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NGOs and agenda setting - influence on public opinion and decision-making

Niina Meriläinen
University of Jyväskylä
Niina Meriläinen
University of Jyväskylä
Open Panel

Abstract

The environment in which public and political discussion occurs has changed. Media and politicians have lost their privileges of being the gate-keepers. Online communication allows new actors to participate into public and political discussion. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are one group which take part into these discussions. NGOs are political counterparts for private corporations and often do what governments cannot or will not (Blood, 2004; Simmons, 1998). Human rights NGOs aim to initiate social change processes. These include getting issues appear more salient in public, media and political agendas. NGOs can influence public, media and political agendas by using agenda setting tactics. Previously, the assumption of agenda setting was that news media have an influence on public opinion (Sheafer and Weimann, 2007). However, online communication has changed the news media controlled agenda setting (Meraz, 2009). It also allows grass-root movements to overcome the state managed control and censorship of the old media and online communication has been used widely in advertising and in political campaigns (Srinivasan and Fish, 2009; Pole, 2010). NGOs can initiate social change processes online by creating salience using agenda setting, inviting the public to participate grass-root activism and debate. Large following reinforces NGOs’ legitimacy authority. Subsequently, NGOs can influence decision-makers, becoming part of the legislative process regarding human rights issues. The research combines a literature review study with some empirical research focused on two human rights NGOs, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. The research question is how do human rights NGOs use agenda setting and online communication to initiate social change processes and influence agendas.