What I Learned from Drug Users

I was recently in Kiev, for Tactical Studios, running a training on Social Media for the Eurasian Harm Reduction Network, GIZ and Deutsche AIDS-Hilfe. To be fair, not everyone in the training was a drug user – there were advocates from a variety of different marginalised communities that were being negatively impacted by health policies, including those working on prison health issues, reducing Hep C and HIV/AIDS transmission . It was my first exposure in working in the issue area of Harm Reduction and getting to know the issues more deeply.  Probably worth mentioning is this was not my first experience working with deeply marginalised communities and there was certainly a lot of overlap with the work I’ve done in the past with sex workers, people living with HIV/AIDS and transgender rights.

Put those impacted at the center of the policy debate

Put those impacted at the center of the policy debate

The challenge on running a Social Media training these days is getting beyond the topic of how to maximise your presense on Facebook. In today’s age of social media, most users are overwhelmed by information and now it’s about training participants on how to manage and parse information that is available to them.  I’ve been greatly inspired recently by Upwell’s techniques on ‘Big Listening’ and using social media to monitor discussions around an issue.   So a question for me walking into this training was does a US-based campaign on the Ocean have any relevance to Eastern European drug users who are trying to shape substitution drug therapy policies?  The answer is a resounding yes.

Especially in regards to getting the participants to start thinking about using social media to learn about their stakeholders and the discussion that is currently happening online around their issues. Where it really got relevance was getting participants to think through keywords and hashtags they can use to monitor discussions online.  A great aha was when the group focused on sustitution therapies started to come up with two lists of keywords – one was the ones that there opponents used and the other was the list of keywords that reflected vocabulary they thought should be used.  ‘We don’t want this to be a discussion about Methadone anymore.’


Only 30 drug users out of 7,000 have access to substitution therapies.

The issues of how misguided substitution drug therapy policies are were exemplified greatly by the timings of the daily agenda of the training.  We could not start the trainings until 11 am every day because participants who were receiving substitution therapy had to travel a great distance to get to a clinic every morning to receive it.  I would see the participants at breakfast every morning at 7am rushing off to get to their clinics so they could be back in time for the training.  It was obvious how greater access to substitution therapy would have a positive impact.

By getting the participants to think through more about their stakeholders (by using the half-wheel and pyramid exercise), where they are online and what discussions were currently happening on their issues, some really interesting tactics and messaging emerged. Particularly in regard to taking on opponents who were pushing through moralistic arguments.  Tactics utilising evidence to direcly counter moral arguments took shape. A campaign focused on reducing the amount of infants born with HIV decided to contrast the HIV+ birth rate in Russia to those in Africa. The prison group focused on how not having access to routine testing and medical treatment resulted in more prisoners dying while incarcerated.  Those working on reducing Hep C focused on how their countries budget was only 2% of what was actually needed to be effective.  The group focused on decreasing HIV/AIDS decided to focus on numbers showing how stigmatisation increases transmission rates.  The clear tactic being that evidence-based campaigns are the only way to counter moral based opponents and redirect the conversation.

Probably the biggest takeaway for me was the reminder of what the potential that social media holds to raise the voices of people who are normally excluded from the dialogue on policies that impact their lives.  Indeed, isolation from dialogues means that when a rare opportunity for their voices to be heard in traditional media, their message is often so far away from the current discourse that they are automatically discounted.  By being strategic about using social media, by listening to where the discourse is and getting greater opportunity to interject and shape debate, these communities can assure that their campaigns can have greater impact.

A reminder from the participants that the best visuals are often the simplest.

A reminder from the participants that the best visuals are often the simplest.

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