Recently, I was interviewed on “New Jersey Now,” a public affairs TV program that airs locally on WWOR 9. Fortunately, they also put the shows up online, so you can check out the interview here. In the clip, I discuss the future of political viral videos, citizen journalism and partisanship, and a number of other social media-related topics with host Jim McQueeny. We also talk about a lighthearted YouTube video put out by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s office entitled “No Pain, No Gain.” As you’ll see, I found the satirical tone of the clip to be a bit confusing in this specific context, although it’s safe to say that this kind of internet-style humor is the new normal for political advertising.
A few weeks ago, the Washington Post published an excellent piece about the phenomenon of Black Twitter, explaining how this community has used peer-to-peer social software to mobilize around numerous race-related political causes. Recently, Black Twitter activists have enjoyed a number of high-profile successes, such as pressuring a book publisher to drop a deal with a Trayvon Martin murder trial juror, pressuring InterActive Corp to admonish (and eventually fire) a PR executive who tweeted a racist joke, and pressuring singer Ani DiFranco to cancel an event at a former slave plantation. As these examples demonstrate, the political power of this form of activism rests in its high-profile application of public pressure. While tweeting responses to troubling news of racism and racial insensitivity may not “do” anything political in and of itself, it can put a media spotlight on an issue that may in turn lead to real change.
For many decades, professional watchdog organizations (AKA “pressure groups”) like the NAACP, GLAAD, and NOW have engaged in this form of activism to varying degrees of success. Now, it appears that decentralized groups of citizens are taking it upon themselves to band together around common issues and draw the public’s attention to them through strategic media interventions. The fact that Black Twitter has no organizational center, but is rather an open-ended community of like-minded citizens who find one another via popular hashtags like #PoliticosBlackIntellectuals #solidarityisforwhitewomen, is quite significant. It reminds me a lot of W. Lance Bennett and Alexendra Segerberg’s point that the traditional collective action of organized social movements is giving way to “connective action,” which describes a more diffuse and personalized style of public engagement that is powered by digital peer-to-peer networks.
That being said, there does appear to be a certain cohesiveness to virtual communities like Black Twitter, even though they are strongly decentralized. It is important to keep this point in mind when thinking about how political causes “go viral” on Twitter and social media platforms in contemporary times. When we say that a political news story, photo, or video “goes viral,” it conjures up images of widespread social popularity that does little to specify the investments and agendas of particular groups that have strategically contributed to the peer-to-peer spread of content. Communities like Black Twitter are essentially issue publics that draw upon their ranks to deliberately make a story like the Ani DiFranco concert or the PR exec’s racist tweet go viral – in other words, their viral popularity doesn’t just materialize out of thin air (i.e. from the aggregated effect of isolated, individual shares), but is rather the result of a concerted effort on the part of groups of invested citizens who wish to make an impact on the public sphere. Clearly, the agenda-setting labor of these viral pressure groups is a crucial object of study for scholars who seek to understand the emerging shape of digital activism.
Now that the Affordable Care Act has gone into effect, Republicans and Democrats have been waging an intensive marketing battle to frame its impact on the country. Quite interestingly, user-generated content has become a primary focus of both parties’ communication strategies. Using social media outreach, the parties have been collecting personal stories of Obamacare successes and (alleged) horrors to use as rhetorical ammunition in the war of public opinion. As CBS news explains, the House Republican website now has a section soliciting “Your Story” in an attempt to find people who are upset about losing their healthcare plans and are eager to speak about it. They even ask for a YouTube video link on the story submission form, signaling how they plan to use this user-generated material in their media marketing. The Democrats have responded with a similar strategy, using the Facebook page Affordable Care Act Success Stories to help build a more positive narrative about the program.
While the personal story has long been a staple of political rhetoric (think of all of those people that Bill Clinton would single out in his speeches), these latest developments indicate how political marketing is being thoroughly overhauled in the social networking age. As any marketing professional these days will tell you, peer recommendations that circulate online are far more trusted than traditional top-down persuasive communication, and political marketers appear to be adapting accordingly. The Obamacare stories in particular signal a ‘user review’-style approach to political communication that is fairly new. Instead of telling citizens about the benefits or drawbacks of the program themselves, they would rather you hear from ‘everyday people’ whose experiences are inherently more valued and trusted. Of course, social media facilitate this process to an immense degree, as anyone can now broadcast their ‘user review’ of Obamacare with a few clicks of a button.
In an editorial for the Guardian this week, Ana Marie Cox decries this sort of strategy as ‘anecdata,’ noting that statistical information is far more credible for making a case about a government program’s effects than a handful of individual stories that may not be representative of the broader population. Cox also makes the point that a lot of these social media-generated stories turn out to be false, such as a Facebook note written by Ashley Dionne (“this law has raped my future”) that went viral despite containing misleading information about the plans she is eligible for. Obviously, both parties should be wary of running with user-generated stories that haven’t been checked out, as this kind of internet hoax is becoming all too common. However, the emotional appeal of personal narratives can’t be denied, and I would expect that political marketing will continue to move towards these sorts of participatory formats that exploit the trustworthiness of ‘everyday people’ for rhetorical gain.
With the Affordable Care Act (AKA Obamacare) going into effect on October 1st, Republicans have ramped up their attempts to undermine the legislation. In addition to Congress forcing a government shutdown, conservatives have turned to viral marketing strategies to try to shift public opinion against Obamacare. The most high-profile of these efforts involves web video ads released online by a group called Generation Opportunity, funded by the Koch brothers. As explained in this piece for Time, the ads are intended to convince young adults to opt out of Obamacare so that the program will lose out on a crucial source of funding and thus fail in the long term. However, the ads having been getting the most attention for their outrageous gross-out humor, which is, of course, the lingua franca of the YouTube generation.
The ads, featuring a masked “Creepy Uncle Sam” character who threatens unsuspecting young patients with comically horrifying gynecological and rectal exams, mark an important shift in tone for American political advertising. In an earlier post, I discussed how the 2012 Obama campaign used internet-style pop culture humor to get their message across to a new generation of voters who tend to tune out more formal types of campaign messaging. Of course, the Republicans don’t want to be left behind, and the “Creepy Uncle Sam” ads signal how they too are now trying to latch onto the zeitgeist and create digital content that is entertaining and novel enough to inspire social sharing. So far, it looks like Generation Opportunity has succeeded in ‘going viral,’ with each of its video ads topping a million views on YouTube. In a sure sign of viral success, the liberal group The Other 98% has responded with an online parody that asks viewers to “opt out of Koch propaganda, not Obamacare.”
What I find particularly interesting about all of this is how the internet has freed the agents of political communication to try things that were seemingly never possible in broadcast television or other media. To put it simply, these ads are pushing the envelope of taste. I’ll leave it to other commentators to deconstruct the potential homophobic (and even racist) undertones of ads that compare Obama to a rectal-probing rapist, but suffice it to say, this is the kind of humor that one would expect from South Park rather than from a policy-minded political group. However, as political advertising moves online more and more, we can expect that its creators will do whatever it takes to capture public attention an inspire viral shares on Facebook, Twitter, and other social platforms. The fact that these videos may be too risque for prime time TV is precisely the point – in a Wild West web environment where content is almost completely unregulated, shock is the rule rather than the exception, and audiences expect to see something that they can’t and won’t see anywhere else. I wonder, though, if there are any limits as to how far online political advertising will go in terms of skirting the lines of taste, or if these sorts of strategies could potentially engender a backlash. For now, it seems that all previous limits are off the table, and that the political classes are willing to be gross, weird, or just plain ridiculous in order to get jaded young voters to listen to their message.
As anyone paying attention to the news for the past few weeks knows, the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the high-profile Florida trial for the killing of Trayvon Martin has galvanized one of the largest protest movements in recent American history. Of course, in addition to marching in the streets, protestors have taken to social media in droves to express their outrage at the verdict and their dissatisfaction with racial profiling, gun laws, and a host of related issues. In the immediate aftermath of the verdict announcement on July 13th, social media sites were flooded with impassioned personal reactions, links to petitions, and numerous agit-prop graphics that went viral in a matter of minutes. Over two weeks later, much of the initial fervor has died down, yet one class of social media responses largely remains: the profile pictures.
Following the lead of the red equal sign for gay marriage and other similar recent campaigns, many supporters of Trayvon Martin have transformed the visual representations of their online identities into soapboxes to advance their cause. Perhaps the most popular strategy has been to use a stark black square, an idea that was promoted online with the hashtag #blackout and has since received the support of the Martin family. There have also been profile picture memes incorporating Trayvon’s portrait, a silhouette of the symbolic hoodie he wore the night of his death, and other graphics associated with this burgeoning movement.
As an observer of social media and politics, I’m struck by how these campaigns confirm the popularity of the profile picture as a primary space for political expression and engagement in the online world. Yet what I find most interesting about this latest round of politically-charged profile pictures is their sheer endurance in the rapid, blink-and-you-missed-it maelstrom of social media discourse. While links and image shares come and go very quickly, the profile picture enjoys a relatively stable digital presence, reappearing each time a person posts new content. Every time I log into Facebook and see the ominous black squares and hoodies in my news feed, I am reminded of the passion of this movement and the commitment of its supporters to anti-racism and social change.
The profile picture thus seems to have a weight that a lot of other social media strategies are lacking – in a way, its the strongest kind of link or association a person can make in the digital environment. To throw one’s entire online identity behind a cause, giving it an overarching presence in each and every activity they perform, provides politically-engaged social media users with a powerful symbolic tool unlike any other. Like the red equal sign campaign before it, the Trayvon profile pictures are blazing a trail for long-term social media activism that I imagine will be utilized by many more movements to come.
With the Supreme Court decisions striking down DOMA and Prop 8 last week, the red equal sign meme supporting marriage equality has been taking a victory lap on Facebook. As I wrote in an earlier post, this campaign is a significant moment in the development of viral politics, particularly for its use of profile picture-changing as a way of displaying a collective identity around an issue. Now that the dust has settled on this historic campaign coinciding with a major triumph for gay rights, it’s time to look back at some of the most interesting coverage that has appeared online in the past few months.
Anatasia Khoo, the head of marketing for Human Rights Campaign (HRC), gives an inside look at the creation of the red equal sign meme in pieces for Huffington Post and Stanford Social Innovation Review. In the former article, Khoo recounts an intriguing anecdote about the impact of the campaign:
“For many, this act marked the first time they had come out as a straight ally, or in some cases, the first time they had come out as a member of the LGBT community. Since then, we’ve heard so many stories, but one really sticks out for me. One day, we got a message from a gay soldier who had come out to his mother and unfortunately, it wasn’t the positive experience he was hoping for. It wasn’t until he saw that his mother had also changed her profile picture to the HRC logo that he felt accepted by her. It’s incredibly powerful to know that something so simple could provide such a strong feeling of support.”
In the latter article, Khoo offers a key lesson for organizations who wish to create a similarly viral social media campaign:
“We documented close to 100 different variations on the logo, and we made an important decision: We were going to not only embrace the memes, but also promote them. Politicians, celebrities, and corporate America embraced the logo. Bonobos, Bud Light, Martha Stewart, and Beyoncé all picked up the red logo—it became synonymous with equality… Most organizations are very protective about their brands, but for this campaign, HRC put our logo out into the universe without any organizational language, making it easy for individuals to embrace. It was a bold move for the organization… We certainly could have taken a much different approach to try and control the campaign or to brand it more tightly, but success relied on allowing people to make our logo their own and feel like they were part of something bigger.”
In a blog post for Scientific American, social psychology scholar Melanie Tannenbaum outlines a compelling theory for how the red equal sign meme may work as effective political persuasion. Basically, it all comes down to modeling behavioral norms (i.e. setting ‘descriptive norms’), which parallels my own argument in “Visual Identities, Visual Rhetoric” regarding the importance of visually articulating ‘the people’ as a way of changing perceptions about social reality:
“People look at an issue like marriage equality, and the first inclination is to set prescriptive norms. We should do something, the justices should rule a certain way, you should support a given cause. But based on everything that we know about our brains and their bafflingly strong desires to fit in with the crowd, the best way to convince people that they should care about an issue and get involved in its advocacy isn’t to tell people what they should do — it’s to tell them what other people actually do. And you know what will accomplish that? That’s right. Everyone on Facebook making their opinions on the issue immediately, graphically, demonstrably obvious. That is literally all that it takes to create a descriptive norm: Publicly acknowledging your belief along with the thousands of other people who are also publicly acknowledging theirs.”
Finally, in a thought-provoking piece for the New Yorker Online, Matt Buchanan compares the red equal sign campaign with Malcolm Gladwell’s famous castigation of “Facebook activism” as so-called slacktivism in the same magazine:
“While the HRC’s profile-picture activism relies on weak ties, like those between celebrities and their followers, it’s designed to exploit the stronger personal connections that lurk among the web of weak ties in a Facebook profile. That is, you are true friends with at least a few people that you are ‘friends’ with on Facebook… The odds that the HRC’s campaign, as wildly successful as it has been, will directly influence the decision of the Justices are nil, which speaks quite loudly to the limits of online activism: twenty million avatars are not twenty million people in the street. However, as Jeffrey Toobin wrote, as people and politics change, so does the Court. And online activism has shown, most notably through its role in the defeat of the controversial Stop Online Piracy Act last year, that maybe it can change people.”
In other words, Buchanan is saying that while online activism may not have a direct effect on public policy, it may have a long-term impact on public opinion that can eventually trickle up. It’s an intriguing thought, and one that seems to be supported by Tannenbaum’s point about the power of social media to shape social norms, one Facebook friend at a time.
The leak of PRISM, the NSA’s online surveillance program under the Obama administration, currently has internet users around the world in an uproar. Originally reported by the Guardian with the aid of whistle-blower Edward Snowden, the PRISM leak along with several others have mobilized internet privacy activists like never before. In fact, in Snowden’s interview published in the Guardian, he drew attention to a movement gaining traction on Reddit called Restore the Fourth Amendment, which is now planning public protests across the U.S. on July 4th. There is also a “We the People” petition to pardon Snowden up on Whitehouse.gov that has received over 27,000 signatures, along with a predictably vast array of humorous critical responses that have popped up online. Early on, a hilariously biting image morphing Obama’s face with George W. Bush’s appeared on the homepage of the Huffington Post and quickly went viral. As for the response on social media, CNN has a good roundup of the funniest tweets mocking Obama and the U.S. government regarding PRISM, while Buzzfeed has compiled some of the Snowden-related memes that have appeared in the last few days.
It is becoming clear that the PRISM leak and Snowden’s perceived heroics will reverberate online for a long time to come. This is because the story itself concerns the ability of internet users to communicate freely, in this case without fear of government intrusion. As the PIPA/SOPA movement from last year demonstrated, internet freedom-related issues are particularly amendable to viral politics, as legions of netizens are inspired to use the very technologies in question to mount a defense of their digital rights. Scholars and activists who are interested in the political uses of social media should pay close attention to the online anti-PRISM and pro-Snowden efforts in the weeks (and perhaps months) to come, since they may serve as a model for how political protest movements are orchestrated in the digital age more broadly.
That being said, I’m still unsure of what the long-term effects of this online response will be. While we may very well be at a tipping point in terms of internet privacy becoming a major global political issue, the fears about PRISM and the U.S. government’s online spying are still speculative in nature. The Obama administration continues to claim that these tools are only used to stop dangerous terrorists, while critics who worry about abuses of power are left making sometimes-hyperbolic ‘what if?’ comparisons to Orwell, Stalin, and the Stasi in order to drum up popular outrage. What we still don’t have yet is a ‘smoking gun’ that clearly shows a program like PRISM being used in an abusive manner, such as against the administration’s political opponents (i.e. along the lines of Watergate). If and when such a story emerges, we can expect movements like Reddit’s Restore the Fourth Amendment to really take off.