Our global campaign for PEN.org amounted to a single, shareable graphic agitant: just one JPEG. PEN International is a human rights organization that defends writers around the world. In fact, the group is funded by the US Congress. The goal was to promote the release of The PEN Report: Creativity and Constraint in Today's China, a PDF that took five years to complete.
The 80-page report provided a frank assessment of the state of freedom of expression in the world's most populous country. It also revealed that the conversation was moving online. It's fascinating stuff for freedom-loving Westerners.
The Chinese people needed to read the PDF too. However, to say media channels are somewhat limited would be an obscene understatement.
The only way to distribute a message across China is to get inside Sina Weibo (Chinese Twitter). But China has a robust firewall and strictly monitors its social media for dissident comments. Remember, you can be jailed for a politically irritating Tweet.
We gathered PEN, O-Arms and our Stanford U. crew to brainstorm and discovered an obscure glitch in their censorship process: Chinese censors cannot read text dropped into a JPEG. So we could use any words we liked as long as they were expressed within an image. We knew the perfect image.
There's only one great portrait of Liu Xiaobo, the only Nobel Prize winner in jail. His wife, Xia (above), has been under house arrest for years. Xiaobo isn't getting out for another 10 years, all for wondering aloud about a freer China. To help PEN and bolster awareness for the laureate's plight, we chose Xiaobo's photo as a graphic icon.
Securing the photographer's usage permission was interesting. He's incognito for obvious reasons. After a bit of online detective work, we located him somewhere up in northern Burma (red area), documenting refugees. And he granted us permission.
Next, the fun part: graphic agitation. We went through dozens of designs. A favorite was the Twitter logo design (bottom right). The entire world of social media speaking for a silenced political dissident seemed perfect. However, PEN had recently won a court battle in Peru involving freedom of speech, Twitter and the US State Dept.
We settled on the universal symbol of rebellion: the "X," plus a simple #hashtag that allowed the transfer of the JPEG and access to a URL that housed a PDF: The PEN Report.
The JPEG was released during a press conference fronted by Salman Rushdie. People outside China were officially invited to help the report #LeapTheFirewall by simply RT-ing the image, posting it or replacing their profile pictures on Facebook.
We built a "social control tower" with a team of community managers. They pumped out Tweets and shared the image all over Facebook throughout World Press Freedom Day. The result: four million social media impressions in six hours - and RTs appearing on the pages of several Chinese influencers including Ai Weiwei.