best and worst moment of the week.

The key in these and other examples from the article is that these remote workers do already know each other, to a degree, through work – they work together already, they’ve interacted enough to know each other’s names and roles.

vvbooklittleFor more advice on working with remote volunteers, or using the Internet to support and involve volunteers, check out The Last Virtual Volunteering Guidebook. Tools come and go – but certain community engagement principles never change, as the aforementioned Workforce.com article confirms. Successfully working with people remotely is a very human endeavor that people who are amiable, understanding and thoughtful tend to excel in.