BENGALURU, Karnataka— Hundreds of thousands of women joined hands in the state of Kerala to form a “Women’s wall” as the year began. It was a powerful moment, as a 620 km long chain of women stretched from the northern tip of the state in Kasaragod to the southern end in Thiruvananthapuram on the first day of the new year. So when HuffPost India shared a clutch of stories on the women’s wall, we weren’t surprised to see significant interest from our readers.
But after two days of coverage, traffic to one particular story suddenly spiked. Much to our surprise, there were nearly 50 times as many international readers as Indian ones—which we first assumed were Indians living abroad.
We decided to take a closer look, and were surprised by what we found. Some of the pages sharing the story included Standing Rock Dakota Access Pipeline Opposition, Biblioteca Feminista, Indivisible Houston, World Wide Women, Women’s March On Raleigh, and Rural Organizing Project, and—evocatively—Winnipeg Raging Grannies for Social Justice.
How did they find our story?
Finding the source
The numbers were telling us that the readers were coming from Facebook—but they weren’t clicking on the links that we’d shared directly.
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Neither was there a single big page that had shared the HuffPost India article. Instead, the link had been widely shared across Facebook, by over 150 different women’s solidarity groups.
Most widely shared is a photo album created by one user, a student at the Indian Institute of Social Welfare and Business Management, who made the post on the night of January 1. HuffPost India reached out to him to try and find out more about the networks that he was connected to, in order to understand how the news spread, but unfortunately, he didn’t respond.
In his post, he tagged a few others, including artists and academics, from around the world. Some of these people in turn shared the pictures, and the link, to their networks of friends, from where it started to be seen by others who were running these pages.
From there, the process would only be repeated. For example, the admins of the page Supersnippan in Sweden, which collects feminist news, first came across the post on another Swedish feminist group.
“Our goal with Supersnippan is to share stories about women - news, history - since a lot of the things we read is about men,” they told HuffPost India via Facebook Messenger. “And this include to share posts about women from all over the world. Sometimes we share the same struggles, sometimes we can help each other through petitions, fundraising or just by spreading the information. Some pieces are shared just because they inspire us to keep struggling for women’s rights!”
They added that the pictures of the women coming together to “stop the madness” was beautiful, and so they shared it on their page. This behaviour was being widely repeated, and the photo post was making its way to hundreds of thousands of people through Facebook. It feels like one of those rare cases where the social network still provides value to people, rather than just being weaponised to spread hate, but the results were quite clear.
Despite the huge interest that people were showing in the Women’s Wall, traffic from other sources would remain in single percentage points even as the post continued to grow on Facebook, and move from page to page, group to group, and feed to feed, to the point where, a full week after the event ended, it was still generating enough traffic through these links, to remain a trending story on the HuffPost India site.
Sometimes we share the same struggles, sometimes we can help each other through petitions, fundraising or just by spreading the information. Some pieces are shared just because they inspire us to keep struggling for women’s rights!
The same format, on sites like Reddit or Twitter did not see the same kind of traction, and even though huge numbers of people were clicking on the story, traffic via Google for it remained negligible, compared to the number of people finding the news via Facebook, even if, taken in isolation, those numbers were quite reasonable. So what made this story go viral, and why was it so well-suited to Facebook?
Why were people around the world interested in what was happening in Kerala anyway?
Jonah Berger, a Wharton professor and author of Contagious: Why Things Catch On, explained in an interview that people love to talk about things that make them look good. Stories that share positive messages, and that touch upon emotions, are more likely to be shared.
A study by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania also suggested the people share stories that relate to their sense of who they want to be. Dr Emily Falk, the director of UPenn’s Communication Neuroscience Lab also added, “They share things that might improve their relationships, make them look smart or empathic or cast them in a positive light.”
I believe I saw the post shared by a friend in my personal news feed & I shared it to our family page. It was a powerful image and event that received shamefully limited coverage here in the US.
Talking to different people who shared the story, a few common thread emerged. They shared the story because they thought it made a powerful statement. They shared the story because the images were striking and moving. And they shared the story because it showed what women can accomplish—all fairly universal reasons, even if the story was local.
For example, the Standing Rock Dakota Access Pipeline Opposition page, a grassroots movement by families to stand with youth for clean water, treaties, indigenous sovereignty, and green energy, shared the story after seeing the post shared in their personal feed by a friend.
“Our movement was and is very much about re-empowering women and restoring our roles as the backbone of our Lakota/Dakota culture, families, and as protectors of our land and water,” explained Jennifer Weston, responding on the page’s ID. “Centuries of colonization in the US have eroded women’s roles as tribal decision-makers in politics, medicine, ceremonial and spiritual spheres. I believe I saw the post shared by a friend in my personal news feed & I shared it to our family page. It was a powerful image and event that received shamefully limited coverage here in the US.”
“We are lifting up stories of women making a difference. This year’s Raleigh Women’s March theme is Women Uniting for Justice, and it looks like women are doing that with their wall of women,” came the response from the Women’s March on Raleigh page. A friend who tracked international news shared it on her personal feed, and the organiser of the page found it powerful enough to share on various groups and also on the page, while other organisers of the group also shared the link on their personal pages.
For us at the HuffPost India newsroom, the story was a gratifying reminder that as much as the modern mantra insists that news needs to be local, some stories still find an empathetic audience halfway around the world.