Soon after I arrived in China the national obsession with “weibo” popped up all around me. It was explained as “twitter on steroids” – the 140 character limit effectively meant each post could convey the equivalent of 140 words. The UNICEF China office started a weibo account in late 2010. I didn’t give it much thought until it exploded in February 2011.
An academic started a social media campaign to reunite “abducted” children with their parents. He called for the public to snap pictures of “street children” and post them on weibo. It seemed like a simple crowd sourcing solution to a serious problem, and it proved extremely compelling to Chinese “netizens.” Soon thousands of children’s images flooded the internet.
At this time our UNICEF weibo account had about a thousand followers. Many bloggers started to come to @unicef with questions about the growing street children reunification campaign. I asked my team to post advice against random public distribution of children’s images, siting the risk that this would expose vulnerable children to further harm. We advocated sharing images of suspected street children with social welfare institutions.
Reaction from the author of the campaign – which by then was the top trending topic on weibo – was rapid and critical. Why was overly bureaucratic UNICEF trying to stop civic actions to protect children? Suddenly, UNICEF had over 30,000 followers, and journalists across China were quoting UNICEF weibo blog posts. My jaw dropped.
As a UNICEF communication specialist your job – in the broadest sense – is to mobilize a country to put children as high as possible on the national agenda. You often despair over how easy it is for adults to be distracted. But now we found ourselves engaged in a passionate national discussion about the best interests of the child.
Overnight, a full-throated social media discussion on critical child rights concepts rippled across China. We soon realized that because so many families in China have only one child weibo debates about children tend to attract a lot of participation. The discussion has never let up!
The UNICEF China office now has 2.7 million followers between the two most popular weibo platforms. A post on what to do for children following an emergency attracted 60,000 comments and shares. A series of posts on breastfeeding generated well over 250,000 comments. A special weibo page on ending violence against children pulled in 650,000 active participants.
Since early 2011 we have diverted all our communication resources to our website and our social media communities. We rarely publish anything on paper and we don’t even think about broadcast radio and television. With almost half of China now online and more than 2.5 billion active blogs, social media has become the number one channel for keeping child rights at the top of the national agenda.