Can Twitter help drive policy change?

Rodrigo Barahona Active citizenship, Gender, Influencing, Violence Against Women and Girls

Oxfam Intermón has supported allies using digital actions to put issues on the political agenda. Rodrigo Barahona, Virginia Vaquera and Patricia Corcuera share seven critical success factors.

In recent years Spain has seen the devastating impact of economic crisis, austerity measures, and a rolling back of human rights – including the controversial Citizens Security Law, which has curbed freedom of expression online. In response to these challenges, Oxfam Intermón launched our domestic program in 2016, supporting partners working with people living in poverty and at risk of social exclusion. We provide technical and financial support, strengthen capacities, and enhance alliances for stronger social action.

One of our key thematic areas is fighting gender-based violence. Organizations that work on this issue have been deliberately harassed by fundamentalist groups, and have often been attacked online to humiliate and discredit them. Their attacks are focused on demonizing and questioning the legitimacy of defending women’s sexual and reproductive rights, and LGBTQI groups.

These fundamentalist organizations have significant economic resources and political support, which allows them to act with force and impunity –  closing civil society’s space for defending human rights. For this reason, our partner, L’associació. Drets sexuals I reproductius created an open advocacy digital action. Their objective was to defend women’s rights, by questioning and stopping the flow of public finance to anti-choice groups.

With support from Oxfam Intermón and other allies, they launched the digital action on Twitter. It lasted barely a few hours, yet generated significant engagement and reach. The strategy proved to be successful, because just a short while later, political representatives from Barcelona Municipality, Barcelona Diputación, and Cataluña Autonomous government contacted L’associació asking to discuss and respond to the allegations raised on social media.

After a few days, a proposal was approved to oblige Barcelona’s City Hall to report and prove that it was not financing fundamentalist groups. In the Catalonian Parliament, a question was publicly addressed to the Social Affairs Counselor, asking for explanations. And thirdly, the Barcelona Diputació approved a resolution committing not to finance these kind of groups.

The digital advocacy action was successful in putting the issue on the political agenda, and opening a door for policy change in defence of human rights. This door remains open, and conversations are advancing positively. So, what were the factors that determined this success?

1. Overarching strategy

A longstanding organization, L’associació had just taken a big step in redefining their public presence. They had recently formed L’observatori de Drets Sexuals I Reproductius (Sexual and Reproductive Rights Observatory), as a collective initiative to collect, analyze and denounce violations of Sexual and Reproductive Rights. The action formed part of a new strategy designed to show their work as more evidence-based, defending rights not just providing services, and holding governments to account.

2. Compelling evidence

Content on social media was backed by an independent report, which provided evidence that – despite their zero-tolerance stance – public administrations in Catalonia were financing fundamentalist groups. The objective source of the evidence also helped avoid any direct confrontation with fundamentalist organizations, reducing the risk of further attacks.

3. Clear objectives

The action had very specific and limited objectives:

  • to draw the attention of public administrations
  • to challenge their funding policy
  • to stop them funding fundamentalist groups.

We set no other typical digital objectives, such as reach or engagement. We prepared a set of key messages, based on evidence and strong arguments. We focused the narrative and the targets to question authorities – so no interactions could distract.

4. Finely-tuned tactics

We used a model and a set of tactics that had previously proven effective:

  • create space with a ‘critical mass’ that generates an initial wave of tweets and interaction, and reaches other users
  • set a specific time for the digital action to go live
  • build the conversation around a hashtag that is creative, owned by participants, and captures attention of the wider public.

5. Use networks effectively

At first, we feared the Twitter accounts leading the action did not have enough followers to be impactful. However, by amplification through influential individuals and organizations, we achieved viral levels of reach and engagement, which attracted the authorities’ attention. In reality, the collaboration with influencers was pre-planned and agreed, using off-line networks, personal contacts, and reciprocity.

6. Strategic allies

Among the Twitter users invited to participate, we identified several journalists, political leaders, and other influential people who sympathized with the cause. Their digital reputation increased the relevance of the conversation on Twitter, and therefore strengthened the call to authorities to answer the questions. One participant was key in articulating and advancing the debate with the Barcelona Town Council authorities, and developed the censorship motion that committed the municipality to explain its financing policies.

7. Keep reflecting and improving

Despite the success, we identified that that we didn’t run an exhaustive risk analysis prior to the action. We have since offered training in digital protection and security to our partners.

While it is good to be inspired by winning examples and tactics, we are aware that actions are context specific, and replication is not natural or easy. However, we believe that elements such as having clear objectives, using networks to generate momentum and relevance, hitting the right targets, and using evidence-based arguments are all critical for effective actions – whether on or off-line.


Rodrigo Barahona


Patricia Corcuera


Virginia Vaquera Barragan