How Connected Citizens Are Mobilising Social Movements

This post is long overdue and has been sitting in my “must edit” file for a couple of months. The prompt to finish it has come from events in the past few days where online campaigns and watershed moments in the media (traditional and social) have again found our politicians wanting. 


In June I was on holiday in Greece, my first time back there in about seven years. The country was on the edge of a precipice – calling a referendum on the bailout deal proposed by its creditors, and recommending its rejection.

You wouldn’t know it of course – unless you read the news. Yes – tourism was down slightly as people panicked at the idea of cashpoints running dry (they didn’t) – but the locals were as hospitable and hardworking as ever.

In a tiny harbour in the picturesque town of Molyvos there was a new concern  – a steady trickle (not yet a swarm, horde or influx) – of Syrian and Afghan refugees arriving on shore in rubber dinghies or being rescued by the coastguard as they sank.


Contrary to the images that I’d seen in the mainstream media – there was no begging, no ‘harassment’ of tourists, no sitting around in doorways looking forlorn. They were simply looking for a bit of respite before the next leg of their journey.

I never photographed them – as it felt too intrusive. I now regret that as the past few days has shown the power of imagery to change public opinion.

Most mornings I said “Hi” as I walked around the harbour snapping stuff. It was my phone that initiated most conversations as most of them hadn’t seen an iPhone 6 Plus before. Some of the young people had rigged a temporary charging station for phones onto the side of a street lamp which , though probably illegal, I found pretty cool. I gave them a couple of safer power adaptors for their onward journey!

Smartphones are a lifeline for the refugee. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has given out 33,000 SIM cards to Syrian refugees and 85,000 solar lanterns for charging.

Far from being a luxury these keep friends and family back home up to date. WhatsApp is used to allow easy and instant communication. GPS helps people cross dangerous territory. Facebook groups help facilitate border crossings and keeps people in touch through a vital information exchange. And never has the power of citizen journalism been more powerful than as demonstrated by people such as Maziad Aloush, a former school teacher fleeing the Syrian war, who led his band of refugees through five countries using his Instagram to document the journey.

In Molyvos – as the EU abjectly failed to deal with situation, social media was being used on the other side – by the local Greek community to provide emergency assistance. A Facebook group and crowdfunder was in place to help facilitate support.

One resident had turned a bit of land behind her restaurant into a temporary campsite. Every day her kitchen team at The Captain’s Table went to work preparing food for the refugees, using supplies donated by tourists and locals.

In our civic life we are beginning to see a new kind of bottom up social movement. Connected citizens are using digital media to mobilise people into action in a way Government and authority simply cannot fathom.

It seems future solutions are less likely to come from national policies and more from communities finding their own way to solve issues through local innovation.

The devolution of public spending to the third sectors and private sectors seems inevitable, and it’s vital we enable community connectors and influencers to ultimately decide what that this looks like.

Examples like these local Facebook crowdfunders are in themselves grassroots alternatives to welfare – and we’ll see more emerging. The rise of food banks arguably demonstrates this trend towards self-organisation. 

At the moment these local social entrepreneurs are largely disconnected from the political establishment – which is fuelling the disillusionment with mainstream politics. (By the way if you’ve never done it , try explaining to a 15 year old why you can’t vote by SMS and why you can’t switch that vote at will if they don’t keep their promises.)

On our last night in Molyvos there was a huge thunderstorm. The owner of The Captain’s Table did something very special. She asked us if we minded moving our table and bunching together so that the refugees could seek shelter with us.

The one photo I did take: refugees shelter from storm at The Captain’s Table

The locals sang them Greek songs of good fortune and they reciprocated with a song of their own. As the (crowdfunded) bus arrived to take them to the capital and their ownward journey to Athens and beyond, they drew a round of applause to wish them luck.

I don’t know where their journey ended or even if it has.

But I hope they and others like them continue to share their stories , connect with like-minded communities, and help us build a very different type of democracy.


5 thoughts on “How Connected Citizens Are Mobilising Social Movements

  1. Great post Paul

    And for me, some important lessons both for the UK and for the UK Housing sector in particular.

    If you don’t like what the Government is doing, by all means make a noise and campaign about it. But, when faced with policy based on a particular view of the world which isn’t going to change any time soon, then, as well as campaigning, you have to make arrangements to deliver alternatives.

    If you think something is important in society and it needs doing, then it might be that you have to, in collaboration with others, do it yourself.

    Maybe this is the Big Society in action after all. Many of us knew that the real agenda was Government withdrawing from large areas of social action. Now that has been realised, society has to look after itself.

    1. Thanks John – I’ll forward you my latest post for Inside Housing which picks up the point on doing things differently (out today or Monday).

      The question for us about the big society is what tools and resources will be made available to communities to enable this. I think it requires a leadership mindshift similar to that of digital leadership. Here’s hoping.

  2. Good morning Paul . A world wide dilemma . No instant answers. All us mere ” normal ” folk can do is continue trying to be nice to everyone we are in contact with on a daily basis. The little things matter all the time.
    Now I’m an oldie , and overstretched myself financially trips abroad are out of the equation. Back though in the eighties our company paid perk of conference in Athens was out of this world. On the only totally unshackled day we had the chance to meet the real Greeks. No other group of people could be more generous. Even in the centre of Athens when shopkeepers tempted you in to their premises with offers of the finest Scottish whiskey , and the chance to see their wares. The banter was friendly , the offers genuine and no malice if you did not buy.
    Then onto the food. Wow, each meal was more than the menu. If you ordered one item , just try some ot this, no charge, do you like? Then more free drinks, more coffee on the house. When the bill arrived always rounded down . Such warm hearted, generous people.
    We saw families treated with such warmth, the Greek love of children is a joyful sight. Everyone just being nice.
    Does this exist in this country any longer? Well yes it does! Mainly though in the so called ethnic community. I love my curries and most of the ones I visit in Leeds and Bradford greet you as part of the family. One Bangladesh venue give my the truly proud title of ” Uncle ” . A rare honour. What did they do, and do I do? Something very special,be nice to each other.
    Now to the thrust of my thinking. What as a nation seems to be missing ? You guessed, being nice. Instead the media sells the idea of so called sports stars. Winning is all. The grimaces, so popular in tennis and football is shown in all its ugly ,to me, prominence . In business, and you have talked on this in the past, being at the top is all. Everyone has to be better than average. A total impossibility. All business, including, the so called world of charity seemed to have fallen into this trap. The results are terrible, and the poor intended recipient once again continues to go without. The Value for Money mantra is destroying sound companies when it’s stastics not people who are valued.
    My only advice, weak though it seems is to think kind thoughts. Live kind deeds, no matter how small. Look for joy in each day. Try and find humour, and pass on your joy, laughter to others. Maybe , like the butterfly wings , can change the weather, we can change the world?

    1. Thank you Mike what wonderful recollections! I don’t think what you propose is weak at all – it’s needed now more than ever.

      Really appreciate you taking time to comment.

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