Once upon a hashtag

Deck sub header

Despite foreign influences infiltrating political campaigns and social media posts undermining truth, creating positive social change is still possible with online storytelling.

By Rebecca Koch

A plot by a foreign government to hack a U.S. presidential campaign sounds like the narrative of a spy film, invoking images of high-tech gadgets and ending with a foiled plan. But in reality the gadgets that could do such a thing are tools that anyone can use anywhere: social media.

And because real life isn’t Hollywood, the insidious plot did, in fact, succeed.

On February 16, a federal grand jury indicted 13 Russian nationals and three Russian entities for interfering in the 2016 presidential election. They stole American citizen identities; posed as political activists; and fired up social media posts on already divisive political topics, such as immigration, religion, and race. These Russian nationals manipulated and divided American constituents, and declared “information warfare” on the U.S., using the Internet Research Agency as a cover.

The Russian indictment is another layer on the already hefty topic of “fake news.” There is actual fake news, where individuals create inaccurate stories to spread false information through the population. Then there is Trump’s version—where he attacks the credibility of legacy publications for “unrelenting bias, unfair news coverage, and even downright fake news.”

We are living in a changing media landscape where once-trusted sources have lost influence, everyday citizens are able to produce and amplify news stories simply by posting them on private social media accounts, and foreign entities can influence national elections and affect the lives of millions of people.

Through all the noise, how can we contribute productively and make a positive impact? Is it possible to counteract the negative consequences created by this new media landscape?

For almost 10 years, Sahar Driver, Ph.D., faculty in Saybrook University’s Transformative Social Change program, has worked to create impact campaigns for social action projects. For Dr. Driver, what has persisted through time is the ability to fight for social justice with storytelling.

“It's gotten more difficult, that's all," Dr. Driver says. "What hasn't changed is that the stories that I work with are an entry point. The real work happens when we're able to use those stories and that media to get people to interact and engage with one another face to face, and then begin to organize together.”

Social campaigns take planning and preparation to execute properly. It requires groundwork before even moving into the online world and getting people involved; it isn’t enough to start posting and hope the movement follows. According to Dr. Driver, the best approaches target a specific audience with their values and what they care about, and relate to their everyday experience. However, that doesn't mean trying to create a message with mass appeal either.

On February 16, a federal grand jury indicted 13 Russian nationals and three Russian entities for interfering in the 2016 presidential election.


“If you are communicating in a way that everyone, from the left to the far right, agrees with you, then that message actually hasn't done anything,” Dr. Driver says. “You've come up with a message that's palatable to everyone, but not one that challenges anyone to go beyond their current viewpoint. What you really want is a message that pushes those people who are somewhere in the middle.”

Yet the sheer amount of content available online makes it challenging for this type of advocacy to work. With too much information and too many groups vying for support—and no distinction between what’s real and what isn’t—there is a risk that people will tune out every message they encounter. There is also a risk that the subconscious effect of seeing fake news so consistently will lead people to start believing it, almost as if by osmosis. A 2017 study shows that repeating information, even to say it is incorrect, instead reinforces the untrue statement.

Retweets and shares matter, and can cause questionable stories to seem totally legitimate. This is what allowed the Russian Internet Research Agency to succeed: In a crowded online sphere, the agency’s posts, and actions, were able to catalyze voters to act out the whims of Russian agents—and even be okay with doing so.

One incident of this occurred when two Russian agents posed as “Joshua” and “Matt”—fake University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) students who worked for a grassroots organization called “March for the Trump.” They organized a pro-Trump rally in Florida and called local Trump supporter Anne-Marie Margaret Thomas to ask if she’d participate while dressed up as Hillary Clinton. The agents also called Harry Miller, another Trump supporter, to ask him to build a cage and put the actors playing Hillary Clinton and former President Bill Clinton in it at the event.

By the time Miller arrived on August 20, 2017, the day of the protest, a few dozen people were already there, chanting “Lock her up!” Thomas was in a Hillary Clinton mask and a prison uniform she made herself. Photos of the event garnered 500,000 online views in just 24 hours.

In a conversation between Thomas and reporter Simon Adler from Radiolab’s episode “The Curious Case of the Russian Flash Mob at the West Palm Beach Cheesecake Factory,” Thomas defended her role in the Russian-organized protest:

Adler: Are you concerned that you may have been used as a puppet by people in St. Petersburg [Russia]?

Thomas: No, I wasn’t used as a puppet.

Adler: But would you have done it if they hadn’t reached out to you in the first place?

Thomas: Well, I wanted to help Trump.

She went on to say: “I’m not unwitting. And I’m not a Russian. I’m an American. And I decided that I didn’t want to vote for Hillary.”

This form of fake activism, called “astroturfing,” held tremendous weight. It didn’t matter to Thomas that “Joshua” and “Matt” didn’t exist. To her, it was a matter of supporting Trump—no matter what.

“I think there's a lot to learn from the indictment because if nothing else the Russian operation has been effective at getting the message out and striking a chord in at least some individuals to take action,” says Britt Christensen, Ph.D., faculty in the Social Impact Media specialization of the Transformative Social Change program. “A major takeaway for me looking at all of this is that they have a pretty savvy understanding of the societal issues in the U.S. They used the societal cleavages to cause conflict between groups and individuals.”

It’s easy to demonize social media. After all, the Russian agents discovered the real Thomas and Miller on Twitter. The Internet Research Agency used Facebook for their political posts and to mobilize Americans to attend their organized protests. But becoming disillusioned with social media in general because of such abuses would be a mistake, says Joel Federman, Ph.D., chair of Saybrook’s Transformative Social Change program.

Dr. Federman emphasizes the good that can be accomplished through these tools: “Social media has democratized the flow of information and political opinion everywhere. It also helps create global solidarity, by allowing people all over the world to support each other’s political causes and social movements, unmediated by governments or traditional news media channels.”

“What's at risk here is that people will become so disillusioned by the misuse of social media that they will give up on its positive potential,” Dr. Federman continues. “When people who have been traditionally marginalized withdraw from political conversations, they cede these important spaces to those who already dominate political, economic, and cultural power.”

To give up on social media, in a way, is to let falsity win. Moving forward, it’s important to note the distinction between legitimate advocacy efforts and the work of the Russian Internet Agency. Dr. Driver believes the main difference is the intent.

“The Russian Internet Agency attempted to deceive people and spread lies; that is propaganda and deception,” Dr. Driver says. “Strategic communications, however, is about communicating in a way so that you can be heard. It's about cutting through the noise or other barriers that exist for understanding (preconceived notions, misunderstandings, biases, etc.) so you can bridge the gap and help people understand different perspectives.”

There are many tools that can be used in strategic communications, like framing a message and incorporating values into campaigns. Storytelling in particular is one that activists can use to battle the potential repercussions of this new media landscape.

“Storytelling in particular is magic," Dr. Driver says. "I think it helps connect people in ways that a lot of media can't do. It's that connection and emotional resonance that matters more.”

We see examples of storytelling in the most current movements. On February 18, 2018, 17 people lost their lives at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. In the aftermath, student survivors started #NeverAgain, a new movement to stop school gun violence in America. Its origins played out in real-time on social media during the Parkland shooting. The whole premise of the movement is based in storytelling—because each of the survivors and activists have their own story and truth from that day.

In a crowded online sphere, the agency’s posts, and actions, were able to catalyze voters to act out the whims of Russian agents—and even be okay with doing so.


Emma Gonzalez, a senior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School gave an electrifying speech to a gun control rally in Fort Lauderdale. A video of the speech has now gone viral: “Instead of worrying about our AP Gov. Chapter 16 test, we have to be studying our notes to make sure that our arguments based on politics and political history are watertight. The students at this school have been having debates on guns for what feels like our entire lives…Some discussions on the subject even occurred during the shooting while students were hiding in the closets. The people involved right now…are being listened to for what feels like the very first time on this topic that has come up over 1,000 times in the past four years alone.”

Gonzalez’s speech has catapulted her into a “visual icon” and leader of the movement. Since joining Twitter in February 2018, she has amassed 1.23 million followers. It goes to show that a scene, rooted in facts and relatable to the targeted audience, can be more impactful than a one-off, polarizing post.

Out of the national spotlight, storytelling can be seen in the beginnings of social change movements. Transformative Social Change student Joslin Roderick is using the tools she has learned about to start her own revolution: reframing peace.

Currently, Roderick has a business model in place for PeaceinPower, LLC, the parent company of four for-profit divisions and one nonprofit she is developing. The inspiration came from a desire to put power back into peace.

“All of the social change work is a fight against power," she says. "So, how do we use the power that exists within us, or the power that exists in business, in my case, to become peacefully empowered?”

Roderick is currently launching this movement and is using her courses at Saybrook to deepen her understanding of not only what peace is, but also the ecosystem of creating a movement: the research, strategy, and trajectory needed to build it.

With a few hashtags already created (such as #ThereAreAnswers, #TheNewPeaceMovement, #FitforPeace, and #PeaceNow), Roderick plans to employ one of the most iconic storytelling structures in developing her movement: Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey.

“For me, it really centers on creating a story that has the arc of mythic hero ideas: people who are not really sure about their place, then figure themselves out and save the world,” Roderick says. “What we see in popular culture about heroes is them using violence to fight evil. In redefining peace, I want the new hero of peace to be somebody who's completely empowered with consciousness and care for the self and the other—someone who is truly tough, strong, and has the fitness and capacity for substantive and powerful peace-filled action.”

For Roderick, this message emphasizes that anyone can be a hero. It fits well with the Transformative Social Change program’s mission of encouraging students to become agents of positive change. The program supports students as they seek to raise awareness about the stories that are often untold, but need to be shared.

“Universities have often been centers of independence from political and economic power,” Dr. Federman says. “Within a university environment, there can be space for inclusive dialogues that challenge existing social structures and create alternatives to them. We designed the Transformative Social Change program to provide that kind of space.”

In the United States, student activists have long led the charge. Now they can use new media in intelligent and productive ways to create change.

“The purpose of our program is to enable our students to perceive beyond the noise and to make actual transformative social change,” Dr. Federman says. “We provide students an environment that allows them to deeply reflect on their values and the larger historical context in which they live, and supports their unique ideas for making the world better with a variety of social change tools and strategies—including effective and ethical use of social media.”