#SMW12: Who Was Really Behind Internet Blackout Day?


Benevolent Media is an official blogging partner of  Social Media Week in Washington, D.C. (#SMWWDC). To learn more about social media for social good events worldwide, read our Benevolent Guide to Social Media Week (#SMW12). 

Audience member Yiming Roberts said she had hoped to hear more about the “backstory” and a “nuts and bolts” account at “Who was Really Behind Internet Blackout Day? A SOPA & PIPA Case Study & Happy Hour” the panel held at Buffalo Billiards on Thursday, February 16. Roberts is a D.C. climate change activist who lobbied her senator on SOPA/PIPA. Roberts wanted to learn what lessons could be drawn from the January 18 day of action to help "build bridges across all the various social change movements, to build a really broad-based environmental and climate change movement," she said in an email.

George Washington University law student Mike Sherling said he kept his ears open for stories of “grasstops organizing.” Before grad school, he helped nonprofit organizations conduct grassroots campaigns that relied heavily on e-mail based communications to mobilize advocates and concerned citizens.

He and Roberts listened in a darkened room, with about 60 other people, including four panelists and a moderator, to a story of the reverberations of a policy fight fresh on the heels of a massive day of action. It was unclear who was really behind Internet Blackout Day.

For the non-techie activist, below are some common elements of organizing grassroots campaigns:

1. Acknowledging a broader history prior to Internet Blackout Day. For example, Demand Progress’ organizing “started as a petition on our website and it took off from there,” said David Moon. He added that people in the room had been working on the issue for decades. Demand Progress' executive director David Segal said he has long stood for civil liberties, but that Demand Progress began working on this issue in October 2010.

2. Social media. Public Knowledge’s Ernesto Falcon asked, “Folks think it came out of the blue, but how much time and effort did it take to go into organizing American Censorship Day, organizing the Blackout? Demand Progress was very involved in a lot of those grassroots efforts along with a lot of other organizations.” Falcon and Public Knowledge’s Brooke Rae-Hunter also cited the Massachusetts-based Fight for the Future as central to generating online grassroots support.

Moon said that Demand Progress’ job was to facilitate  “information sharing” and “action sharing.”  He continued,

“The amazing thing is that what we’re talking about is a fundamental shift in where people are getting information - how much time young people are spending online versus on TV. It was not difficult, in a certain sense, to get people hot about this issue because you were threatening the very medium through which they were receiving information about the threat. When that’s the case, it’s alarming.”

Moon illustrated how social media furthered his organization’s work:

“Game Informer had put out a piece about some of these legislative threats, and we woke up one day. We were looking at the backend of our system. There were just new members coming in, day after day. We were, what was going on? We were looking at the links, and they were all tracking back to YouTube. It wasn’t any one video. There were dozens and dozens of videos on YouTube. Each one had embedded a Demand Progress action link into the message and it took off. About 100,000 people came on board the effort that way. It was through no doing of our own.”

Moon went on to explain how, with a million person email list, “you can seed a whole lot of content and frame that in the world.” Falcon later said that the January 18 action helped generate mainstream media coverage – a key challenge for the campaign prior to that date.

3. Paid advertising. Moon said his group tried to purchase a cable ad in Minnesota.

4. Organizational and individual letters of support. The Center for Democracy and Technology's Mark Stanley pointed to position statements issued by organizations and individuals as evidence of diverse opposition to SOPA/PIPA. Rachna Choudry said PopVox delivered 15,000 messages to Congress on behalf of individuals. Falcon added that about 14 million contacts were made via phone, email, petitions and letters to Congress.

5. Policy analysis and framing the issueAfter the panel, Stanley said that he published their analyses to make the legislative proposals more accessible to the public.

6. Legislative advocacy. After the panel, Falcon said his role was to focus on Congressional outreach and to provide information to activists on the “best point to strike on Capitol Hill,” including key dates, times, targets and talking points. For example, in December, when Senate Majority Leader Reid announced a key vote on the Protect IP Act for January 24, Falcon said he suggested having people attend townhalls in each state. Falcon coordinated a Google Doc that listed the 100 Senate offices and a summary of each office’s temperature on the bill, he said. Falcon said the spreadsheet helped him inform activists in each Senator’s home state in January.

7. District visits and actions. Falcon said he was most impressed with New York Tech Meetup’s 1,200- to 1,400-person visit to Senator Schumer’s district office to protest SOPA. As a former Congressional staffer, Falcon said, “Oh my god, what do we do?” would have been his reaction to such a large turnout for an issue that was not a “traditional third rail issue.”

8. Electoral power.  Moon said one next step would be to make SOPA /PIPA an electoral issue, including a “primary effort” against SOPA sponsor Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX).

9. The introduction of a really bad bill. Watch minute 13 onwards of a livestreamed video of the panel to hear Moon and Stanley discuss how, “the content industry did themselves in.” They explained that people who understood how the internet works (“nerds”) were blacklisted from hearings and from helping to draft legislation. One panelist said that the introduction of SOPA was “tone deaf.”

What other elements of grassroots campaigning did you see?