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Human rights organizations and online agenda setting

Niina Meriläinen (Department of Communication, University of Jyväskylä, Jyväskylä, Finland)
Marita Vos (Department of Communication, University of Jyväskylä, Jyväskylä, Finland)

Corporate Communications: An International Journal

ISSN: 1356-3289

Article publication date: 11 October 2011




The purpose of this paper is to better understand agenda setting by international human rights organizations in the online environment and at the same time contribute to agenda‐setting theory. The role of non‐governmental organizations (NGOs) in the area of human rights is clarified, and agenda setting and related concepts are discussed.


The study focuses on how attention is drawn to human rights issues in online communication by Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty International. A content analysis of online forums of HRW and Amnesty International was conducted by monitoring their web sites and Facebook and Twitter pages over a period of three months. In addition, two expert interviews with representatives of Amnesty Finland were conducted to better understand how the organization's online communication activities relate to its policies in drawing attention to human rights.


Based on this study, drawing attention to human rights issues is a goal that leads to active online communication. NGOs aim at attracting attention to their issues online by initiating a dialogue via online forums and motivating the public to participate in activities that may influence the media and the political agenda. The existing agenda‐setting research tends to emphasize the role of journalists in setting the public agenda, and mentions NGOs primarily as a source for journalists and as a political player. The online environment shows, however, that these NGOs mostly aim at setting the public agenda to create social change, while the media and political agenda are also not forgotten.

Research limitations/implications

This study suggests that the interdependence of the media, public and political agendas is more complex than has thus far been considered in agenda‐setting theory, especially in the current online environment. It investigates online agenda setting by two international NGOs, but does not discuss the role of the media or the public at large in their relationship with these NGOs. As this study has a limited time frame, a content analysis over a longer period and interviews with representatives of a wider variety of NGOs could be a next step. Future research could also compare the online communication of NGOs with that of profit organisations.

Practical implications

The findings show how agenda setting is supported by intricate multi‐platform activities in the present‐day online environment by the organizations studied in order to initiate a dialogue on societal issues. This suggests that in the online environment, the media, public and political agendas are becoming increasingly interrelated and within this triangle the public agenda seems to be gaining further in importance.


The impact that NGOs have on today's society is growing, and hence studying their online agenda setting is valuable from the perspective of corporate communication. International NGOs early on recognised the value of online communication.



Meriläinen, N. and Vos, M. (2011), "Human rights organizations and online agenda setting", Corporate Communications: An International Journal, Vol. 16 No. 4, pp. 293-310.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2011, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

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