Two national issues, two different responses. Social media matters.

By Tamara Copeland
Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers

Late last month the Supreme Court decided on three cases that directly impacted many in our country and indirectly impacted all of us who care about social justice. Two were on gay rights and one was on voting rights. Of course, the decisions on both issues were the lead stories for the major TV news outlets and formed the top headlines in many newspapers.

Where there was a marked difference in coverage, however, was in social media.

The decisions on the two cases focused on gay rights received a thunderous response. The decision on the voting rights case was followed by a deafening silence. Was it just me or did you notice it, too?

As the date of the decisions on the gay rights measures approached, Facebook profile photos were replaced by the equal sign, the symbol popularized by the Human Rights Campaign. By simply scanning your Facebook page or your Twitter feed, you got a powerful visual cue of the breadth of support for these measures.

There was no such symbolism for the voting rights decision – or at least none that I am aware of. I may not have even noticed this except for timing. The court’s decisions were back-to-back. It was hard to miss the social media response that revolved around the gay rights issue juxtaposed against the almost total lack of social media response to voting rights.

My reaction was that there seemed to be no real leadership behind the voting rights work.

I commented to a national leader whose views and knowledge I respect that no one was leading the national movement for voting rights. He corrected me naming an individual and his organization, saying that they had led the effort. He countered by asking me who was leading the gay rights movement. I responded “everyone.” Up until then, I hadn’t realized that, unconsciously, I was using social media presence on an issue as a proxy for leadership.

The equal symbol had become the linchpin of a media blitz. I certainly understand that no one determines what symbols catch on. We don’t really know what causes the tipping point to occur. We just know when it does. No other ribbons have been used as much as the red one for AIDS and the pink for breast cancer. Even with the controversy, the LIVESTRONG bracelet is still the highest seller among the multiple bracelets for different causes. We might not fully understand why something goes viral, but if you don’t try, it definitely won’t happen.

What I know is that for both causes, someone was determining points of influence, coordinating actions, and gathering examples of how the proposed legal changes would make a difference. These are not inconsequential actions. They are vital. But, those backroom, inner-circle strategies no longer constitute the complete core of activities for successful advocacy.

There are many factors that make the causes different. Gay people are being denied a basic civil right that others exercise daily. African-Americans and other peoples of color are threatened in some states with the denial of a right that is only exercised at certain times. One is a more visible day-to-day life experience. The other is hidden in public policy legalese that only rarely sees the light of day. They are different and there are multiple layers of cultural bias that surround them both. My intent here, however, is to focus only on one critical factor that differentiated them last month.

The Human Rights Campaign was trying to foster a social movement with a visible representation of the breadth of national support for their cause. And, they were successful. I believe that there is similar support for the needed provisions in the Voting Rights Act. That support just wasn’t demonstrated.

Social media matters.

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