Recently, two political discussions highlighted the power and speed of online activism. These weren’t the first, but the scale and speed of both issues were remarkable, and the results were nothing short of startling. So, we can expect to see more of this in the future, right?
I wouldn’t bet on it.
Now that the dust has settled (a bit) on both issues, it is time to take stock and see what lessons can be learned.
The SOPA/PIPA debate came first. The forces supporting this legislation–the motion picture and music industries, especially–have a long track record of working with and lobbying members of Congress. Those opposed to the legislation are more recent entrants to the lobbying circuit. Google only opened an office in Washington around five years ago, according to a post on Time’s Swampland blog. What Google and Facebook and Wikipedia lacked in the way of deep ties in Washington was more than made up for by a simple fact: these sites are intrinsically intertwined in the daily lives of millions. They were able to a) catch the attention of, and b) motivate people to act. This is the very definition of influence: the people who Google and Wikipedia prompted to act were not just those with a direct financial interest, they were the average, everyday users of the products. I don’t think you could get closer to a real grassroots movement, and that is why the response to SOPA/PIPA had such an impact.
However, this sort of motivation isn’t something that can happen often. Block out Wikipedia too many times and people get annoyed, not motivated. Put a black box over Google too often and it will prompt eyerolls instead of action.
The second debate shares some similarities and has some differences. The online response to the Komen Foundation’s decision to exclude Planned Parenthood from the process awarding grants to provide breast screenings was rapid and almost universally critical of the decision. There was some support for the move, but by and large the online discussion was dominated by those who disapproved of the move. Again this was a grassroots response, but unlike the SOPA/PIPA issue, most of the outcry was independent of the two organizations at the heart of the controversy: neither Planned Parenthood nor the Komen Foundation were actively channeling people to request an action–people were simply expressing anger, and a lot of it.
Of the two examples above, I’d wager that Komen-like flare-ups will be more common than the large-scale, directed at Congress actions we saw in the SOPA/PIPA debate.
Buried in this is the lesson for public affairs folks: it is exceedingly hard to generate true grassroots action for a reason and even more difficult on the scales we are talking about here. First, you have to capture peoples’ attention, which is no small thing. But it is the second element that is most difficult to replicate even on a small scale. You have to get them to care enough to react. So if you have a client demanding the type of Internet response we’ve seen recently with these two issues, it’s time to start managing expectations, because it’s as hard to predict what will motivate this many people as it is to predict which videos will go viral. There are some common elements, and we’ll look at those in a future post–but this level of response is extremely difficult to reliably predict.