Dr Carolina Matos
Dr Carolina Matos is a senior lecturer and researcher with over 26 years of professional experience. Matos is also a former journalist and has over 10 years experience as a full-time journalist. She has been teaching and researching for over 15 years in universities throughout the UK and has been a visiting researcher abroad. Dr Matos obtained her PhD in Media and Communications from Goldsmiths College, University of London, in January 2007, with a thesis on the relationship between journalism and democracy in Brazil. Matos does research on media, gender and development, communication for social change, the role of ICTs in development, media, democracy and the public sphere as well as health communications, gender equality, poverty and sexual and reproductive rights. In 2018, Matos was successful in obtaining funds for her next research project, Gender, health communications and online activism in the digital age, through the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF), provided by Research England and which is a key component of the UK's overseas aid strategy and part of the UK's Official Development Assistance (ODA).
1) Last year you received funding from the Global Challenges Research Fund for your project ‘Gender, health, communications and online activism in the digital age. Could you please provide some background on your project?
Carolina: This project focuses on how communications and new online communications technologies can be used better in gender development. This is a particularly topical issue in international development.
Before I discuss the specifics of my project, I want to contextualise the topic. The third sector, particularly NGOs, has played an important role in advocacy on issues from human rights, climate change, as well as sexual reproductive rights. In the 1990s and early 2000s, NGOs played a crucial role in advocating for change and creating the Guidelines on Reproductive Health, which came out of the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development.
However, women’s rights have stalled across the world in recent years. In some countries, they have even regressed. At the same time, a growing number of researchers are studying how social movements can harness communications to enhance their advocacy and effect change. For NGOs, especially, digital communications, including social media, and ‘strategic communications’ are vital pieces of armoury in their campaigning.
At present, my work examines how NGOs across the global North and South use online and offline communications to raise awareness and effect change in sexual reproductive rights. I am particularly interested in how this can be improved. In this way, I aim to complement growing research into NGOs and journalism, and how social media (and online communications) are changing the visibility of advocacy.
2) What observations can you make about digital communications?
In the past few years, we have seen political campaigns deploy communications technologies for great effect. Notable examples are the ‘Vote Leave’ Campaign and Trump’s presidential campaign. As a result, many social impact movements have woken up to the power of communications and new technologies, particularly in the area of gender equality.
This is an interesting debate. It is paradoxical in a way. Traditionally, feminist theory has focused on how men have historically dominated industries such as ICT, law, science and technology. As such, scholars have argued that new technologies have excluded women.
3) How do feminist scholars view digital communications, and is this reflected in the approach of the NGOs you have worked with?
In recent years, many feminist scholars have begun to view communications in a more positive light; that it can make an important contribution in the fight to advance gender equality. They work across many disciplines, including Donna Haraway to Sylvia Plant in the social sciences to Wendy Harcourt in development. Other researchers have explored how new communications enhance the potential for transnational feminist activism or dealing with gender equality in a global context.
This is the approach of the NGOs with whom I have been collaborating on my project. It’s a global project: I've worked with four research students: one in India at the Center of Internet and Society as well as three in Brazil who focus on Latin America. We interviewed a total of 52 health and feminist NGOs from countries such as the USA, Europe, India and Brazil. We also asked the NGOs’ communications directors to complete questionnaires, and used secondary data on sexual reproductive health rights, following the 25th anniversary of the 1994 ICPD conference.
These NGOs are using communications, and importantly, want to enhance their use of online communications as well to advance gender advocacy. Many NGOs working in this area are grappling with the challenge of how to make this topic more interesting to ‘lay people’. For example, I am particularly referring to vulnerable women, or those who need to enhance their understanding of women's rights.
I argue that there is a need to deconstruct the language around ‘gender ideology’. Right now, we are seeing groups that oppose women's rights dominating conversations around sexual and reproductive health. They have co-opted these debates by arguing that they focus on feminists advocating for abortion alone. This is very much a common sense construction of the debate.
Many NGOs are waking up to the fact that we cannot take hard-won rights for granted. They have seen that online communications are crucial tools of persuasion. What’s more, we have observed that communication technologies have helped push back the clock on women’s rights.
4) How are the NGOs you studied using social media to enhance their advocacy around sexual and reproductive health and rights?
Social media helps to mobilise people and enhance their awareness of important issues. In our research, we have observed that NGOs are using Twitter more than Facebook. Our interviewees have argued that Twitter is the perfect tool to highlight particular topics, engage people and mobilise supporters. While few of the NGOs I interviewed currently use YouTube, many say that they wanted to increase their presence on this channel. They argued that it’s an important tool to tell ‘human interest’ stories.
We have also noticed a lot of digital storytelling. For example, the organisations, Change and Family Planning 2020, said that it helps make sexual reproductive rights more interesting and engaging for supporters.
However, we need to examine social media critically. As I mentioned earlier, organisations use social media to manipulate people, and there remain issues around accessibility. What’s more, Alvaro Sahano from the United Nations told me that mainstream media often produces more in-depth coverage of issues such as teenage pregnancy compared to social media. Consequently, we should not naively view social media as a foolproof tool to make the world a better place.
Digital communications are not the only tool to mobilise supporters. Most of the organisations interviewed recognised the limits of social media and other digital communications. They stressed that offline communications such as advocacy, lobbying and networking are vital ways to enhance awareness of a cause. Effective campaigns need to use a combination of online and offline strategies, and communications needs to be embedded in the whole advocacy and policy process.