Here’s what we learned about global conferences and social media

A photo from RightsCon at Mission bay. Image courtesy Access Now.

This post was originally written by an xiao mina from Meedan for Medium Blog and shared here with permission.
For anyone who’s attended a conference (especially a tech conference), the importance of Twitter is readily apparent. For every conference, there’s at least one core hashtag, and the social media chatter becomes a second way to experience the conference.

At this year’s RightsCon, an annual conference focused on human rights and technology, there were two major hashtags: #RightsCon and #KeepItOn. The former is obvious and the latter was started as a campaign to keep the internet on in parts of the world where governments might turn off internet access as a way to control communications.

Something we’ve always wondered at Meedan is just how many people are tuning in to a hashtag who don’t speak English, or who might speak English but would prefer to speak their native tongues. The other important role of hashtags is in ensuring that people tuning in remotely via livestream have a way to chat and communicate with those in attendance. Hashtags build community around conferences in a new and, in my opinion, exciting and interesting way.

This year, we had the privilege and honor to work with the teams at Global Voices Lingua and Access Now to develop out the RightsCon Translation Lab.

The RightsCon Translation Lab runs with a simple idea: let’s translate all the best Tweets from #RightsCon into Spanish and Arabic.

In other words, the goal was to provide a round-up of coverage for non-native English speakers. This is especially important because many of the sessions at RightsCon focus on issues directly pertinent to people in Latin America and the Middle East and North Africa.

Working with volunteer translators from Global Voices Lingua, we did the following:

  • With Bridge, our platform for social media translation, translators from the Meedan and Global Voices teams selected social media during the conference. They selected Tweets by relevance/interestingness plus a look at what was trending in the hashtag.
  • The translations appeared on two landing pages on Bridge, one for English to Spanish and one for English to Arabic:
  • And to ensure the translations fed back into social media, where they would be relevant and engaging, we set up two Twitter accounts that automatically published all translations generated through Bridge:@rightscon2es and @rightscon3rabi (why “3rabi”? It’s a good example of Arabizi, an Arabic chat language for contexts when only Latin letters are available.)

A screenshot of three feeds translated to Arabic, from RightsCon3rabi on https://speakbridge.io/medias/embed/rightscon-in-arabic

So how did it go?

Over the course of the three day conference, we translated 444 Tweets — 172 to Arabic, 259 to Spanish, and 13 from Spanish to English. That’s 148 Tweets per day, or (assuming an 8 hour day), roughly 19 Tweets per hour.

We worked with 2 Arabic translators, led by Rami Alhames from Global Voices and Mira Nabulsi from Meedan, and 3 Spanish translators, led by Juan Arellano from Global Voices, along with Vanessa Peirano Pereyra and Diego Ortiz Sáez. Remarkably, only Mira was physically attending the conference, while the others tuned in from their respective locations to translate.

Bridge comes in two forms right now: a robust iOS app in beta and a pre-beta Chrome extension that’s designed to work with tools like Tweetdeck and Twitter.com. 70% of the translations were done with the iOS app. This wasn’t too surprising — it’s a more stable app right now — , but it was encouraging to see that the Chrome extension was performative for this run.

Bridge translations come with an annotation feature, which allows translators to add additional context beyond the word-for-word translation. This is often useful in a journalistic context, and folks likes Syria Deeply and Out of Eden Walk have embedded translations with annotations. But in the conference context, it proved not to be as necessary: just 4 translations had annotations.

The Access Now team also requested 9 specific Tweets to be translated. Bridge doesn’t have the full infrastructure just yet to facilitate requests, so we used a Twitter backchannel and Slack to manage this.

As expected for any new project, we hit 1 technical snag at the beginning that was resolved in a remarkable, only-at-RightsCon kind of way.

And what was the impact?

In general, we saw encouraging validation of this approach. Here’s what we learned:

Translated Tweets increase engagement overall, extending their geographic reach.

Nearly 1500 engagements and over 115,000 impressions across both languages. Some Tweets got higher engagements than others. Popular ones included Ali Bangi’s insight on differences in session attendance by nationality, translated to Arabic, and Amir Rashadi’s announcement of a hunger strike by Iranian internet activist Hossein Ronaghi Maleki, translated to Spanish.

Retweets ranged from a wide variety of geographic locations, like Egypt and Peru, and there was roughly an even split between mobile and desktop engagement. We hope that’s because the way we’ve designed Twitter cards on Bridge is for legibility on mobile, something we hope to improve over time.

Translations helped extend the RightsCon brand to new language communities.

Engagement is one thing, but how many people shift from engaged — retweets, stars, replies — to committed followers? We tracked the number of followers the primary @RightsCon account grew by and compared that to the follower growth for @RightsCon2es (67) and @RightsCon3rabi (43). Accounting for the Translation Lab team’s follows, we found roughly a third of overall growth in followers across @RightsCon, @RightsCon2es and @RightsCon3rabi.

Effective distribution requires effective super nodes.

Global Voices Arabic, helmed by translator Rami Alhames, played a key role in ensuring the Arabic-speaking community was seeing the translated Tweets. There are three reasons this is effective:

  1. More followers means more engagement: Arabic speakers are already following a super node like GV Arabic, with over 43,000 followers.
  2. Fit with audience interests: People following Global Voices are also likely to be interested in human rights and technology issues.
  3. Time zone mismatches: RightsCon was held in San Francisco this year, but most of the Arabic-speaking world lives at least 8–10 hours away.

The results showed: according to the Access Now team, Global Voices Arabic was the third largest contributor to the hashtag throughout the conference. In the future, prepping more language-specific super nodes to participate will be an important factor in increasing engagement.

Quality is more important than speed.

Live tweeting during a conference is obviously a timely event, and balancing both speed and quality are key. However, quality translations of quality material are much more important than timeliness. Some of the translations were completed within 5 minutes of the Tweet being published, but others occurred much later. However, the priority for this round was on identifying the best and most resonant Tweets, so we didn’t do a ton of time tracking.

What’s next?

Why translate social media? Ultimately, it’s about engaging new audiences in your brand and, more importantly, showing them you care about their perspectives and voices, and that you want to reach them in a language that they prefer. This matters for a global human rights and technology organization like Access Now, as their community extends through many parts of the world.

As Access Now’s Carolyn Tackett noted, “The Translation Lab was definitely a highlight of digital engagement at RightsCon this year. It expanded our reach, deepened our engagement, and furthered Access Now’s commitment to waging a truly global fight to defend the digital rights of at-risk users.”

Anqi Li from Access had similar thoughts, “I can see this means being widely applied to a number of international conferences, events, even movements to help bridge language gaps and open up dialogues. It is definitely a powerful manifestation of the simplicity and impact of civic tech.”

There’s still a lot we can do to improve, both on the technology and process side, but we were thoroughly encouraged by the results and are eager to translate more conferences. If you’re interested in trying out Bridge for your conference, please get in touch via hello@speakbridge.io or @speakbridge.

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