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Social media’s role in politics

You’ve read how Facebook and Twitter fueled the Arab Spring uprising. You are watching the videos coming out of Syria on Facebook. But most likely you have not witnessed the power of social media impacting politics in near real time right here at home in America. Sure, activism groups and politicians have tapped social media to raise money. But to date, no flash mob has ever stopped a bill in its tracks or beaten down in less than 48-hours legislation pushed by some of the most well-funded, well-connected lobbies on K Street. But that’s exactly what happened on Jan. 20 when a loosely organized campaign to stop PIPA and SOPA swept the Internet and shook the power structure of Washington D.C.

As a result, we have entered an entirely new and exciting era of politics.

On Jan. 20, Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev), the Senate Majority Leader, postponed a vote slated for this week on the PROTECT IP Act and Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) stopped consideration of the Stop Online Piracy Act. PIPA and SOPA are designed to combat piracy and protect intellectual property with a particular focus on IP that can be transmitted over or pirated on the Internet. Key supporters of the bills included the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), which represents record labels and the music industry, and the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), which represents the movie industry and is headed by Christopher Dodd, the former U.S. Senator turned lobbyist.

The proposed bills would have given law enforcement sweeping powers to shut down entire Internet domains if those domains were deemed to be infringing on copyrights or violating IP strictures. Reid and Alexander pulled back after a tremendous cyberprotest erupted. Phone lines and email inboxes at the U.S. Congress were jammed with messages. The onslaught included nearly 200,000 phone calls (made via Craigslist and Tumblr), 7 million online signatures (the Google petition), and over 2.4 million tweets via Twitter. Over 1,000 protesters showed up in person, as well.

But that’s the least of it.

The significance of this event was captured best in the RIAA’s response to the demise of those bills. "It’s a dangerous and troubling development when the platforms that serve as gateways to information intentionally skew the facts to incite their users and arm them with misinformation," said the RIAA in a statement, “it’s very difficult to counter the misinformation when the disseminators also own the platform." (I got this quote from Wikipedia, naturally).

A sleeping giant — the technology world — finally rose. Google, Mozilla, Reddit, O’Reilly Radar, Wikipedia, and thousands of other Websites rose up to protest PIPA and SOPA. They argued that the two bills were too draconian and could, in fact, inhibit commerce while simultaneously threatening free speech and innovation.  The famous Google doodle that day showed a large black rectangle aping censorship. Wikipedia was literally darkened entirely (at least the first page – you could work around this with a set of keystrokes if you so chose). To frame this battle properly, a loosely organized group of Internet leaders outwitted a well-funded lobbying organization. And they did so in grand style, convincing dozens of lawmakers to reverse their votes virtually overnight. As Alex Howard laid out on O’Reilly Radar:

“The key metric to consider for impact of this action, however, was not measured in digital terms but by civic outcomes: 40 new opponents in Congress. On Wednesday morning, according to ProPublica's SOPA Tracker, U.S. Senators and Representatives were 80-31 for SOPA and PIPA. By the end of the day, SOPA and PIPA had 68 supporters and 71 opponents in Congress. And by week's end, ProPublica's data showed 187 opponents and or ‘leaning no’ “

Of course, Google and Microsoft (both companies opposed the laws) have huge lobbying arms and are powerful in their own right. But both organizations had opposed PIPA and SOPA on the run up to the vote and had failed to stop the progress of those bills or, more importantly, secure modifications to minimize the impact on free speech and innovation.  No, it clearly was the millions of geeks (or people who identify with the geeks) that effectively killed PIPA and SOPA. And this exercise of power has produced a template for political action on a massive scale fueled by social media.

In light of the events in the Middle East last spring, this development is less than surprising. After all, Barrack Obama deployed supremely successful social media campaigns to fuel fundraising and volunteer networks for his presidential campaign. Senatorial candidate Elizabeth Warren is doing the same right now in Massachusetts. Clearly the role of social currency in the world of politics has been trending upwards for quite some time.

But this particular episode is both symbolic and critical for a number of other reasons.

First, a countervailing force may finally be at play to balance the impact of the Supreme Court decision making it easy for multi-million dollar SuperPACs to anonymously raise funds and lob attack ads in campaigns. The public can now use social media to have its say.  These campaigns have been run before but not on the same scale and never to the same stunning overnight effect.

Second, this was the first time we have seen a widely executed collective action by Silicon Valley. So far, it has stayed out of Washington’s dirty politics. As Federated Media Publishing  chairman John Battelle wrote on his blog, the Valley has realized that it “can't afford to not engage with Washington anymore ... Silicon Valley is waking up to the fact that we have to be part of the process in Washington — for too long we've treated 'Government' as damage, and we've routed around it.”

Lastly, although social media has been widely adopted, social media as a protest tools remains lodged squarely among the early adopters. Some observers framed this whole episode as a political coming-out party for geeks. But I think it’s entirely possible that as these types of political actions move into the mainstream, we will see a new and powerful vox populi that, if properly organized, can supersede the money politics that drive so much decision making inside the Beltway.

I was very proud to be an American on that day. I have often questioned the value of companies building businesses entirely around social media. But when social media can become a tool that the populace harnesses to make itself heard inside even the most insulated political echo chambers, then we know that it is indeed a powerful force for change not just in Egypt and Tunisia but also right here in America.

© The Washington Post Company