Jacob Scherr, Director, Global Strategy & Advocacy, Washington, DC
The mainstream media, outside of Brazil and particularly in the United States, did not pay a lot of attention to Rio+20 Earth Summit in June. However, Rio+20 did reach millions of people worldwide. It was first global summit of the internet age.
Wayne Bellett, who was part of the NRDC team in Rio, reflects on the unprecedented use of social media to engage the public in a UN gathering:
Walking into the Rio+20 conference center, it was as if the term “melting pot” had come to life for me. People were speaking different languages, wearing different clothes, and communicating in different ways. However, regardless of what country they were from, what they were wearing or what language they were speaking, almost everyone had a smartphone, a laptop, or an iPad. Phone calls were made, emails were sent out, tweets were delivered, links were shared on Facebook, YouTube videos were posted, and news articles typed up to be instantly published to the web for all to read.
The world is much more wired today that it was at the first Earth Summit at Rio twenty years ago. To put it in perspective, the first video telephone was released that year for a mere $1,499. At that time, there were only about 65 million personal computers; and the internet was not part of people’s everyday lives. Whereas today there are well over one billion personal computers in homes and offices worldwide, some 2 billion people with access to the internet, and some 6 billion mobile phones.
The United Nations made an effort to utilize this connectivity in order to reach people around the world and engage them in the Earth Summit. For instance, the twitter hashtag #RioPlus20 was viewed more than 1 billion times and a Facebook campaign was able to reach over 1 millon people in Brazil. The UN used Facebook, Google+, Tumblr, Pinterest, and Weibo, with posts in six different languages. In fact, the United Nations estimates that more than 50 million people participated electronically in the Rio+20 process
The UN used social media to solicit input from citizens worldwide though the virtual bulletin board, Messages of the World, which can be found on the official Rio+20 website. People from all over the world could write their own message on the board, or agree on any of the already published messages displayed on the website. Each message varies in size, and the largest messages are the ones that have received the most endorsements. An example of one of the more popular messages: “Presidents, Prime Ministers, and world leaders come to the Rio+20 Earth Summit not to talk or argue, but to commit to real actions now.”
Just before the start of the summit in Rio, the United Nations Foundation, Mashable, and 92nd Street Y organized a day-long global conversation on sustainability entitled Rio+Social. It featured brief talks by a number of leading figures, including Richard Branson, Gro Harlem Brundtland, and Fabian Cousteau. Rio+Social attracted 4, 624 Twitter followers, and it is estimated that Rio+social tweets reached over 5 million people worldwide.
Along with the support of the United Nations, Brazil hosted the Rio Dialogues, which was an unprecedented experiment in public participation in a United Nations process. (For a detailed description of the Dialogues, see Elischia Fludd’s blog.) Here is a brief overview of the process: The goal of the dialogues was to select 30 recommendations to be presented to Heads of State and to be included in the official Rio+20 outcomes. Ten of the recommendations were chosen based on online voting by some one million people; ten more were selected by the audiences at each of the Rio Dialogue panel discussions, and the final ten by the experts on each of these panels.
I think that the success at Rio+20 had little to do with the final outcome document. Instead, the success was found in the gathering of thousands of leaders, experts, and activists in Rio to focus on the common goal of a sustainable future. It was found in the connection of many millions more worldwide through social media. I believe that it is today’s extensive connectivity that will help move the world forward towards the much needed transition to a green economy and sustainable future.
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