May 17th, 2010
Also published on The Huffington Post
Back in the day, a “sit-in” meant just that — taking over a physical space with physical bodies to make a political point. But the visibility of social media means that sit-ins aren’t just for university administrative offices anymore; now they can be staged online.
For a good example, check out the “virtual sit-in” begun by the District’s own Save Our Safety Net campaign last week, targeting DC city councilmember and mayoral candidate Vincent Gray’s Facebook pages. In the first two days alone, activists filled his council page and campaign page with over 150 messages, in a very public display of their desire to keep adequate funding for social programs for the District’s poor. Critically, as the DCist article about the sit-in notes, organizers followed up their online activism with an in-person visit, completing that vital online/offline political connection.
Of course, Gray’s page administrators could have deleted every single one of the postings at their whim, limiting the campaign’s public visibility to only the few minutes that an individual message managed to survive. But that response in itself would have become part of the media narrative and a cause of blowback, meaning that most candidates are likely to be reluctant to take such blatant action to silence critics. And I’d argue as usual that a single online action like this one is usually going to function best if it’s just one piece of an overall blitz including emails, letters, phone calls, Tweets, blogger outreach and (as this group wisely knew to do) personal meetings with the advocacy target.
But as it becomes normal rather than exceptional for campaigns to have a presence on Facebook and other social media channels, politicians will have to endure many more attempts by activists to take over their pages to get attention for their issues or their demands. The best response, besides listening? When faced with an aggressive and (virtually) hostile takeover, campaigns can meet people-power with people-power, mobilizing their own supporters to respond in the same social spaces. Assuming, of course, that they HAVE supporters willing to respond in public — and if they don’t, that’s a sign that they may not need those Facebook pages, Twitter feeds and YouTube channels much longer.
Update: It turns out that Greg Bloom, one of the guys who organized the virtual sit-in, first wrote up the idea back in 2007 — way to put theory into practice, man. For another example of taking over politicos’ pages for fun and profit, see this coverage of work by the Enough campaign.