The Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation’s reversal of its decision that would have cut off funding for Planned Parenthood is likely to go down as a textbook case of the political power of social media.
For the second time in this very young year, following the social media-fueled stalling of the Stop Internet Piracy Act legislation last month, Twitter and Facebook are being credited with giving oxygen to a wildfire of protest that delivered profound, immediate political results in a way that would have been impossible just a few short years ago.
“The intimate nature of social media, and the ability of folks to communicate across all lines – I’ve never really seen anything like it,” said Cecile Richards, the president of Planned Parenthood, on a call with reporters after Komen announced it was walking back its decision Friday morning.Text Size
In the last three days since Komen announced it was changing its grant rules in a way that would bar Planned Parenthood from receiving some funds, Planned Parenthood supporters flocked to social media to express their outrage.
Planned Parenthood’s Facebook page got 10,000 new friends in the last couple days, Richards said, while other angry supporters set up anti-Komen Facebook pages with titles like “De-fund the Komen Foundation.” And “Planned Parenthood” began trending on Twitter in Washington Friday soon after Komen announced it was reversing course. The social media surge in turn drove and became part of the mainstream media’s coverage.
Twitter users sent more than 1.3 million Tweets referencing Planned Parenthood, the Susan G. Komen foundation and related terms and hashtags, according to a Twitter spokeswoman. The chatter built steadily through the week, with more than 460,000 related Tweets sent on Thursday. Planned Parenthood helped spur the conversation by using a “promoted tweet,” Twitter’s equivalent of advertising.
“I absolutely believe that the explosion of Facebook and Twitter really drove a lot of the coverage on the mainstream media as well,” Richards said.
A case in point was Andrea Mitchell’s tense interview with Komen founder Nancy G. Brinker on Thursday, during which she cited the overwhelmingly angry response to Komen’s proposed new policy was prompting on Twitter and other forms of social media.
“It used to be that media figures like Mitchell were very insulated – they spoke only to each other – but media figures also hear these citizen voices loudly and continuously as well, and that affects their coverage,” said Salon’s Glenn Greenwald. “Social media really has given a voice to huge numbers of people who were previously voiceless, who had to rely on others who had a platform to convey their messages. That has changed how these controversies play out, and I can’t recall a more vivid case than how quickly Komen was forced to retreat.”
The closest recent comparison that many web denizens made was to the fierce social media opposition to SOPA and its cousin, the Protect IP Act (PIPA). In the week of Jan. 16, when those pieces of legislation were scheduled for a vote, SOPA and PIPA dominated online conversation, according to the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism’s News Media Index, and most of that conversation came in the form of vehement protest. Not long afterwards, the bills effectively died, despite the considerable lobbying muscle of their proponents.
It was heralded as the moment when the web first truly realized its own political power. But that was for an issue that was, in essence, about the web. The Komen/Planned Parenthood showdown was about a much broader topic – women’s health – and yet social media still fueled the storyline.
“The comparison between the power of social media in the SOPA case and this case has already become part of the storyline,” said Mark Jurkowitz, associate director of Pew’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. “What I find interesting in this story is that, aside from breaking news about the decision that Komen made, the rest of the story, until today, has all been about the backlash driven by social media. In effect, this is literally a case where, other than the fundamental revelation, social media has been ahead of the story, has been the dynamic element in the story that the mainstream media has to cover.”
But that social media outrage was neither completely organic nor entirely one-sided.
Planned Parenthood keeps a very active Facebook page, and included links to Twitter and other social media in the email blasts it sent out to supporters in the midst of the showdown.
One of those supporters was Rachel Sklar, editor-at-large for Mediaite and founder of the women and tech advocacy group Change the Ratio. How she received, reacted to and disseminated information about the Komen/Planned Parenthood showdown provides a kind of case study for the way information moved through people’s – and especially women’s — personal networks.
And the emphasis should be on the word “personal.” Sklar’s cousin died of breast cancer, and had been active in raising money for a cure before she passed away. Sklar had posed in a Breast Cancer Awareness campaign with her. So when she heard that an organization she supported and felt had been a great ally to a cause that was important to her made a decision she disagreed with “this hurt viscerally,” she said.
So when Sklar got an email from Planned Parenthood thanking its supporters for their donations trying to make up the difference — with a link to social media embedded within – she followed that link and donated herself. Then she posted the news of her donation to Facebook, under the heading “I Stand With Planned Parenthood.” Then she wrote about it on the Tumblr of Change the Ratio, and pushed links to her Twitter and Facebook. She also pushed information to various listservs.
“The thing is, when people are moved, they take to social media to let you know,” she said. “And this really moved people. This got people upset. This got people sharing, and it got people donating. And the donating was so impressive. I don’t know anything about the numbers, but I know what I did. What I did was, as soon as I got that email, I donated and I pushed it to Facebook and I pushed it to Twitter. And I was not alone.”
Indeed, Richards said that Planned Parenthood raised nearly $3 million in donations over the last few days for its national breast health fund, which would “allow us to not only address gaps, but also expand our breast care work beyond our wildest dreams.”
“It came down to an amazing mobilization of power, as evidenced through media and money,” she said.
Not all the social media chatter was pro-Planned Parenthood, of course. On the Komen Facebook page, which got 10,000 comments on its initial post about its changed policy, supporters alternated with detractors.
“It is so disheartening to see that the Komen Foundation has taken a basic health issue that unites women everywhere and turned it into another ‘us vs. them,’ ” wrote Liz Berhardin. “Stop politicizing our breasts!!!”
Just before that, Molly Endres had written, “My donation to Susan Komen is now in the mail!!!”
Detractors outweighed supporters, but the point is – this debate was raging, loudly, between regular citizens in real time.
Many on the right had supported Komen’s initial decision to stop funding Planned Parenthood, and some were disgusted to see what they viewed as mainstream media cheerleading for the Planned Parenthood cause.
“Komen hasn’t bent to political pressure from Planned Parenthood and its left-wing political allies – they’ve snapped like a toothpick,” wrote Brent Bozell, president of the Media Research Center. “And according to our statistical analysis, pro-abortion ABC, CBS and NBC News have undoubtedly played a strategic role in this pressure.”
He cited more than 13 stories on the flap in network newscasts in the last two days. But even those stories often cited the louder fight happening between regular citizens on social media.
“The news stories were themselves playing catch-up,” said Clay Shirky, a professor at New York University who specializes in Internet issues. “The media where the story was playing out was Facebook and Twitter. And because there was a synchronized reaction, it was possible for everybody to see all the same thing at once….Because the media made people’s anger transparent to everyone, Komen could not fall back on the traditional ‘we’re going to ride this out’ response.”