Our (Social Media) Voices Have Power: But for Good or Evil?

We are embracing social media as a medium to voice our opinions. But are we protesting injustice or promoting hate speech?

A few weeks ago, a small internal announcement by a nonprofit turned into a firestorm, when Susan G. Komen decided to sever ties to Planned Parenthood. When the news broke, the social media response was stunning. The cacophony of online voices overwhelmed the Komen foundation and we all know what happened next – they reversed themselves (to a point), to stem the criticism to popular opinion.

The strength of our voices on social media continues to grow, as we see the effect of ordinary people coming together online from different locations, different situations and different walks of life to protest or champion an issue that speaks to them. Brands have been burned by disapproval and Change.org launches new causes people can rally behind every day. This trend, more than any other, gives amazing insight into how (social media-savvy) members of society think and feel about products, policies, politicians and pundits.

For Good

In many ways, it’s heartening to see people protest fees by Bank of America and support women’s access to affordable health care, go against big corporations and the current political tide. However, it was surprising to see people react so strongly to Komen’s decision, given the landslide of measures limiting women’s reproductive rights passed in 2011. If you went strictly by the political climate, you would think an announcement like that would be greeted with cheers.

GOOD’s Nona Willis Aronowitz commented that in many cases high-profile politicians’ beliefs and agendas were not at all an accurate portrayal of how the majority of America feels. She laments that “When politicians do something that ticks us off, we have a hard time harnessing the kind of public protest we’ve seen this week. Usually, we don’t even try. Politicians, in turn, have noticed. Whereas Komen’s image is everything, politicians assume that, unless you’re giving millions, they can get away with almost anything.”

The latest backlash was against Rush Limbaugh after he called Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke a “slut” and a “prostitute” for testifying in favor of employer-supplied health insurance covering birth control. He followed up by saying that if she and other women wanted affordable birth control, they should have to post videos of themselves having sex on YouTube to justify the expense and “pay back” those who are (ostensibly) footing the bill for their raging sex life.

This exchange is double-edged. At a time when words like “slut” and “bitch” are so common and overused and women like the Kardashians and female members of the Jersey Shore cast are more recognizable, and more powerful role models than Sheryl Sandberg or Tina Brown, it seems like just one more assault on women’s health, image, and character.

It was more of what Rush gets paid millions to do – be insulting, ignorant, and incite misogynist or (insert offensive –ist word here – racist, sexist. etc.) crowd mentality and fan the flames of listeners’ fears, hatreds and insecurities. The Daily Beast’s Kirsten Powers points out that plenty of pundits on the other side of the aisle are just as guilty of taking tacky personal potshots at high-profile women in the past. And nothing happened then.

So when people actually rose up and protested, it was gratifying. On the other hand, it means that as a society, we’ve become so accustomed to this attitude and language, that Limbaugh probably thought nothing of spouting these sentiments on air. Fortunately, the power the everyday person has (women and men) is still financial. Brands and corporations have learned to take social media opinion seriously, and now there are consequences. Translated, Limbaugh has lost a landslide of advertisers.

For Evil

About a year ago we noted that people, cloaked in internet anonymity, felt free to express vicious and callous sentiments even in the wake of natural disasters, and so goes it today. After these two surprising uprisings, the pendulum swung back. A small, spoiled but vocal subset of our next generation of leaders threw a tantrum, stomping their feet and spewing more hatred online because President Obama declined to speak at Columbia for commencement.

When President Obama chose to speak at Barnard instead, several Columbia students (a university affiliated with Barnard) went online to attack their sister school for being chosen. And this time, the attacks were just as vicious, if not more, from female Columbia students toward the all-women Barnard, and went far beyond “slut.”

“Try using your Daddy’s hard-earned cash in a respectable way if you want to be an ACTUAL role model for women,” wrote one female Columbia student. “Unlike Barnyard financial leeches, I have NO intention of pursuing a Mrs. Degree. I came here to make myself successful, not try to plead at the knees of a Columbia boy to marry her.”
 “While you guys were perfecting your deepthroating techniques and experimenting with scissoring and anal play, we were learning Calculus (usually by sophomore year of High School). Trust me, if you actually deserved to go to Columbia and put in the work it required, you would understand our resentment. Moral of the story is that feeble, ugly Barnyard women need to shut their jizz holes and just be happy that Columbia let Barnyard pretend it was affiliated for this long.”
Social media is only gaining power as more and more people engage. As people harness its power to put forth their opinions, they should also beware of its long memory and dwindling privacy shields. College recruiters and employers routinely review the social media activity of prospective applicants and that pool is widening to other industries. So as people use this new tool to voice their inner thoughts, they might want to remember that while they type them in the dim privacy of their own homes, they might ultimately have to have a face-to-face conversation about them in the light of day.
Andrea Newell

Andrea Newell is a Michigan-based writer specializing in corporate social responsibility, women’s issues, and the environment.