Flash activists use social media to drum up support

ByJon Swartz, USA TODAY
May 5, 2009, 11:25 PM

SAN FRANCISCO -- When the California Supreme Court convenes soon to rule on the constitutionality of a controversial state proposition banning gay marriage, Amy Balliett and thousands of her online friends plan to be heard.

The Seattle-based online marketer is part of a new wave of protesters, called "flash activists," who use an arsenal of social-media tools — Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, blogs and Wikis to organize hundreds — sometimes thousands — of people to gather at events and express their views.

Balliett, 26, won't predict the turnout when the court rules, but she is confident that her protest will create widespread awareness. She's done it before, organizing a protest of 1 million people in 300 cities across 11 countries in mid-November, shortly after California voters passed Proposition 8.

No longer is social networking just for gossiping, hobnobbing or telling your friends what you had for breakfast. Increasingly, it has become an effective communications tool to mobilize masses to effect change in politics, TV and fundraising.

The virtual grass-roots movement comes during an era when President Obama — no tech slouch himself — as a presidential candidate raised millions of dollars in donations and recruited millions of volunteers through websites and social-networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace.

Flash activism is "another great way to use our technology to organize people who are fighting passionately for a cause," says Ben Elowitz, CEO of Wetpaint, a website-building service used by social activists.

"We used to use phones and faxes. The tools today on the Internet are so much better," says gay-rights activist Robin Tyler. "It's not even close."

To be sure, not every campaign is a slam-dunk. Social causes require more than just snazzy media tools. They need compelling issues, impassioned people and streetwise organization.

"Any social-media push — whether it is political or fundraising — if you don't believe in what you're saying, it won't work," says Gradon Tripp, co-founder of Social Media for Social Change, whose fundraisers benefit local charities in the USA. "You need a strong base of supporters."

Mobilizing forces online

The proof is in the numbers: 81% of members of online communities use the Internet to participate in social causes, up from 75% in 2007, finds a survey by the Center for the Digital Future at University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication.

They include folks like Balliett, who deployed Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and Wikis to get protesters in the streets and gather signatures of support last year.

"It just snowballed," she says. "We assumed we could get maybe 10,000 people involved."

Social-networking netizens are banding together for:

•Political causes. Outside the U.S., protesters in Moldova used Twitter as a rallying tool to bring attention to claims that an election that returned the Communist Party to power was rigged in that little-known country.

German native Bijan Zendeh late last year created a Facebook community to petition the Iranian government to free American-Iranian student Esha Momeni from jail. Within two days, 200 people joined the group. On Nov. 11, Momeni, who was imprisoned for "propaganda against the state," was released on bail.

•Saving TV shows. It used to take massive letter-writing campaigns to occasionally keep TV shows with small but loyal followings on the air. Now, viral online campaigns are common.

NBC's critically acclaimed Friday Night Lights suffered from poor ratings. When NBC considered pulling the plug, a vocal group of viewers — who created fan pages on MySpace and Facebook — protested. It moved to DirecTV and returned to NBC.

NBC's Chuck may also be brought back, thanks to a Twitter campaign by fans.

Sometimes, the campaigns fall short. Fans of the Fox sci-fi series Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles joined forces on websites, created communities on Facebook and MySpace, and uploaded videos to YouTube to keep the show on the air.

Amy Cartas, 27, of Riverside, Calif., last month uploaded a video in support of the show to YouTube. So far, 13,000 have viewed it.

"We're trying to reach Fox, (its producer) Warner Bros. and Halcyon, which owns the rights to the Terminator franchise," says Bill Flynn, 62, a retiree in Clarkston, Mich., who is moderator of a Terminator Wiki site with 5,000 members.

Fox, however, is expected to cancel the show.

•Fundraising. Social-media tools make it easier to reach more people who, in turn, contribute cash and checks in small denominations. Before, fundraisers often checked their personal Rolodexes for big donors. One fertile new form of money gathering: so-called Tweetups, where Twitter members convene and kick in money for a cause.

"The big change is not so much technology but connecting people to people," says Beth Kanter, a social-media consultant to non-profits.

She has raised $200,000 the past three years via social-media campaigns for Cambodian orphans.

TweettoRemind.org, ABC News correspondent Bob Woodruff's foundation that helps wounded military personnel transition back into society, hopes to raise $1.65 million by May 25 — primarily through Twitter.

Woodruff was seriously injured covering the Iraq war in 2006.

"The modern way for raising more and more money is through social media," says Woodruff. "Before, it may have come from contacting someone on the phone and getting a big check or cash."

Still, a few high-profile social-media campaigns don't mean success is guaranteed, activists and organizers warn. A movement, after all, requires a compelling reason to turn out.

In March, anti-Proposition 8 organizers said 100,000 would march on the streets of San Francisco during a Supreme Court hearing. Less than 10,000 showed up.

That should serve as a cautionary tale for would-be protest organizers, activists say.

"Don't set expectations too high all the time," says Tyler, 67, one of the first gay people to get married in San Francisco, in February 2004. "The November organization (that drew 1 million worldwide) was at the right time and place. It was a historic moment, and people were angry."

Adds fundraiser Kanter, "In the end, fundraising has as much to do with people skills as with tech tools."