A New Activist Day Is Dawning and It Promises to Be Stormy

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Over the past six months, we have all watched or maybe even been a part of fast-paced online activism that has led to some change. Over this past week, when Susan G. Komen for the Cure announced it would no longer be funding Planned Parenthood because it was under congressional investigation, a virtual firestorm was unleashed. The rule that Komen pointed to as the basis for its decision had, in fact, just been ratified and some excellent investigative journalism from The Atlantic pretty conclusively indicated that the rule was made specifically to exclude Planned Parenthood.

The backlash was fascinating. It rolled out first among individuals on the Internet, in the broadcast media and in Internet-based publishing. It then moved to Congress, where two dozen senators signed a letter of protest, and then to Komen’s affiliates in the states. Online, the message board at Komen itself was packed with statements from individuals who had supported the organization but were now declaring that they would take that money and go elsewhere. And there were also at least four major petition efforts that collected many hundreds of thousands of signatures in very short order.

We are appalled at Komen’s apparent lack of understanding about what their announcement was likely to unleash. An organization dedicated to women’s health clearly will have many supporters who are also pro-choice. Did Komen think they would not mobilize quickly enough to make a difference?

If they thought that these individual supporters would wait around for a single champion to emerge in reaction, devise a campaign and set about finding its supporters, they are out of touch with 2012. There were many nodes of action in the response to Komen and that created many consequences: withdrawal of financial support, alienation of affiliates, a blowing up of its own brand, and a scrutiny of, “What the heck is Komen, anyway?” That last question has not been put down and it should not be put down any time soon.

But this is not the first time in the last six months that we have seen citizen action rise up in a way that is coordinated only by like-mindedness on general principles. On January 18th, we saw a response to proposed legislation regarding the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA)that included a number of major Internet actors like Google and Wikipedia but also an enormous number of individuals acting in concert to oppose these bills (which had some very powerful and well established lobbying interests backing them). According to SOPAStrike.com, which helped organize the protest, 75,000 websites participated by blacking out their logos, “going dark” or otherwise logging their protest. According to Google, 4.2 million people signed its anti-SOPA petition on January 18th, and according to Twitter, between 12 a.m. and 4 p.m. that same day, more than 2.4 million SOPA/PIPA-related tweets were sent out.This infographic provides an overview of the digital protests.

While we would characterize the anti-SOPA/PIPA campaign somewhat differently because of the central involvement of big players with their own institutional interests, it is related to the Komen backlash. In a discussion at the Sundance Film Festival, Chris Dodd, the former senator who is now president of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), called the SOPA/PIPA response “a watershed event.” Dodd said that opponents’ “ability to organize and communicate directly with consumers” was a game-changing phenomenon he hadn’t seen in more than three decades in public office. NATO President John Fithian chimed in, saying the response was “the greatest backlash I’ve ever seen. This was historic.”

Other recent events might be viewed in the same online activism category, though each had its own unique form and purpose. On November 5th, we saw Bank Transfer Day, which was sparked by a combination of factors—the increased focus on financial institutions brought by Occupy Wall Street; the imposition of additional fees by one of its targets, Bank of America—and aided by some online organizing. According to a recent study by Javelin Strategy and Research, 610,000 people cited Bank Transfer Day as being the reason they switched their funds from big banks to credit unions between October and December. Note the number of Google searches for “Bank Transfer Day,” according to the January 26, 2012 blog of Javelin’s James Van Dyke:

“Bank Transfer Day and the Occupy Movement have received tremendous attention, and for the first time we have market research data to measure the impact on the financial services industry. Javelin’s research estimates that 5.6 million U.S. adults with a banking relationship changed providers in the past 90 days. Of those switchers, 610,000 US adults (or 11% of the 5.6 million) cited Bank Transfer Day as their reason and actually moved their accounts from a large to a small institution. With a Google search of ‘bank transfer day’ returning fully 22,000,000 responses we’re not surprised that these angry bank-switchers represent nearly a three-time increase over the amount of people who took their funds out of large banks for highly-similar reasons during the previous 90-day period in 2011.”

Another example of this dynamic occurred in response to indications that the Obama White House might choose a less than tough approach to the Wall Street honchos whose investments led the U.S. into a national economic meltdown. A social media backlash hit the Obama administration just before the State of the Union address, and the president surprised his listeners with a commitment to a muscled-up federal task force to be coordinated with New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. The task force is supposed to go after financial fraud with more vigor than the settlement notions previously floated by Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan. Given Schneiderman’s commitment to pursuing fraud, his appointment to the task force reflects the mobilization—largely online—of activists, including many progressives, to pressure the White House to be less forgiving to the nation’s mortgage lending malefactors.

Meanwhile, we are watching the hacking interventions of Anonymous in aid of WikiLeaks, Occupiers, and those fighting against what they see as overly-restrictive Internet copyright laws. And we are watching the increasingly linked nature of protests around the world.

We are all entering new political territory. Christopher Dodd is right when he says that the game has changed and that the moment is a watershed. But when we consider what might be ahead, the terrain is very unclear. Large, well-heeled systems are good at adjusting and, as we all know, power concedes nothing without a struggle. But those of us who have an interest in engaging in democracy may have other worries as well.

In the Komen case, it was very clear that Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic played a huge part in helping to ground the response with his excellent article confirming that the defunding was a conscious political act. Do we understand the critical importance of good journalism/information in these efforts and are we protecting it? Do we have the attention span to look more closely at the breast cancer cause-marketing industry? And what does it mean when we align ourselves with the likes of Google? Not to sound paranoid, but their organizing power (in terms of how information is received) is enormous, but they have strong institutional interests that many are beginning to feel may not be completely aligned with that “don’t be evil” slogan of theirs.

We are all entering a new era in which technology is enabling activism in a different way. Critics might suggest that the ability of people to mobilize quickly online has a political and perhaps ethical downside. Defenders of SOPA or Komen might argue that these powerful and almost-instantaneous backlashes distorted the issues and undermined a more measured political dialogue that might have occurred in a different media environment. It doesn’t appear to us that Komen’s shifting explanations would have been helped by more time and less activism than would have occurred without activists’ access to new technology. But an exploration of the ethics of the new uses of technology always lags behind the actual applications of new technologies. We would love NPQ readers to weigh in on the fast-paced online activism that showed its power and potential in these cases, inducing a national nonprofit, Congressional legislators, and the President of the United States to back off positions or make major modifications in their stances.

  • DawnW

    I was both interested and slightly concerned when Wikipedia shut down for the day. On the one hand, it did create a much needed discussion and brought about a positive development. On the other hand, should one company have that much power? My biggest concern is the co-opting by an extrememely conservative minority. This is all ok if we are the winners, but quickly won’t be ok once we end up on the losing side.

  • David Wallace

    The Susan G Komen controversy with Planned Parenthood is an interesting exercise among organizations. Is Komen a private foundation? Do they receive federal funding? Are they required to fund Planned Parenthood? Should there be freedom in their board regarding the expenditure of foundation funds? Is there stewardship of responsibility and accountability by Komen leadership? Does Komen have the right to expand or contract the direction of their funding depending upon the health of their foundation?

  • R. Ruth Linden, Ph.D

    In response to David Wallace’s questions:

    Komen is a 501(c)(3). It does not receive federal funding. It is required to fund Planned Parenthood only in so far as it has contracted with the organization to do so. Certainly, Komen has the right to expand or contract the direction of its funding. The fiscal health of Komen for the Cure, with assets at the close of 2010 in excess of $114 million, has never been in question.

    As for all nonprofits, it is the responsibility of the Komen board, private watchdog groups, the state attorneys general (as Komen operates in all 50 states and on at least four continents outside of North America), the IRS, donors, members of the concerned public, the media, and Komen employees/insiders who have knowledge of malfeasance or unethical conduct, to hold the organization to the law and the sector’s highest ethical standards and best practices.

    The homophobic hate espoused by Komen vice president Karen Handel (http://colorlines.com/archives/2012/02/turns_out_komen_exec_is_whole_heartedly_anti-gay_too.html) is a shameful and ugly worst practice.

  • thomas

    Komen kept more than 80% of all donations for itself. Komen was little more than a Right Wing money scam, ripping off donors across the political spectrum. Good riddance!

  • @pcvcolin

    Massive internet activism is here and there is nothing you can do to stop it. As an example, today I found out via a twitter user, @ja9333 – that the State of Oregon Legislature was poised to pass a bill that would essentially make illegal many forms of internet communication [[ see: http://twitter.com/ja9333/status/166568613506056192 ]] After broadcasting this individual’s tweet to #Anonymous, in a few short hours, this was retweeted by 123 people with its content pushed out to some tens of thousands of viewers. Quickly, some members of the #Anonymous community developed “pastebins” encouraging their followers to e-mail the authors and sponsors of the offensive bill, SB 1534, and an elected politician from a distant state chimed in with a tweet mentioning that the proposed law was likely in violation of case law, De Jonge v. State of Oregon. This legislation will either now die on the vine or it will spawn a whole new movement that will be dedicated to its reversal or demise. Internet activism is here to stay. People in power who are in favor of creating laws to limit us or censor our communications and ability to freely assemble need to wake up and get out of the way.

  • ruth

    Thanks for this story. Keep us apprised.

  • Earlen

    It’s a good thing the Internet came about when it did- a great protective against Tyranny and Statism. However, we’ve got Senators in D.C. that not only want to regulate the Internet- they want to blow up Computers that disobey their designs!

  • @pcvcolin

    to ruth, et. al.: since my original post on this, sufficient pressure has been placed on the Oregon Legislature to make this bill (SB 1534) a total fail. see http://www.oregonlive.com/politics/index.ssf/2012/02/attempt_to_criminalize_tweets.html Undoubtedly legislators in Oregon, in other states, and at the federal level will try again. But we internet activists, including #Anonymous, will be watching and waiting.

  • jem40000

    From the above: … and according to Twitter, between 12 a.m. and 4 p.m. that same day, more than 2.4 million SOPA/PIPA-related tweets were sent out.

    I monitored — or at least tried to monitor — the #SOPA ‘tweets’ on Twitter. Most all of them were either re-tweets or Sign-The-Petition!-type entries. It made it very difficult to find any original input yea or nay to the SOPA/PIPA controversy.

  • John Fike

    I am also concerned about the co-opting activities of the right and the drive for monopoly that has choked this country since the 1980s. We do need to break up these big companies, and, yes, including the Internet giants. They do as much harm to the social fabric and our democracy as they do good for rapid communications and debate about issues. The fact that they facilitate social benefit should not blind us to the fact that there is a danger in being “too big to fail,”

  • Kathy Daugherty

    Thank you, Ruth, for your articulate and accurate summation of Komen’s responsibilities, and our own. I have worked for a local Planned Parenthood affiliate and I am familiar with the excellent healthcare they provide to women who often cannot afford to go elsewhere. I also work for an organization that receives Komen funding. The organization I work for does not itself provide mammograms. We are able to provie breast screenings and then connect women with mammograms and other healthcare they require. We have been able to educate rural women about their need for annual mammograms and quite literally save some lives, thanks to funding from our St. Louis Komen affiliate. I am familiar with the good things that each organization is able to do for women’s health. I am sorry to see the national controversy that has come about through some decisions that were made that did not take the needs of all women into consideration.

  • Kelly Kleiman

    Unfortunately eternal vigilance is the price of women’s rights, so the same community whose outcry reversed the Komen decision must again mobilize to protect free access to contraception under the Affordable Care Act. Religious organizations are already exempted; the question is whether students/faculty/staff at religiously-affiliated universities and patients at religiously-affiliated hospitals can retain their access to this vital service. The largest Catholic universities in the country already offer access to the women they employ and educate, so any suggestion that this is a radical attack on religion is false. Meanwhile, as long as employers dictate which health plans are available and health plans dictate which hospitals we can go to, women need protection of their access to birth control in every medical context. S.O.S.: save our services by writing to the President, the Senate, the Secretary of Health and Human Services, the editor; and sign the N.O.W. petition. Tell them all: women’s health must not be compromised.