Nearly 200 people gathered at the University of Central Florida last week for a working conference that focused on political movements in various parts of the world and how social media plays a significant role in shaping the outcomes of those developments.

Students, faculty, administrators, journalists and others attended “People Power, Politics and Global Change,” hosted by the UCF Global Perspectives Office in cooperation with the National Conference of Editorial Writers and the Global Connections Foundation.

Helle C. Dale, senior fellow for Public Diplomacy at The Heritage Foundation, opened the conference with a discussion about how cell phones and social media have become powerful tools for activism.

She said approximately 30 percent of the world’s population is on the Internet and that more than 70 percent of the population has cell phone access. Dale pointed out that these new sources of connectivity have influenced revolutions in Iran in 2009, the widely discussed “Arab Spring,” which began in December 2010, and many others.

Dale also highlighted issues that arise when oppressive regimes seek to censor and block the Internet to prevent activism. She said that governments are playing catch-up, but are expanding their abilities to fight back online.

Stephen McDowell, the director of Florida State University’s School of Communication, spoke next, with an emphasis on South Asia. Mass media such as print and television are still necessary to complement social media and keep international attention focused during crises, McDowell said. He also discussed some examples of how social media have been used to start political movements outside of “normal” channels in India and Pakistan.

Ted Reynolds, the Global Connections Fellow of Terrorism Studies at UCF, as well as a University of St. Andrews doctoral candidate, spoke about how the Internet and social media are being used by extremist groups to mobilize, spread hatred and radicalize followers.

By sharing real-world data about online activity by groups in the United Kingdom, Reynolds illustrated how leaders of those organizations – ranging from right-wing white supremacist movements to radical Islamist groups – create a narrative that they use to attract followers to their cause.

Figuring out how to collect information on extremist groups without infringing on civil rights is a major challenge for law enforcement and intelligence services in the United States, the United Kingdom and Europe, Reynolds said.

The conference’s luncheon keynote speaker was Sam Graham-Felsen, an emerging-media expert and former chief blogger for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008. Graham-Felsen concluded the conference by discussing the social media strategies that he and his colleagues developed and implemented for the campaign, as well as why they worked.

He emphasized technology’s ability to empower people and turn ordinary citizens into grassroots organizers. Using online engagement, Graham-Felsen said, he and his team strived to treat supporters like important members of the campaign, encouraging energetic people to add their own content, organize community action and help fight back against smear tactics.

Those strategies were key to the campaign’s success, and provide lessons for anyone looking to use social media to create political change in the future, he said.

In addition to the Global Perspectives Office, the National Conference of Editorial Writers, and the Global Connections Foundation, sponsors and partners of the conference included the Florida Network for Global Studies, The Anil and Chitra Deshpande India Program Endowed Fund, Lawrence J. Chastang and the Chastang Foundation, C.T. Hsu and Associates, Sibille H. Pritchard Global Peace Fellowship program, LarsonAllen L.L.P., UCF Student Government Association, UCF Nicholson School of Communication, UCF Global Peace and Security Studies Program, The India Program at UCF, UCF Diplomacy Program, UCF Middle Eastern Studies Program, UCF Terrorism Studies Program, UCF Kurdish Political Studies Initiative, UCF Political Science Department, UCF International Services Center, UCF Book Festival 2012 in association with the Morgridge International Reading Center and UCF LIFE.

For a full list of upcoming events, or to learn more about the Global Perspectives Office, visit