Why a Virtual March Isn't Enough to Pass Immigration Reform

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A couple of recent social media campaigns look to win support for immigration reform.

So you want immigration reform to pass. How can you make that happen?

Protest in the streets. Call your representative. Make it rain on elected officials with millions in campaign contributions (that's a popular choice).

Or you could use the Internet. Yes! Let's make it go viral!

A couple of people have tried that lately. A week and a half ago it was a virtual "March for Innovation," the #iMarch. The idea: get people to say why they support immigration reform.

Last week it was #fairdora, a celebrity campaign hoping to get you to don a felt hat and upload your pic in support of fairness in the immigration system.

Both campaigns were a success in their own way.

The #iMarch got Twitter mentions from a ton of politicians and dignitaries (President Obama, Condy Rice and MC Hammer, among others).

The fedora project got some great coverage from The New York Times, and Julianne Moore, John Leguizamo and Christy Turlington Burns were all part of the roll out.

But if the objective is to get more people to support immigration reform, there are some reasons to be skeptical.

One is reach. While I don't have access to numbers showing how the hashtags performed, it's pretty clear these campaigns didn't go viral.

And then there's this: even if a message does reach a lot of people, it doesn't necessarily mean they're going to do anything.

Perpetual mind-blower Malcolm Gladwell made the case a couple years ago that social networks aren't the best way to bring about social change.

He used the boycotts and sit-ins of the 1960s as his point of comparison:

Enthusiasts for social media would no doubt have us believe that King's task in Birmingham would have been made infinitely easier had he been able to communicate with his followers through Facebook, and contented himself with tweets from a Birmingham jail. But networks are messy: think of the ceaseless pattern of correction and revision, amendment and debate, that characterizes Wikipedia. If Martin Luther King, Jr., had tried to do a wiki-boycott in Montgomery, he would have been steamrollered by the white power structure.

In the case of these virtual immigration actions, it's a pretty small-scale request. Tweet out that you support immigration reform. They're not asking for much and not getting much in return.

I don't think Gladwell is right about online activism as an inferior tool for organizing. I think it can be pretty great, actually. Look at Occupy Wall Street.

But at least in these cases, it's hard to imagine a hashtag alone changing hearts and minds, much less politics.