Saturday, February 4, 2012

Can Social Media be a Vehicle for Social Change?

By now, many of you are familiar with the uproar surrounding the Susan G. Komen Foundation.  While many terrible things were discovered this week, there were also a few positive take-aways.  Among them, is the proof that, under the right circumstances, social media can be effectively utilized for social change.

For those unfamiliar with the situation, I’ll summarize: On January 31, the Komen Foundation decided to exclude Planned Parenthood from its list of grantee recipients, stating that it does not   award money to any organization under federal investigation (for an excellent refutation of this premise, see here).  However, as quickly acknowledged by the public, the ostensible reason served as a thin veil for the pro-life pandering of the Foundation’s leadership.

The public reaction was swift and clear:  there would be no support for a foundation which claims to support women’s health, yet hypocritically refused to assist an organization that provides routine checkups, cancer screenings, counseling, birth control, and STD testing for uninsured women.  News about the decision quickly flooded Facebook status updates, twitter feeds, and emails.  Thanks to Planned Parenthood and social media savvy, internet petitions against the Komen Foundation soon circulated.  Former advocates pledged to remove their support, or transfer it directly to Planned Parenthood.  Several high-level employees of the Komen Foundation resigned.  

The American public also spoke with its pocketbook.  Last year, Planned Parenthood was the recipient of over $680,000 from the Komen Foundation, which was earmarked for breast cancer screenings and treatment.  This amount of money was quickly surpassed by an outraged populace.  Within days, $3 milion was generated for Planned Parenthood, including a $250,000 matching grant from Mayor Bloomberg and a $100,000 donation from LIVESTRONG.

On February 3, the Komen Foundation bowed to the massive pressure and re-instated funding to Planned Parenthood.  In all, this was a huge victory women’s health proponents (although complicated by the fact that, as a country, we depend on private donors, in the first place, to ensure basic human rights).  However, beyond this, what I find fascinating is the instrumental role that social media played in affecting this outcome-- which leads me to the title of this post:

Can the internet, specifically social media sites, be a vehicle for social change?

Many have said  that it cannot.  The argument here is that political activity via social media is lazy politics.  It is for those who have time to post/retweet an article, electronically-sign a petition, or enthusiastically click the “like” button, but don’t have time to actually do something.

While this definitely occurs, the argument overlooks the potential of social media to foster political activity.  But to have a better understanding of this potential, we need to re-think our definitions of political space and political self.  Right now, the popular mindset is that if something happens over the internet, it’s not “real.”  Real interaction, real communication, real activity, real politics occurs in some tangible “outside.” Political activity, by definition, must be conducted in a literal, public space.  

In actuality, however, much of our social interaction these days occurs in cyberspace.  We establish public personas, educate ourselves, communicate, find jobs, find love, buy and sell in various markets, and share information all via the world wide web.  As much as people decry the denigration of personal relations in this digital age, we are actually communicating and interacting more than ever.  The medium may have changed--technology as opposed to face-to-face--- but that does not mean personal relationships have eroded.

The same applies to political activity, which may, in fact, be increasing despite the change in medium.  For too long, Americans have considered voting as the end-all of their civic duty.  To be political was to physically go to a poll and check a box every so often.  To me, this is a politics far more lazy than a political debate on Facebook.  And if voting alone  is what constitutes political participation, it is delusional to believe that in “real life” we are exercising our political selves any more than on the internet.  

More and more, however, we are seeing virtual reality as the site of most non-electoral politics.  It is where people learn about the issues, engage in political debate, and present their demands.  
Once we acknowledge that all of our interactions over the internet are real life, and establish the fact that the internet is a public and political space, we can acknowledge the transformative potential of social media.  

Social media, at its most basic, brings multitudes of people together in civil and political discourse.  There are few forums in physical reality that can parallel the immediacy of this network.  This discourse has the potential to raise political consciousness, provide a sense of connectedness to other citizens, and organize people around pressing issues.  Furthermore, as we have seen with the Komen Foundation backlash, the use of social media can produce real change.

However, just as social media has the potential to foster political participation, it can just as easily remain a forum for the latest celebrity gossip.  To move forward in a productive way, progressives need to figure out how to most effectively harness the internet for strategic benefit.  This requires having a clear agenda and sense of purpose.  Pressure against the Komen Foundation worked because it struck fear among executives that their decisions would drastically reduce financial support.  The same tactics might not work against a politician who feels secure in their voter-base.  All this is to say that social media cannot be considered the ends of political activity (i.e. getting a thousand people to post about X issue with no further action), but rather a tool used towards a greater purpose.

I’d love to hear what other people think about this topic.  I think we are at the beginning of an interesting trajectory, and I’m curious to see where we will go from here.

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