Monday, Sept. 25, 2017 | 2 a.m.
On Sept. 10, hundreds of people gathered outside of Trump International Hotel and marched to New York-New York’s Statue of Liberty in support of immigrant rights. Some waved American flags while they chanted. Others carried banners with messages criticizing President Donald Trump and his intent to end DACA, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program introduced by then-President Barack Obama in 2010 that provides protections for the many thousands of people brought to the United States by their parents as minors.
“800,000 DACAmented youth, 800,000 reasons to fight #HERETOSTAY #DEFENDDACA,” read one sign. “Defend the dream #WERISELV,” read another.
Beyond their clear admonition of the president and his policies, these banners are literal signs of the time in another way. Their prominent hashtags hint at social media being a fundamental tool in today’s activist arsenal.
The “We Rise for the DREAM Las Vegas Day of Action” march began with one local activist posting a Facebook event. It’s a recent example of someone harnessing a social media platform to inspire groups of people to take physical action and controlling the message beyond the 30 seconds they might get on the nightly news.
The Black Power movement introduced the phrase “the revolution will not be televised” into our collective vernacular during the 1960s as a warning to the masses that social change would not be sugarcoated and neatly packaged for easy consumption. Nearly six decades later, it seems, the revolution wants to remain untelevised, but it is totally down for some tweets.
Black Lives Matter began as a hashtag. It was a response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman after being tried for killing 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, evolving into a movement capable of rallying tremendous physical support for protests like those in Ferguson, Mo., after the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown at the hands of police. Here in Southern Nevada, immigrant issues have found particularly strong support online, and activist organizations have been quick to capitalize on that interest.
Laura Martin, associate director of the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, recalled civil rights icon and U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., orchestrating a sit-in at the House of Representatives last year to try to force a vote on gun control. Photos of the congressman sitting on the floor surrounded by other legislators were widely circulated in real time. Someone at PLAN tweeted at Rep. Dina Titus, asking her to take and post a selfie with Lewis. About 10 minutes later, Titus did.
“We always joke about this as ‘the power of social media,’ ” Martin said, “but it does show you that we can tweet, and 2,000 miles away someone is listening.”
Neither the selfie nor the sit-in changed public policy, but that direct line of communication is meaningful. So much so that the American Civil Liberties Union is suing the president in federal court for blocking people on Twitter. The suit argues that because Trump is using the platform to broadcast information related to his policies and intentions, he should not be allowed to block people from seeing such information or engaging with him over it, just as you could not block constituents’ phone numbers from your office line simply for expressing disagreement.
Similar suits are happening at the state level, including in Kentucky, where Gov. Matt Bevin has blocked hundreds of social media users.
“Not everyone can get in their car and start knocking on doors or making calls,” Martin said. “We have volunteers who have varying abilities who can’t leave the house. This gives us a way to get everyone involved.”
Even the powerful Culinary Union, known in Nevada for boots-on-the-ground demonstrating, sees the value of social media working in coordination with more traditional outreach.
“Organizers are the heart of the Culinary Union. They talk to members face-to-face and they are essential. I support them by reminding people (on social media) of the who, what, when, where. Organizers always have the why,” said union spokeswoman Bethany Khan. “It’s very complementary.”
Social media doesn’t replace boots on the ground
Khan stressed that if people are choosing where to direct their energy, she has seen the old-fashioned route be more effective. “You can sign a petition, but you really need to be in the streets when it matters,” she said. “There is a lot you can do on social media, but all of the battles we’ve won are because we were in the streets, making sure our voices were heard, demanding.”
She adds, “No amount of social media can replace the benefits of one-to-one organizing.”
The greatest level of success any technology can reach is when it’s no longer viewed as technology at all, instead becoming a seamless part of our everyday environment. Think of ovens. They can be “revolutionized” with fancy trappings, but their utility is rarely questioned.
Social media may be ubiquitous, but it hasn’t achieved that unquestioned status, so the connection between its various platforms and activism isn’t a given. For all the positive stories about youngsters engaging with progressive organizations after being exposed to them online, there are just as many think pieces about the ineffectiveness of digital activism, especially when it’s not tied to a concrete network like PLAN. There’s even a term for it: slacktivism.
Critics of online civic engagement liken tweeting angrily about legislative policy to the old man yelling at clouds; it might feel good, but it’s essentially just talking into the ether. Add a cause-supporting filter to your Facebook profile photo, and this camp will call it a shallow show of solidarity without any of the measurable resources — like money and votes — needed to truly effect change. Instead of genuine emotion, they see self-aggrandizement.
Professor Nolan Cabrera with the University of Arizona’s Center for the Study of Higher Education has researched activism and slacktivism, and he doesn’t quite buy that argument.
“The lines are blurry,” he said. “It is too easy analytically to say things like, ‘Oh, you retweeted this thing and now you think highly of yourself.’ I get that as a social critique, but to demean engagement online as exclusively being that is undercutting the very profound ways (people) are doing collective activism.”
No doubt, some physical marchers don’t back their cause financially or with other volunteering. They aren’t derided as useless because their support serves the activists addressing a larger message of truth to power.
Feeling good about yourself for participating isn’t the problem, Cabrera argues. On the contrary, self-righteous indignation is often the catalyst for sustained engagement and dedication to an issue. “What is needed to supplement that passion is self-reflection. Why are you doing this? What is your underlying motivation? What are your goals? Are you doing this as part of a larger activist strategy, or are you considering this as tangible activism?”
How the pros do it
The internet might seem like the Wild West of democratic communication, where everyone has an equal chance to “go viral,” but the reality is complicated.
Cabrera points out that massive presences and mass campaigns on social media are rare in activist circles. “Smaller activist-based organizations have to be very clear about what their online engagement is. It takes a lot of resources, and it’s risky. There’s no guarantee it will work. Who knows — Kim Kardashian might drop a selfie and that takes over,” he said.
Done well, social media management is highly technical and vigorously plotted. Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains manages about a dozen different channels, each with a unique intent or audience. The conversational tone on posts full of memes and emojis? That has all been thought out, says Whitney Phillips, senior director of strategic communications and marketing.
One channel is focused on educational outreach and designed to sound like “your cool aunt who you go to with questions.” There you’ll find cute cartoon drawings of birth control devices. Another social media channel is designed more with activism in mind, so it’s “more sassy, more cheeky” and focused on calls to action and engaging audience members so their voices are heard — preferably in person, while wearing a pink Planned Parenthood shirt outside the office of Republican Sen. Dean Heller.
More subtly, social media platforms offer opportunities for targeted marketing and information gathering through sponsored posts and polls. The Culinary Union takes advantage, Khan says. “We can poll members about different things in a very cost-effective way. It’s easy to get the pulse of folks and see what they’re interested in through that and commenting.”
Khan also can do split testing on a small audience to decide what campaign wording is most effective before blasting it out to the union’s network. Such targeted marketing is difficult for opposing groups to fact-check because they never see it, raising debate on whether social media is essentially an echo chamber. Still, activists largely see the opportunities rather than the hurdles.
“There’s a lot more awareness of intersectionality,” Phillips said. “You might not be directly affected by immigration policy, but you care about women’s health. Well, at Planned Parenthood we don’t ask for immigration status, so there’s a crossover there. … We try to reflect that on our social media.”
As the vector evolves, activists will be watching to see how they can use the next big thing. Planned Parenthood, for example, just launched a partnership with OKCupid. Users on the dating website can place an “I support Planned Parenthood” sticker on their profiles, sending a message about what values are important to them. (Planned Parenthood also is working on an emoji pack.)
Adds Phillips, “Social media opens up this entire realm of possibilities.”
WAYS TO TAKE STANDS AND MAKE WAVES
If you’ve used the internet, you’ve probably unleashed a raw opinion or two on social media. You could stop at sharing your position through a darkly comic meme, but there are many, many ways to go a step further. You might not change the world, but you’ll have a much better chance of changing someone’s mind on an issue you care about.
Start petitions to put pressure on state and federal officials
In its first five years of existence after being created in 2011, the White House online petitioning system “We the People” was used to file nearly 5,000 petitions on subjects as serious as animal rights (extradite the hunter who killed Cecil the Lion) and public safety (declare the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization), and as whimsical as changing the national anthem to the My Little Pony theme song. A Pew study of the petitions showed that while some made a difference, most notably one that led to President Barack Obama signing a bill preventing a phone purchased from one telephone carrier to be used on another carrier’s system, most didn’t prompt any action. Nevertheless, activists say petitions can be a good way to draw attention to a cause and motivate people to support it in advance of more forceful methods of advocacy. In addition to the “We the People” site, petitions.whitehouse.gov, there are several websites where petitions can be started. A leading one is change.org.
Create events and stir engagement in forums and demonstrations
The night after the 2016 election, a retired attorney in Hawaii created a Facebook event page calling for a march in Washington after Donald Trump’s inauguration. When she went to bed, about 40 women had signed on. The next day, the number shot to 10,000, and soon a national organizing group had been formed to plan what became the Women’s March — spawning sister events across the globe involving millions of demonstrators. A similar groundswell was happening around the same time in Nevada, where supporters of Planned Parenthood used social media to stage rallies, mobilize supporters to attend meetings and generate funding for the organization.
Use hashtags or filters to support or critique causes
Hashtags are an efficient way of finding news links on specific topics, connecting to sympathetic thinkers and checking public opinion. One example is #justice4(name), used in connection to high-profile deaths of black people. Election politics also are a ripe subject for hashtag activism, often with a cheeky tone. See #DumpTrump and #PantsuitNation.
Post opinions and engage in dialogue
Meaningful dialogue on the internet can be scarce. Trolls abound, and 140 characters is a pretty tight parameter for expressing nuanced positions on complex geopolitical issues. But to improve your chances of a healthy conversation, experts say it’s important to follow a few basic rules. At the top of the list: Don’t let trolls drag you under their bridges. Tactics include never taking the bait and responding in kind to personal attacks, apologizing when you’re wrong and being respectful to others even if you disagree. Other tips include not repeating their points, reading an entire link or post before commenting (as opposed to a headline or just the first couple of sentences) and informing instead of trying to win arguments. Also, be mindful of the platform. Moreso than Twitter, Facebook tends to be a place where family members and close friends keep up with each other. So if you want to explore a topic that you know would set off your staunchly conservative Uncle Larry at a family reunion, maybe start it on Twitter instead of Facebook. Unless, of course, you’re spoiling for a fight with Uncle Larry.
Hold individuals and public figures accountable for words and actions
Anti-racism activists on Twitter disseminated photos of participants in the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va. They did what’s known as “doxing,” or calling out several of those at the white supremacist gathering — to their employers, families and associates. Those identified included UNR student Peter Cvjetanovic, who became the subject of debate on campus about whether he should be expelled. (UNR’s president issued a statement saying there was “no legal or constitutional basis upon which to expel him.”)
The Twitter account @YesYoureRacist, where images were posted for sharing and doxing, drew more than 300,000 followers in one weekend. But doxing is a controversial form of social justice. It can be inaccurate and sometimes is used to attack people who don’t deserve any unwanted attention. One of the protesters identified through @YesYoureRacist wasn’t present in Charlottesville, for instance.
An example closer to home occurred this year as conservatives in Congress were considering eliminating federal funding for Planned Parenthood. Activists in Nevada widely shared video from a town hall meeting in which Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., said he would defend the funding. The comments were significant because Heller, like several other Republican lawmakers, had argued that public money shouldn’t go to abortion providers. (The counterargument: Planned Parenthood is barred by federal law from using federal funds for abortion, and cutting its funding will leave millions of women without access to reproductive health services offered by the organization.) When Heller clarified later that he still opposed federal funding, activists used the video to accuse him of flip-flopping and ding him politically.
Share links to news coverage or rallying cries
Black Lives Matter, named for a 2013 tweet referencing George Zimmerman’s acquittal on charges related to Trayvon Martin’s fatal shooting, is perhaps the most prominent example of a hashtag spawning a movement. Started by three black women, the movement has expanded beyond the internet and now includes more than two dozen chapter organizations in the U.S. and Canada. Other examples include Occupy Wall Street and #NoDAPL, a hashtag used by activists nationwide to share videos, news coverage and other information in opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline project in South Dakota.
Social media also was used to draw militia members to the property of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy during what became known as the Battle of Bunkerville in 2014, when armed supporters of Bundy staged a tense standoff with federal officials who were attempting to impound his cattle over his refusal to pay grazing fees. –Sun Staff