BEARR Trust Annual Conference 2013

The BEARR Trust held its 2013 annual conference on Friday 15 November on the subject of

The Uses and Abuses of Social Networking for Health and Welfare NGOs in the BEARR Region*

Click here for the programme. Links to the presentations are at the bottom of the page.

Social media are now one of the main channels of information-sharing world-wide. And while a large amount of fund-raising is carried out on social media, unfortunately there are downsides to them as well, with stories of cyber bullying, cyber grooming and other abuses of the virtual media all too frequently in the news. So the theme of this year’s conference was a very topical one. Robert Brinkley, Chairman of The BEARR Trust, opened the conference. He thanked CEELBAS and the Great Britain- Russia Society for their support and sponsorship. Introducing the theme of the conference, he observed that as technology advances, it allows organisations to do much more, and older people need to learn from the younger generation how to make the most of it.He introduced the first speaker, Dr Vikki Turbine, Lecturer in Politics, Glasgow University, who spoke about The Use of Social Media in the BEARR region.Conf13 007 

Vikki described a project on The Internet & Everyday Rights in Russia that she has been involved in, jointly with Professor Sarah Oates, of Maryland University, with funding from the ESRC.  Her research was conducted in the city of Ulyanovsk, surveying what means women use to access human rights and seek redress or solutions to their problems. The research feeds into a growing body of research on growth of internet penetration and use in Russia.

The survey included 10 women and 10 men aged 18 -58 years, of various educational backgrounds and occupations. Women said health, social welfare and education were the most important topics on which they sought answers on-line. Men, particularly those in lower occupational groups, seemed more suspicious of the internet. Overall, offline relationships and experiences still remain central, with the internet a complementary resource.  The research identified social and economic rights issues (health, welfare, education, housing, childcare etc.) that generate online content, (e.g. webpages, comments sections, media reports, forums, links, blogposts, social networking sites) and mapped the results. People had sought advice from Ombudsman websites, when they had been given unhelpful or incorrect advice by local officials. Unlike in the UK, where more men use the internet than women, women in Ulyanovsk were more active than men. Apart from work and social contacts, people used the internet for “daily bureaucracy” e.g. passport renewals, banking, and medical appointments; for local civic engagement e.g. animal rights, environmental campaigns, and for politics and rights activism e.g. petitions, campaigns, contacting authorities. She stressed, however, that the use of the internet in Russia should not be exaggerated – only 20% of the population use it, though the numbers are growing fast, and the most vulnerable do not use it at all.

The next speaker was Elena Temicheva, from the Agency for Social Information (ASI), Moscow, where she works as editor. She spoke on NGOs and Social Media in Russia.

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Elena said that ASI had been running a project with Internews since 2012 to support NGOs in the use of information technology. Social media began in Russia in 2006 with “Classmates in touch” (similar to Friends Reunited). Within a few months it had half a million users and remained the leading social website until 2012 when it was overtaken by Vkontakte which started up in 2007. Facebook is in third place, and is increasingly popular with NGOs. After these come blog platforms including Twitter and Livejournal. People first started to get together on-line in social activism during the bush fires in Russia in 2010. They began mapping the extent of the fires, and issued warnings when a new fire broke out. Volunteers helping to fight the fires used this information to direct their efforts.

There are 400-600,000 NGOs in Russia, of which about 20,000 are active in the social sphere. Blogs are very popular, and appeared before social media. Examples include a teacher who raises funds to bring sick children from other CIS countries to Russia for treatment, just using a blog, and the Russian Fund for Help, founded by Kommersant newspaper. It raises millions of roubles every year by involving celebrities raising funds for a specific child in need. Groups of volunteers also organise themselves on-line without running an NGO. When people see photos and details of real people on-line they tend to be trusting and are willing to support the cause. Asked whether topics such as domestic abuse and homosexuality often feature on-line, Elena said that public awareness of such issues in Russia  is still low, and they are dealt with more on-line than off-line.

In the second session we linked up Azat Israilov of HealthProm, on Skype from Bishkek, with Fiona McLean, CEO of HealthProm, and Marina Kochevalova, Project Co-ordinator, NGO Starost v Radost (Russia) in the conference room to discuss The Use of the Social Media in NGO projects and programmes. Fiona McLean gave some background on HealthProm, which helps with maternal and child health in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, including Afghanistan.

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Azat Israilov described a project to set up the first website for children with disabilities in Kyrgyzstan – It was set up in 2009 and has 125 followers; it shares news and information, and over the past two years, other disability NGOs have joined in sharing information via the site. Experience has shown that using social media helps NGOs in the field of disability to become better known, are viewed as reliable partners and have had international NGOs contact them to become partners. A current project aims to combat indifference about disability. Social media are used to inform the off-line media about events and to enable parents to bring their problems to the notice of the authorities.

Marina Kochevalova, Project Co-ordinator at the NGO Starost v Radost (Old Age with Joy), described a project to reduce isolation felt by elderly people in care homes, in particular in smaller communities. This involved a “pen-grandchildren” scheme, matching up lonely elderly people with young people. Their first attempts to find volunteers, using contacts, didn’t work, so they put out a call on Vkontakte and soon had 13,599 followers. Other NGOs began to link up with the project. Later the NGO used Livejournal to raise awareness of conditions in some care homes for elderly people.  Complaining to the authorities had not worked, so they took the controversial step of showing photographs of elderly people wrapped in plastic sheets instead of bed linen and with terrible bedsores. The photos raised media attention and large amounts of money for bed linen and so on. The director of one home was dismissed. Two years ago the NGO also tried Facebook and Twitter, but they found that Twitter required too much in the way of resources.

The discussion which followed focused particularly on privacy aspects of the tactics Old Age with Joy had used – showing photos of individuals in care homes could in many countries be illegal. All agreed that permission should always be obtained, and humiliating photos should not be used. Marina stressed that publishing the pictures on-line had been a last resort. In answer to  a question, Azat said that in Kyrgyzstan, internet access in the towns and cities is very good, and is improving in the villages. There are no problems with registration or regulation.

Comparisons were made between websites, Facebook-type social media and Twitter. Websites are passive, while Vkontakte and Livejournal had proved good for fundraising and campaigning. Twitter was the most resource-intensive but could be used to back up campaigns by having messages retweeted. Azat explained how the NGO helps parents to open social media accounts. Marina said that in Russia awareness of the situation for elderly people had definitely increased as a result of the use of social media.

After lunch the conference focused on The Use of Social Media for Fundraising and Promotion. Myra Johnson, from Together for Short Lives, Bristol, and Olya Kudinenko, from Tabletochki, Kyiv, gave presentations.

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Together for Short Lives is a new charity formed in October 2011 as one voice for UK children’s palliative care. It represents 49,000 children and young people with life-limiting and life-threatening conditions. Myra said that now social media have more or less taken over from press releases and paid marketing. But social media need to be used strategically, which requires a big investment. Her organisation has five members of staff involved in communications overall, and the equivalent of one fulltime staff member working on social media. Today in the UK, 91% of online adults use social media regularly; there are 41 million Facebook users and 10 million on Twitter. These media should be used as a two-way conversation with clear messages and the right “tone of voice”. They are a way of providing stakeholders with content. NGOs should have a crisis plan ready, in case a news story flares up, and ideally, a staff rota to respond. You need lots of stories and ideas. Photos and videos are especially useful, and at least some of the content should be fun. And the stories must be truthful.

Olga Kudinenko has a fulltime job and volunteers in a children’s leukaemia hospital. She and other volunteers set up the blog Tabletochki to obtain funds for scarce and expensive drugs for the treatment  of leukaemia.

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Tabletochki has just become an NGO and was the first NGO in Ukraine to use social media for fundraising. They published a slogan on-line “Your wallet or your life” and asked for just one Euro from each donor. They introduced “happy cans” (collecting tins), took them to company offices with information about childhood leukaemia. They targeted, companies listed in Forbes, and any large Ukrainian companies without charitable activities. On Childhood Cancer Day, they asked PR companies to take part and donate one day’s salary. Twenty three turned up and they raised $15,000. Tabletochki rented an apartment so that families had somewhere to stay in Kyiv while their child had treatment. Tabletochki published photos of all their invoices for medicines, so people trust them. Tabletochki has raised more than $320 000 since October 2011 exclusively through social media. It has the most powerful charity Facebook page in Ukraine with more than 6,550 followers. Their next challenge is to raise funds for bone marrow transplants.

The last panel dealt with The Abuse of Social Media: Child Protection. The presenters were Artur Kocharyan, Kyiv University and New Life NGO, Konotop, and David Niven, David Niven Associates.

Artur studies communications at Kyiv University. He has been working on internet safety for four years and gives training in schools.  He said that people tend to think that adult content is the most harmful material on the internet for children. He does not agree, seeing virtual friendships on social media as holding the greatest risks. He presented some alarming statistics from surveys of children and their parents. 65% of 16-17 year olds use the internet every day. Of the time 10-17 year olds spend on the internet, 52% is spent on social media sites, and 24% e-mailing. Only 9% is spent doing homework! 46% had put their mobile phone number on their pages, and 36% their home address. 73% of parents believe their child to be protected when on the internet. 81% of parents believe their child would tell them about an invitation from a virtual friend to meet. But 74% of children said they would not tell their parents if this happened. 60% of teenagers had met offline someone they had first got to know on-line. His key message was that parents should not assume their children are safe on-line nor should they depend on software or filters to keep their children safe. Parents have the main responsibility to warn their children about the dangers.

Here is one of Artur’s slides, designed by a Polish NGO, Dziecko w Sieci: Ana slide

David Niven agreed with Artur. He described how parents can inadvertently put their children in harm’s way, with an example of an under-13s football session advertised on-line, when parents had not checked out the organisers. There are apparently 18 million false Facebook pages in the UK, many of them set up by parents for children under thirteen, and not allowed to have a Facebook page. He spoke, as had Artur, about cyber bullying – statistics show that 1 in 6 teenagers are cyber bullied, and that cyber bullying victims are more likely to commit suicide than those bullied off-line. He suggested that legislation might be needed in the UK to allow social workers as well as police to visit social media pages to obtain evidence of wrong-doing or dangerous behaviour. During the discussion concerns were raised about how children with special needs, in problem families or in care could be made more aware of the dangers on-line.

BEARR trustee Nicola Ramsden brought the conference to a close, thanking all BEARR’s volunteers for their work, and with very special thanks to Tatiana King for her excellent interpreting. She again thanked BEARR’s sponsors CEELBAS and the Great Britain Russia Society.

* in the countries BEARR deals with:  Russia, Ukraine, Belarus. Moldova, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan.

Presentations by participants: