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Social Media Acts As Catalyst For Policy Change

Websites like Facebook and Twitter played an integral role in last year's Arab Spring uprisings. But they've also brought about change right here at home. Audie Cornish talks to Clay Shirky, a professor of New Media at New York University, about how social media has fueled policy changes from Bank of America to Verizon, and the most recent backlash with the breast cancer charity Susan G. Komen for the Cure.

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

I'm Audie Cornish. And it's time now for All Tech Considered.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: We've heard plenty about the role that Facebook in particular has played in the Arab Spring uprising. But over the past few months, social media have also led to a very different kind of revolution here at home. Late last year, a social media-fueled backlash forced Bank of America and Verizon both to drop proposed fees.

Last month, Congress found itself similarly flooded with complaints and reversed course on a pair of anti-piracy bills. Then, just last week, it was the breast cancer charity Susan G. Komen for the Cure backing off plans to cut funding to Planned Parenthood.

For more on what this all means, we're joined by Clay Shirky. He's a professor of New Media at New York University. Welcome, Clay.

CLAY SHIRKY: Thanks so much, Audie. Thanks for having me.

CORNISH: So, has social networking really made a difference or is it just ramping up the speed of things?

SHIRKY: Well, I think that those questions can't be asked in that way because faster is different. If you look back at, say, what Kate Hanni did with the Flyers Bill of Rights starting in 2006. She was the woman who was stuck on the tarmac for eight hours. Got enraged, started a political movement using, in the day, blogs and email to pressure Congress to alter their policy. That took her years to do that.

And you look at the Susan Komen thing and that took something like 48 hours to get them to reverse course on a fairly major decision. So, faster protests are different kinds of protests, in part because our emotions work much faster than our intellect. So, when you get people angry quickly, things can spread like wildfire, in a way that they can't on slower media.

CORNISH: Looking at the issues that we brought up - the Komen issue, Verizon, Bank of America...

SHIRKY: BoA.

CORNISH: Yeah, even the SOPA protest about anti-piracy bills. These issues are so different, but what is the common denominator in how those protests caught on?

SHIRKY: The common denominator is that the public has a medium in which they can synchronize real action on an issue, without requiring everybody to be activists in some kind of general ongoing way.

CORNISH: Which must be huge. I mean, if you think about standing on the street and trying to gather signatures for a petition. That's a lot less fun than just asking someone to post such and such a thing on their Facebook.

SHIRKY: Yes. And so not needing everyone to be a committed activist, to get them to decide to take action, is a big change. On the other hand, people can get on to issues much quicker but they can get off of those issues much quicker, as well. So it's actually a very different dynamic.

CORNISH: Yeah, and what's the danger of that? Because, you know, after Komen for the Cure, Super Bowl was the trending topic. It seems as though, you know, these waves can shift pretty rapidly.

SHIRKY: Right. No, absolutely. The danger is that the inconsistent attention that comes from a mass of people has some salutary effects for democracy, but also carry some risks. And the risks are that we get a set of policies that are entirely subject to the whims of people's readily activated emotions.

But the overall change has been that the people's potential oversight and involvement is simply at a higher level now, because everyone can see the outrage. And so, there's no way for the target of the outrage to sort of say, well, some people are calling us against us, but other people are calling us pro - so it's about even. Right? When the Susan Komen thing happened there was no way for Komen to stage-manage the issue.

CORNISH: That's Clay Shirky. He's a professor of new media at New York University. Clay, thanks so much.

SHIRKY: Thank you, Audie. Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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