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Activism vs. passivism

Angry tweet poor substitute for direct action

Juliano

Gov. Mike Pence apologized last month when comments protesting his position on same-sex marriage were scrubbed from his official Facebook page.

He didn’t need to. The governor’s support for a constitutional amendment prohibiting gay marriage was well documented. Those with contrary views had a better opportunity to express their views last November, when Pence outpolled his closest challenger by more than 75,000 votes.

The question for his Facebook critics is this: Will you be as motivated to vote next year as you were to type a comment on the governor’s social networking site?

The dust-up over the governor’s official Facebook page – not to be confused with Pence’s still-current campaign Facebook page – is the latest in a series of Statehouse social media missteps. A Twitter feed for Indiana Secretary of State Connie Lawson, the state’s top election official, recently posted a blatantly political message. Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz’s campaign Twitter feed was the target of criticism by some Republicans after a February post criticizing House Education Committee Chairman Robert Behning.

Anthony Juliano, vice president for marketing and social media strategy at Fort Wayne’s Asher Agency, advises business owners on the use of Facebook, Twitter and other social media tools. He said the governor’s experience isn’t restricted to public officials. Businesses and other organizations often see social media tools as a “megaphone” – a great way to deliver their message – without understanding that it’s a two-way conversation.

“Social media really should be treated as a listening tool instead of a broadcast medium,” Juliano said. “They are thinking of (the message) as an advertisement and being reminded that it is a conversation.”

What happened with the posts on Pence’s page is a result of not anticipating the reaction to a message. Juliano said he advises his clients not to underestimate the commitment required to maintaining a presence on Facebook, Twitter or another site.

“Organizations need to be very careful,” he said. “Whenever you see a social media crisis brewing, there’s always a management or (human resources) issue involved. Part of the problem is there is a misperception that those who are young and use social media are the best people to manage it. Youth has its advantages, but there’s not always the maturity there. There’s a responsibility that comes with managing your Facebook page.”

If public officials are prone to misunderstanding the proper use of social media, the social media users themselves too often misunderstand the effects of using it. Some of the angry comments left on the governor’s Facebook page suggested the governor should accept growing support for marriage equality because he was elected to represent all Hoosiers.

“I strongly urge you to set aside whatever religious biases you might have and serve in your capacity as Governor to step up for civil rights for ALL of your constituents,” was a typical comment among the nearly 2,000 posted.

Pence’s critics on the issue can find plenty of company on Facebook, which is one way it lulls users into a sense that everyone is with them.

“It can lead to a lot of lazy activism,” Juliano said. “Why go to a rally when I can click ‘like’? … Sometimes there is a lot of sound and fury.”

“Slactivist,” from “slacker-activist,” is the slightly pejorative term that has come to define today’s armchair revolutionaries. In a 2010 article for The New Yorker, writer Malcolm Gladwell compares the “outsized enthusiasm for social media” with the extraordinary effects of social activism in the American civil rights movement. The former, he notes, comes up short.

“Boycotts and sit-ins and nonviolent confrontations – which were the weapons of choice for the civil-rights movement – are high-risk strategies,” Gladwell writes. “They leave little room for conflict and error. The moment even one protester deviates from the script and responds to provocation, the moral legitimacy of the entire protest is compromised.”

By contrast, Facebook and other social media tools depend on networks, defying the concepts of central authority and hierarchy.

“How do you make difficult choices about tactics or strategy or philosophical direction when everyone has an equal say?” Gladwell asks.

The sticking point, in other words, is channeling the energy from diverse quarters to effect change. Switching out a profile photo for a marriage equality symbol won’t do it, and neither will tweeting an angry message.

While there’s much to be said for the power of social media in helping people organize and in developing critical mass, there are limits, according to Juliano.

“Your ability to influence an issue is going to be consistent with the energy you are willing to put into it,” he observed. “It’s really about people taking a leadership role in the position. You can’t do that entirely behind a computer screen.”

The marriage equality supporters posting comments on the governor’s site shouldn’t be surprised by his position. The governor never joined the truce on social issues his predecessor prescribed. As a congressman, Pence sponsored the failed Federal Marriage Amendment, claiming that the U.S. Constitution should be amended to define marriage as between a man and woman. He said it was necessary to protect the nation from “activist judges willing to tear away at the fabric of society.”

Pence also joined 81 other House Republicans in co-sponsoring a bill condemning the Obama administration for its decision to stop defending the federal Defense of Marriage Act, the federal law overturned by the Supreme Court last month.

As a candidate for governor, he publicly declared support for the state effort to amend the constitution to prohibit same-sex marriage and civil unions. The topic never emerged as a campaign issue, however. Pence’s Democratic opponent, John Gregg, also was opposed to gay marriage. Libertarian Rupert Boneham came out solidly in support of marriage equality, but the reality TV show candidate’s campaign never moved beyond its amusing-distraction status.

After the Supreme Court’s ruling last month, however, Pence’s restated position was quickly shared among same-sex marriage supporters energized by the decision. Their burst of enthusiasm for sending a message came about eight months too late.

In the end, will the dust-up over the governor’s Facebook comment-scrubbing make a difference?

It might make a handful of legislators a bit more reluctant to return to Indianapolis in January and immediately vote to support a resolution to amend the constitution.

But don’t expect it to derail the effort to write a same-sex marriage ban into the Indiana Constitution. The next election comes after the deadline to place the proposed amendment on the ballot. None of the legislators who supported the resolution when it was approved in the 2011 session were punished for their vote last November. Why would they believe they might be punished in 2014?

If the Facebook activists truly are interested in promoting change, they will have to pair their message with their votes, against the inevitable referendum to amend the Indiana Constitution and for a like-minded candidate.

Until they do, it’s just as Juliano suggests – a lot of sound and fury.

Karen Francisco, editorial page editor, has worked at The Journal Gazette since 2000 and for Indiana newspapers since 1982. She can be reached at 260-461-8206 or by email, kfrancisco@jg.net.

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