As we reported earlier this week, Heather Armstrong traveled to Bangladesh on a media trip to bring awareness to Every Mother Counts, a charity dedicated to child and maternal health. Shortly after her first post about the trip, UK news outlet The Guardian posted a critical article about the trip, with the provocative title Blogging from Bangladesh – more poverty tourism? In the article, the author suggests that such trips are lacking in sustainable solutions, and takes jabs at blogger/charity partnerships as being merely vehicles for high-profile bloggers to go slum-touring in third world conditions:
“Where blogger engagement projects often fall down is in closing the deal: having aroused the empathy of an engaged audience, they fail to provide something potent for people to do next. If you’ve just read a post about children working 14 hours a day scavenging material from towering heaps of putrefied waste, you probably want to do something more effective than signing a petition or sending an email to your elected representative; but frequently, this is all that’s on offer. Engagement, information and a powerful completion strategy allow westerners to stand behind those in absolute poverty: not to attempt to save them, but to recognize our outrageous luck and try to change global systems for the better. Deciding what this completion strategy should be is the hard part. But without an answer, blogging trips risk being little more than groovy PowerPoint slides in the campaign department’s next quarterly report.”
In describing such trips, author Rowan Davies raised eyebrows with this condescending description of media trip preparations: “Bloggers are firmly discouraged from poking paupers with sticks and asking people to wave their stumps for the cameras.”
The criticism of Armstrong’s trip struck a nerve with many bloggers who responded to The Guardian piece with frustration. As Liz from Mom-101 pointed out in a post entitled Here’s an idea! Let’s attack bloggers who do good things:
“This is a line of thinking that keeps westerners in our own little bubbles, afraid to step out and do more– for fear that we’re doing it wrong. For fear that someone with more poverty cred and more commitment to The Cause will take us to task for it.”
Similarly, Suebob from Red Stapler responded:
[Heather] didn’t write with the attitude of “OMG I saw amazing things in Bangladesh and now I’m going to fix everything.” She was very open about her feelings of helplessness and that she didn’t know what to do to help the people she met, but that she felt compelled to tell their stories.
The singling out of Armstrong’s trip is surprising, as many celebrities and bloggers have visited struggling countries in the past with the mission of bringing awareness and attention to charitable needs. There are valid questions in looking at whether or not simply “raising awareness” is an effective use of resources. No doubt there are examples of people taking trips with the sole mission of being photographed with impoverished people for good publicity. On a personal note, I observed this in Haiti during the aftermath of the earthquake, where I witnessed both bloggers and pastors flying into the tragedy site with little motivation or plan of action beyond collecting some compelling stories and photos to use on their blog or in a sermon. That felt like tragedy tourism. However, it bears noting that Heather visited with a reputable charity that has many important end goals and models for lasting change, on a trip that she paid for herself. It is likely that Heather’s audience will give Every Mother Counts a significant boost in the work that they do, and Heather wisely partnered with an organization that has a clear model of sustainability beyond handing out soccer balls and taking photos. In addition, it is clear that the people of Bangladesh are desperate for their stories to be told and appreciative of her presences there.
But even if Armstrong’s trip had not been self-expensed, would it be worthy of criticism? Charitable organizations have to market their work as much as any organization, and celebrity spokespersons are not a new concept. As more and more companies are turning to bloggers as brand ambassadors, it is no surprise that some NGO’s are partnering in this way as way. Compassion, World Vision, and the ONE campaign have all used blogger trips to bring attention (and a boost in fundraising) to the work they do. Shaun Groves talks about the return investment on taking blogging teams to countries where Compassion works:
“I have been cautious from the beginning about these blog trips devolving into poverty porn – a titillating high for readers that results in no real change for them or the developing world. . . Compassion has been awarded again for again for its financial integrity. Maintaining that integrity necessitates that every dollar spent be scrutinized, every return on investment measured in terms of benefit to the children Compassion serves. The blog trips I oversee are no different. They are among Compassion International’s most efficient marketing endeavors – if not the most efficient at times. Thousands of children have been sponsored because of the very clear call to action given by the bloggers we’ve partnered with in the past.”
In addition to the questions raised by The Guardian article, Armstrong was also subjected to a number of critical posts on Twitter, most notably from Anna Viele:
Viele raised ire from both Armstrong and a slew of other bloggers for her mocking tweets. No doubt buoyed by both a personal frustration with this blogger’s history of criticizing others. coupled by her passion for what she just saw in Bangladesh, Heather was not taking the jabs lying down. A twitter storm erupted, with Armstrong responding strongly to Viele’s posts:
Many bloggers came to Armstrong’s defense, while others suggested that she stand down and “stop feeding the trolls”. The twitter fight drove so much traffic to Viele’s site that her server crashed, and some felt that this was exactly what she was seeking in her scathing tweets about Armstrong. Some feel that Viele has built a brand around provoking other bloggers, having taken swipes at everything from MamaPop to the Mighty Summit in the past year. Jessica Gottlieb elaborates, “I’ve tried with all my might to like Anna. I’ve tried to forgive her for undermining every decent campaign hard working bloggers have snagged. I’ve turned a blind eye when she piled grief on bloggers who were protecting their children. I feel badly for that. Anna is clearly angry, likely quite envious (I’m envious of Heather) and frankly she’s bad for business. I’m tongue tied because being on Anna’s bad side is exhausting, but she’s put Heather’s picture on the center of her Media Kit so maybe this is all just part of a plan to somehow garner page views.”
A number of tweets called Armstrong’s public reactions to Viele unprofessional. This prompted commentary on the effort to silence those in social media from defending themselves against slander. Tracey Gaughran-Perez of Sweetney noted:
“it so often seems that remaining silent is the only means we have as individuals to protect (or defend) ourselves anymore. Stating the obvious here, but there’s a terrible and rotten irony in that — that we’re writers who’re slowly being trained and groomed to be gutless and stay silent when we should most stand up and say something, for fear of making ourselves targets.”
Blogger Schmutzie made the following observations about the potential consequences of not responding to personal attacks online:
We falsely cast experiences of anything that happens on the internet as inferior to experiences of anything that happen off the internet, even though actions in both places bear demonstrable effects upon actual human beings . . .
Remaining silent about those who bullied me offline, whether it was in elementary school or in a work environment, never stopped the bullying and, in fact, lead to a continuance of that abuse over years of my life.
Trolls, who by any other name would be bullies, can be a serious matter, and if we discourage silence about offline bullies, it does not make much sense to then encourage silence when it comes to online trolls.
Even Armstrong’s husband weighed in on her decision to defend herself:
“What if you are tired of seeing your colleagues equally lied about, made fun of and belittled? What then? I’m increasingly of the mind that one of the beauties of Twitter is that it allows people to stand up for themselves in a public way, regardless of follower count. . . .
I love that Heather called out those who were trolling her charity work. It’s one thing to have a cogent, well-argued difference of opinion. The second clothing choice, hair cut/color, income level, choice in friends or other superficial note creeps in, it’s no longer a critique, it’s being mean. And mean people need to be told they are being mean.”
Heather responded on twitter as well, pointing out that professionalism was not exactly her brand.
Advocacy, however, does seem to be an emerging part of her brand, and many in the blogging community are inspired and proud that Armstrong is using her significant influence to bring attention to important global concerns. As she said on her blog today, “The truth is that I paid my own expenses. The truth is that this is just the beginning for me, and I plan to get more involved wherever I can, wherever it is the best place for me to get involved. If a reputable organization wants to use me, I am here for the using.”
Stay tuned next week as we feature an exclusive interview between Heather Armstrong and our own Kim Tracy Prince, where Armstrong will share her thoughts on the twitter drama, and, more importantly, her plans for continued advocacy for maternal health.