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This article was published on February 23, 2012

How Twitter’s trending topics helped catapult a human interest story into the spotlight

How Twitter’s trending topics helped catapult a human interest story into the spotlight

Last week, very few people had probably heard of Khader Adnan, I’ll admit myself included. The Palestinian prisoner was on hunger strike for over two months, when efforts by Twitter users brought his story into the spotlight via Twitter’s trending topics.

Accused of being a member of the Islamic Jihad, Palestinian prisoner Khader Adnan was detained, without any charges brought against him. He was not tried, and up until yesterday, did not know how long it would be before he was released. All of that has changed, with the announcement that Adnan will be released by mid-April, and that he has ended his 66-day hunger-strike.

Adnan’s story was all but ignored by mainstream media, until a group of online activists decided to take to Twitter to bring it some much-needed attention. A search on Google News shows the story getting no attention whatsoever at the beginning of February, and peaking to over 300 sources at the height of the campaign.

The online protest took the form of a hashtag a day, with the aim of making that hashtag trend. The prisoner’s name, #KhaderAdnan, was the main hashtag used in the online campaign, along with various phrases that changed on a daily basis. The hashtags included #respect4khader#dying2live and #HungerStrikingfor65Days, all of which were used in an effort to publicize Adnan’s story.

The campaign achieved its goal with the hashtag #KhaderAdnan making its way into the trending topics a couple of days ago, and has been tweeted over 54,000 times up until now.

Celebrating the fact that his release had been announced, Twitter users were once again able to bring Khader Adnan into the trending topics with the hashtag, #KhadersVictoryforPalestine.

We spoke with Leila Saleh, one of the organizers behind the campaign to find out what inspired the movement, and why Twitter was chosen as the medium. She told The Next Web:

“Because of the lack of coverage on Palestine in mainstream news, a lot of activists indulge in social media sites like Twitter in order to find information. A lot of unnoticed stories usually end up online from activists, or citizen journalists if you will, who are on the ground in Palestine. This is very vital for cyber activists like us.

So because of reasons like this, a lot of us were aware of Khader Adnan’s story. Around the 40th day of his hunger strike, many activists were trying to contact the media to cover him but we had no luck. I know I contacted a few of my journalist friends for help but was unsuccessful. I was distraught because I thought Khader, by the 45th day of his hunger strike, was at the end of his road and wouldn’t live very long. I, along with many others, became desperate. So we just did what any cyber activists would do – brought attention to Khader ourselves. Having seen how powerful the Internet is with Arab uprisings, we decided to try our luck.”

Leila, together with Palestinian Twitter user @sshusma, chose the hashtag, #Dying2Live, and set about, with the help of other activists, seeing to it that it became a trending topic.

“The next day, that’s exactly what we did and to our surprise #Dying2Live not only trending but caught a lot of attention of the media and human rights organizations. We didn’t want the attention to die down. We decided to broaden our horizons and make it a daily thing. We created an unofficial Twitter account for Khader, set up a Gmail account, and a blog for solidarity posts from people all over the world to send to his wife, Randa. It became very big in a matter of days.”

By then the group had major media outlets including Al Jazeera, BBC and CNN reporting Adnan’s story, while the momentum was taken offline as well, with protests outside Adnan’s hospital.

“This was all from a daily tradition, if you will, of informing the public on Twitter. Because that’s all that was missing from Khader’s story. The passion, the anger, the frustration was there – all he needed was the attention – and Twitter gave us the platform to give him the attention he needed.”

If it weren’t for Twitter, Adnan’s story may not have been swept to the forefront of mainstream media as quickly. Leila explains

“Without Twitter, I do think it would have been a little more difficult but the idea was there…and we most likely would have found another way to mobilize. But it definitely helped out a lot. A few of us have connections with friends who have connections with others and so on and so forth…and this wouldn’t have been possible, for me at least, if I hadnt made a Twitter & connected with these people.”

And it would appear that they have a second awareness campaign in the works, bringing attention to imprisoned Bahraini human rights activist Abdul Hajii Al Khhawaja, serving a life sentence, and who has been on hunger strike for two weeks:

This is not the first time we’ve seen Twitter being used in the region as a tool of online protest or to raise awareness. In October, Egyptian activists began tweeting about Maikel Nabil, Egypt’s first blogger to receive a prison sentence following the uprising last year, as a way of bringing attention to his cause. Nabil, who was on hunger strike for four months, and has since been released.

Khader Adnan’s story shows that, Twitter’s trending topics, while more often overrun by Lady Gaga or Justin Bieber fans or swept into one meaningless Internet meme after the other, have a real role to play in the activist’s arsenal of tools.

At The Next Web, we’ve written at length about Twitter’s role in journalism, and how it has affected and changed the mainstream media landscape, both in positive and negative ways. Our own Paul Sawers wrote about the impact social media has had on journalism, and how while social media is usually first to a story, readers wait for confirmation from reliable mainstream media sources.

In the case of Khader Adnan, there was a clear role reversal, with Twitter users leading the way, and mainstream media following their trail.

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