Webby for Good is a collaborative program formed by The Webby Awards and WP Engine to showcase Webby-recognized projects built to change the world.
In the future, we will continue to go against the stream and empower people to use technology the way they want and need, regardless of what Silicon Valley says. - HEIMAT, Berlin Team
What’s the elevator pitch for your project?
Hate speech. Thousands of influencers give it a platform, unintentionally generating immense reach. In 2018, at the peak of social media hatred, over 100 influencers took a stand for their values. They sacrificed their most important currency: their followers. They asked followers with a right-wing extremist mindset to unfollow them. The social web got inspired, and more than 40,000 posts were published with #unfollowme. The reaction: tens of thousands of people unfollowed. A much-needed public debate about values in social media was sparked, with more than 234M impressions. Then something surprising happened. The influencers gained 3 times as many new followers.
What was the impetus for this project? What real-world challenge were you trying to solve?
Hate speech in social media is on the rise. Right-wing extremists especially are using the anonymity of Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook to express xenophobic views and racism without restraint. They only have one goal: to spread hatred, fear, and intolerance amongst other users. The immense reach influencers have on the various social media platforms opens broad, accessible channels of communication for every follower. These channels are regularly abused by many right-wing extremists. Together with our client “Loud against Nazis” we wanted to make a statement against such abuse.
We expected that #unfollowme would go viral in Germany. Because fascist hate speech is unfortunately still a problem in our country. But the day unfollowme.org went live, we were overwhelmed. Not only did countless influencers share and post #unfollowme, their communities joined in. It showed us, that not only well-known influencers are affected by hate speech, their fans are as well.
Once you settled on your idea, what was your first step in moving it forward?
We reached out to influencers and companies that support our cause to help us bring this idea to life. An influencer agency joined in, followed by a PR agency, film production company, and a music production as well. Each company that joined the #unfollowme initiative worked pro-bono. Their motivation was fueled by the will to fight right-wing extremist hate speech in Germany and worldwide.
Was there a moment during the project where you ran into a hurdle; or faced a problem you didn’t know how to solve? Take us to this moment, what happened and what did you do next?
We expected some backlash from right-wing extremists but we did not expect so much of this backlash to be focused on the influencers. Obviously, the Nazis amongst the followers felt offended and argued vehemently against our cause. But all the buzz in the video streams and feeds of the influencers had one effect: social media network algorithms showed #unfollowme to more and more people who participated.
Did the real-world impact meet your expectations? Can you share an example?
As we worked together with a PR agency so we expected some press coverage. Even so, we were overwhelmed with the huge amount of press coverage we recieved. Various National News stations joined in to report on our cause. One of our influencers, who is a famous rapper in Germany (Smudo from Fanta4), even took #Unfollowme with him on tour. Near the merch section of his gigs, fans could visit the #Unfollowme information booth, "Loud Against Nazis." There, background information and handouts about #Unfollowme were on offer.
What technologies/media did you use to develop this project (AI, Social Media, WordPress, etc.)?
We used Germany’s main social media channels: Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. #Unfollowme started from accounts owned by influencers and celebrites who shared the values of the campaign and were willing to make a bold statement against hate speech and racism. As well, a website (www.unfollowme.org) was created specifically for the campaign via WordPress.
Was the tech/medium you chose crucial to conveying your message? If so, why?
Social media has increasingly become a breeding ground for hate speech. This makes such speech so normalized that we’re used to reading things on social media which would be horrifying to hear in real-life. #unfollowme was aimed at showing that social media has its boundaries, as they exist real life. Hatred and racism should be a no-go. However, social media is inherently personal. There’s an intimacy between influencers and followers, cultivated by an assumption of shared values. The authenticity presented by influencers grants them the trust of their followers. Based on this, influencers have the power to affect change by taking a stand and communicating their values to their followers.
How did this project defy your expectations?
We didn’t expect to reach so many people so quickly. Almost instantly, more than 40k posts were published with #Unfollowme, garnering more than 234M impressions. Our aim was to open a crucial debate that was as broad as possible. "Loud against Nazis" as the call-out combined with harsh statements should give strong food for thought. We knew that some influencers/participants would lose some of their followers and we were shocked to see the influencers gain 3 times as many new followers (compared to the one’s they lost). Those are numbers we like for sure. Because we see it as proof that there are more tolerant and open-minded people out there than there are people who want to spread hatred.
How will you use technology in future work to create inspiring, cutting-edge projects that also make a difference in people’s lives?
#Unfollowme is a unique campaign, in that it urged people to cut down on their number of followers. Whereas all other social media campaigns focus on growing follower numbers and engagement. As followers are the currency of social media, this is a profound change in how we want people to define how they want to use technology for themselves. No big tech company should decide for them. In the future, we will continue to go against the stream and empower people to use technology the way they want and need, regardless of what Silicon Valley says. Because #Unfollowme has proven that values matter more than numbers.