Social network activism and the Patriot Act (DRAFT)

DRAFT Work in progress! Feedback welcome!

Final version intended for The Seminal and Pam’s House Blend

The most recent skirmish on the Patriot Act reauthorization battle ended badly for civil liberties. Despite passionate speeches all around in the Senate Judiciary Committee public hearings and classified briefings, in the end, only Senators Feingold, Durbin, and Specter stood up for the Constitution. As Marcy Wheeler says, we got rolled.

The battle’s far from over.  Representatives Conyers, Nadler, and Scott have introduced some much stronger Patriot Act reform legislation in the House, and there’s still a potential floor debate the Senate.  For civil libertarians to come back from a 14-3 vote against us in the most progressive committee in the Senate, though, we’re clearly going to need to try something different.  The Twitter and Facebook activism I discussed in Can Skittles fix the Patriot Act? and the open letter being discussed on the Get FISA Right blog point to one opportunity.

A social network activism campaign involving multiple sites — Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, Organizing for America, Care2, — has many advantages.  Most importantly, it’s a channel for to reach Millennials and other diverse audiences of people who care a lot about the Patriot Act but are not currently involved with civil liberties activism.  This is crucial for broadening and recharging the civil liberties community, both for the Patriot Act battle and longer-terms.

Some the other value of a social network activism campaign:

  • an opportunity to get beyond the media blackout and provide accurate information to everybody.
  • easy way for people to let their politicians know their feelings — and recruit their friends in  the process.
  • a powerful narrative: “social networks (the wave of the future, Obama’s strength in 2008, youth) are overwhelmingly in favor of civil liberties.  and we’re getting organized.”  As we continue to make progress, every political consultand and politician thinking about a primary or general election challenge in 2010 or 2012 will be paying attention.

The people and organizations involved in the fight to fix the Patriot Act have very good presences on the various sites.   What we need now is coordination and the ability to generate and combine energy on different networks.  I’ve got some recommendations for easy next steps that could pay off quickly near the end of this post.

First, though, I’d like to discuss the diversity aspects in a little more detail.

Facebook, Twitter, and a #diversitywin


Poll from Get FISA Right’s blog, October 2

The Get FISA Right poll above matches well with the trends described in Jessica Vascalero’s Wall Street Journal article The End of the Email Era: social networks are now as important a communication mechanism as email.  Millennials in particular are very hard to involve via email.  Civil liberties organizations know this, of course, and are doing some excellent work in building up presences.  However, action alerts invariably push people towards email- and phone-based feedback to legislators — ignoring social networks.

As the snapshot of retweeting stream at the end of this post is a great illustration of the point Tracy Viselli and I have been hammering away on all year: Twitter is a place to engage with women, people of color, migrant rights groups,  and others who are marginalized from other forms of activism.*

I mean really, what activism campaign wouldn’t want to have people like @Hegemommy, @ColinCurtisKS, @desidyke, @dreamact, @votolatino, @ColinCurtisKS, @jjpolitics, and @baratunde advocating our cause to their friends and communities?  They’ve all got important battles of their own, of course; but they spend so much of their time on social network sites that it’s very easy for them to tweet or share something and help out when they have a few seconds.

The #1 recommendation from the Computers, Freedom, and Privacy “birds of a feather” session on New Strategies for Fighting FISA and the Patriot Act was to build a broad-based coalition — including students and migrant rights groups amongst others.  It was great to see three Arab-American groups among the 23 signers of the civil liberties coalition, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg.  Social network sites provide a unique opportunity to broaden things further.

Next steps

The people and organizations involved in the fight to fix the Patriot Act have very good presences on the various sites.   What we need now is coordination and the ability to generate and combine energy on different networks.   Here’s some example of next steps that could make a difference:

  • sharing best practices and make it easy for every 501(c)3 to offer viral “contact your politician via Twitter” and “share this with your friends on Twitter” options to complement their email campaigns — and in the process, reach out to Millennials and others who aren’t yet involved with coalition efforts.
  • reaching out to bloggers and media via Twitter to call attention to the story and help shape the media narrative
  • using connections on Twitter and Facebook to circulate the next “coalition letter” to other potential organizational signers
  • an open letter from Get FISA Right to President Obama, with the ability for people to sign on via petitions on Care2,, MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter
  • consider using 2gov to reach politicians who aren’t on Twitter to complement petitions
  • continued weekly organizing calls involving activists, bloggers, and non-partisan organizations.  The information we’ve shared and connections we’ve made has been incredibly valuable; let’s continue to build on that as the battle intensifies.

Of course there’s a lot more that can be done as well.  And the whole far outweighs the sum of the parts, because this is all complementary to the hard work that dozens of organizations are already putting in.  Most of what needs to happen is fairly straightforward; we just need people and organizations to step up to drive the various aspects.

Social media activism has proved very successful for civil liberties (Strange Bedfellows, Get FISA Right) and other causes (Jena, Join the Impact,the DREAM Act, Obama).    It seems like it’s worth a try here.

What do others think?


* see for example The #p2 hashtag and strategies for progressives on Twitter, Cognitive evolution and revolution, and #p2 and prioritizing diversity.


A #diversitywin, as we say on Twitter