Winning the Internet

How the Internet Beat SOPA and PIPA: Advocacy in a Networked World (Part 2)

After a great run, the Winning the Internet blog has been retired. However, you can still keep in touch with New Media Mentors here.

This was originally posted to the ZeroDivide blog on February 14, 2012.

Thanks for coming back to read the second part of my series on how online activism successfully defeated SOPA and PIPA.  Whereas my first post covered the “what” and “why” parts of the fight, this one will go into the “how” and “so what” portion of the analysis.  So behold, here’s my best guess as to what made the anti-SOPA/PIPA movement such a stunning success.

The Secret Sauce to Winning

Ingredient 1: A compelling story

As with most pieces of federal legislation, SOPA and PIPA were really complicated, filled with technical legalese that seemed designed to obfuscate.  In order to understand the bills and extrapolate their ramifications, one needed to be knowledgeable in three domains: 1) intellectual property law, 2) telecom policy **AND** 3) Internet architecture.  (I know, right?!!!)  (Thankfully, this Clay Shirky video does a great job of breaking it down).

So, in order to counter the argument by SOPA/PIPA proponents that these bills were designed to fight online piracy, protestors had to reframe the debate as a struggle between David and Goliath. They were able to claim the role of the underdog, defending the Internets against evil forces bent on killing innovation, jobs, freedom of speech, and American liberty itself.

Lesson for Advocates:  Tell a compelling story that resonates with people – this is key to catalyzing a movement.  Oppression vs. freedom, incumbents vs. innovators, plutocracy vs. democracy, greed vs. LOLcats – the anti-SOPA/PIPA activists hit all the right themes.

Ingredient 2: Collective Action

Although there were many acts of protest against SOPA and PIPA leading up to January when Congress was due to reconvene, the coordinated blackout campaign was by far the most successful at garnering public support.  I believe its success is attributable to the leadership of a small but highly visible group of organizations, whose collective action sparked a fast and furious protest movement.

There was a tremendous amount of work going on behind the scenes to build coalition with groups inside and outside of government, and to orchestrate activity between key stakeholder groups that were actively working to stop the bills.  Strategy and tactics, goals and objectives, roles and responsibilities, timing and messaging – all these pieces had to be hashed out.  And when time came to roll out their plan of attack– the coordinated blackout – these stakeholders brought to bear the most powerful weapon they could have in this situation: an extensive network of supporters who were fired up and able to help amplify impact.

Lesson for Advocates: Leadership, coalition, strategy, collective action – all these still matter.  A lot.  But in today’s networked world, it’s just as important to build a strong network of supporters that you can count on to take action and help socialize your message widely, quickly, and cheaply.  And remember that in order for collective action to take place, there must be feelings of trust and norms of reciprocity within your network, so building social capital is key.

Ingredient 3: Everything you’ve got, plus the kitchen sink

In conjunction with a compelling story and a strong, visible coalition that can spark collective action, the anti-SOPA/PIPA movement used every tool and tactic available to them to build support for their cause, including good ol’ fashioned lobbying on the Hill and on-the-street protests.  What’s unique about the anti-SOPA/PIPA activist toolkit, however, was their arsenal of online tools designed to amplify and spread their message across the social web.  The movement inspired many amateur and not-so-amateur media content producers to create videos, apps, and infographics to educate and galvanize the public.  There was even a song – “The Day LOLcats Died.”

A plethora of anti-SOPA/PIPA websites were also created to engage the public, including one that provided real-time tracking of political support for – and against – the bills in Congress.  Not only did these sites aim to educate the public, converting visitors to supporters, they directed them to immediate calls to action – signing a petition, calling their Congressional representatives, or pasting code onto their own blogs and websites so that they, too, could participate in the blackout.  Some even went further by providing instructions on how to switch away from technology companies that supported the bills, such as GoDaddy.  Being a movement led by technology enthusiasts, there was even code for people who wanted to participate in the blackout to post onto their own websites and blogs, browser plug-ins, and various ribbons and banners for Facebook and Twitter avatars.

Lesson for Advocates: Do everything you can to make your issue relatable, accessible, and easy to support.  Empower your supporters to act on your behalf.  Don’t be afraid to use humor, pictures, and social media – and whenever possible, involve cats.

Ingredient 4: Iteration

Like a winner of a chili cook-off, the winning recipe that ultimately killed SOPA and PIPA was created after many failed experiments, in fits and starts.  I’m sure it took a while for a compelling story to emerge and a consensus vision between lead organizers to materialize, not to mention the countless hours that had to be spent tweaking videos, infographics, widgets, and websites by an army of individual contributors.

Lessons for Advocates:  Jump in and start experimenting.  Be biased toward action. Leverage learnings from other movements.  Just try something, then rinse and repeat.  The good (and bad) part about the networked world is that no one will hear or care about you unless you fail (or succeed) fantastically.  With failure being cheaper than ever, there’s really not much to lose.

Ingredient 5: democratic activism (small “d” intentional)

While the anti-SOPA/PIPA movement clearly demonstrates the power of the Internet for affecting change, it’s clear that tried-and-true strategies like old-school organizing and effective storytelling were essential to winning a fight within our political system – a representative democracy.  I cannot underscore this enough.  Because, ultimately, what really moved Congress was the groundswell of opposition that manifested itself in traditional forms of political activism: phone calls to Congress, face-to-face meetings with members, hand-written letters, and emails and online petitions (these last 2 are more symbolic than they are effective).

Lessons for Advocates:  Do democracy.  Even though tactics will evolve due to advents in technology and changing media landscapes, I believe the lessons here are what they’ve always been.

And if you’re interested in learning more about this topic, check out Alliance For Justice‘s new report, “Influencing Policy In the Digital Age.”  Better yet, join us for an in-person discussion this Feb 24 in SF if you’re in the area.  (It’s FREE!)


About Tina Lee

Fierce. Feminist. Friend. Educator. Tech/Political geek. Do-Gooder. OpenGov fan.

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