Friday, February 10, 2012

Facebook, Twitter, and Other Weapons of Mass Instruction

Being an activist used to be hard and time-consuming work. Thanks to the advent of the social network - that's just not so any more.

Back in the day, if you wanted to send a message of discontent to "the man" or needed to disrupt the status quo, your first priority was to determine the best ways to fight the perceived injustice and to inflict harm upon your oppressor, or to otherwise gain attention for your cause. Then, you had to pound the pavement to identify a group of like-minded individuals and organizations who are willing to rally around your vision and objectives. Next, you might have to get busy printing placards, staging protests, organizing boycotts, and finding ways to attract the media. All of this took a lot of time and effort, but it was the necessary work of activism. Because you can't be very effective as a crusader if you're not thrusting your anti-whatever movement into the public spotlight, right?

Social media has revolutionized revolutionizing though. Now, any dick with a blog (eh-hem) can express his opinions, demand change, and publish a widespread call to action with little more than the click of a button (or two). Thanks to the World Wide Web - anyone, or everyone, can pick up the mantle of injustice and be an activist, and you never have to leave the cheap warm comfort of your parents' basement.

The internet enables us to react with blazing speed, and to respond and rebel nearly instantaneously when we have had enough of being held down, put down, torn down, or just gotten kind of ticked off. It provides us with a digital megaphone whose reach, with a bit of well-intentioned sharing, re-posting, and re-tweeting, is practically unlimited. And that's the other thing that makes social media revolutions so awesome - not only are they easy to start, they are incredibly easy to join, allowing for our "active" participation, even if we only give a half-hearted shit about the cause.

Last year, we witnessed the most significant and dramatic instance of a "social media rebellion" thus far, as Arab Spring revolutionaries overthrew authoritarian governments in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, aided in part by their ability to organize and communicate through the likes of Facebook and Twitter. In 2012, citizens who continue to live under dictatorial regimes in other Middle Eastern nations continue to leverage social media to facilitate civil uprisings and foment unrest with their nation's status quo.

And the impact of the social network on revolution and on activism, its milder and hopefully less bloody cousin, has become increasingly profound in the United States as well. In recent months, we've seen several examples of organizations and institutions making major public policy reversals in light of significant negative reaction and enormous public pressure, much of which originated online. Take Bank of America, for example. Late last fall, the financial giant reversed its decision to implement debit card usage fees, after a huge groundswell of disagreement and dissatisfaction swept instantly and vigorously through the social network, ultimately finding its way into the mainstream media and on to front pages across the country.

The Susan G. Komen Foundation serves as a more recent example. Upon announcing a policy change that would have cut funding to Planned Parenthood, the Foundation suffered an overwhelmingly negative backlash, which spread across the social network like a California forest fire. The online uproar posed such an immediate threat to the organization's widespread popularity and funding, that a policy reversal and an executive termination were dropped on to the incendiary scene like a giant wet smothering blanket.

Instances of waging warfare via Facebook and Twitter are not limited to for-profit consumer-driven businesses and non-profit donations-based organizations. The political arena is ripe with examples of seemingly powerful monoliths caving to the rebellious online muscle-flexing of the masses. In just the last few weeks, supporters of the failed Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) were sorely disappointed when their efforts to protect the economic interests of some industries were quashed by online companies (think Google, Wikipedia) and regular internet users who refused to see their internet freedoms compromised.

Even the White House is subject to the influence of those who successfully wield the weaponry of the social network. After announcing this week that religious employers would not be exempt from including birth control in healthcare benefits to their employees, President Obama was forced to back down from the requirement in light of a huge outcry from the religious community and from conservatives.

Granted, in the cases of SOPA and the President's birth control fiasco, the mainstream media ravenously reported on these stories as well, but the fires of discontent were clearly fueled by those who used social networking sites to voice their opinions and concerns. Whether a given "cause" is first thrust into the limelight by the media or through other means, there is no doubt that our awareness, anger, and ultimately our actions are often spurred on by the social network. If this seems like a bit of an overstatement, take a moment now to browse through your Facebook timeline.

Organizations and institutions who are in the public eye must learn to leverage social media as a tool - a means by which they can create dialogue and solicit feedback, float trial balloons, and develop a more thorough understanding of the implications of their actions before they make decisions they will regret, or worse, have to reverse.

For individuals, the social network serves as an instrument to turn our water cooler commiserating into constructive dialogue, and to transform our weekend beer-and-barbecue grousing into action. Finally, when we complain, we may actually be "doing something about it." I am finally beginning to understand why techno-talking-heads get so excited about how the internet enables the democratizing of information, and I for one, couldn't be happier about it...even when I'm bitching.

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