Online Activism Comes of Age

In a display of digital power, millions of Internet users weighed in against federal legislation that opponents claim will limit Internet freedom.Public affairs managers would drool if they could sign up 4.5 million people on a petition and convince a score of U.S. senators to support their cause in a single day. That's what Google did as part of a web-wide blackout this week to protest federal legislation intended to protect the intellectual property rights of motion picture producers, but which critics see as an assault on Internet freedom.

There were also 2.4 million tweets protesting the Stop Online Piracy (SOPA) and Protect IP (PIPA) legislation. More than 162 million people visited the totally blacked out Wikipedia English-language pages, with 8 million of those using its search tool to find out how to contact their congressional representatives.

As a result, the preliminary vote on PIPA has been postponed as Senate sponsors say they needed to go back to the drawing board. House Speaker John Boehner slowed down committee consideration of SOPA, citing a "lack of consensus."

Not a bad day's work for a form of media many public affairs professionals and lobbyists ignore or disdain.

The New York Times called this effusion of online activism "a political coming-of-age" for digital media.

Chris Dodd — a former U.S. senator, now head of the Motion Pictures Association of America and a chief proponent of both SOPA and PIPA — called it an "abuse of power" by Google, Reddit, Wikipedia, Craigslist, Mozilla, BoingBoing and others. In his statement, Dodd said, "It's a dangerous and troubling development when the platforms that serve as gateways of information intentionally skew the facts to incite their users…to further their corporate interests." So how is this different than movie theaters airing commercials about the pitfalls of piracy?

Rupert Murdoch, who owns a vast traditional media empire, accused the "blogosphere" of "terrorizing many senators and congressmen who previously committed to support SOPA and PIPA." The pressure was real, all right. But how is it really any different from tried-and-true efforts to line up editorial support for an issue or encourage supporters to write letters to the editor or call into a radio talk show? Or, for that matter, having a TV network dedicated to one political viewpoint?

New tools mean new tactics, but the basic strategies of good public-affairs work remain.

Frame Your Issue — Just as marketers carefully position products and brands, public-affairs professionals need to frame their issues to capture support and brace against opposition claims. Motion picture producers have done a decent job raising awareness of the cost of intellectual property piracy, but they failed to recognize the tsunami of opposition generated by the prospect of scuttling websites in the process. Opponents framed their position by simulating website blackouts to dramatize the demise of Internet freedom.

Activate Your Base — You don't really need a calculator to recognize that more people use the Internet than go to the movies. In fact, an increasing number of people watch movies on their laptops, tablets and smart phones. SOPA and PIPA opponents didn't have to puzzle over who would support their view or how to reach them. Supporters could have easily anticipated this move and come up with a better response than name-calling.

Make Your Ask — The Motion Picture industry has been hard at work building support for SOPA and PIPA in a traditional way — lobbying on Capitol Hill, using where necessary the star power of the industry. Opponents leveraged the power of digital media to ask Internet users to voice their concern — online, in emails and letters and by old-fashioned picketing outside congressional offices.

Stay on Message — SOPA and PIPA opponents, including Oregon Senator Ron Wyden and Congressman Peter DeFazio, warn this legislation is a "step toward limiting Internet freedom." Proponents have a sharp message today, embedded in the phrase "online piracy."

What makes this battle between Internet freedom and online piracy so interesting is that both sides have employed a good message, used their best assets and made a strong pitch. 

The difference may well turn out to be the power of digital media to inform, persuade and activate a political constituency. It is a lesson public affairs professionals shouldn't overlook.