The SOPA Blackout and Three Channels of Influence

Note: This post by David Karpf, Assistant Professor in the Rutgers University School of Communication and Information, was originally published on shouting loudly.

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So… this happened yesterday. It’s too early to pronounce SOPA firmly dead, but clearly the blackout proved to be an epic tactical win.

The blackout worked on three levels. First we have the immediate stated goal: educate site visitors about SOPA/PIPA and encourage them to contact their Member of Congress. This is basically a souped-up version of the standard action alerts that MoveOn, Demand Progress, Organizing for America and other advocacy groups send daily to their members. I haven’t seen any numbers, but I’ll bet that the Congressional phone lines were lighting up yesterday.

That said, heavy phone and e-mail traffic is nothing new for Congressional offices. The side that generates heavier constituent outrage doesn’t always win. Constituent outrage is one signal that Congress considers. They also consider expert testimony (firmly opposed to the bill) and the will of wealthy donors/affected industries (often expressed through lobbyists – an excess of Hollywood money and lobbying influence is what got us the awful legislation in the first place).

It worked on a second level though: as news. Wikipedia going dark drew wide coverage. Even if you didn’t happen to visit Wikipedia yesterday, if you visited a news site or tuned in to Colbert, you found out it was happening. This forces politicians who were ignoring the issue to take a stand. Reporters don’t call and ask for positions on every issue, every day. Yesterday, they were calling about this one. And news coverage also serves as an approximation of public opinion for members of congress [h/t Susan Herbst].

Notice, however, that the blackout was news specific because it was original. This has never happened before*. Wikipedia doesn’t take political stances. Google doesn’t call on web-searchers to contact congress. The freshness of the tactic is what makes it newsworthy. If Wikipedia did this once a month, it would quickly cease to be newsworthy. This is the “advocacy inflation” problem that I’ve written about before [h/t Daniel Mintz, who suggested the term].

There’s a third channel of influence at work here as well: direct exposure. Congressional offices are busy places. In the course of the day yesterday, at least one staffer in every office probably Googled something or looked something up on Wikipedia. Many Members of Congress did so themselves as well. The blackout cut through the din of constituent calls and emails, lobby visits, and policy briefings. They saw it themselves, and it grabbed attention in a way that everyday persuasion and influence tactics never can.

Notice that this third channel works because of the sites involved. I thought it was great that DailyKos and BoingBoing took part in the action, but if it was just those sites the tactic would have been much weaker. Those sites draw tech-savvy and politics-savvy audiences. Even with the support of conservative sites like RedState, the average American is unlikely to see the content, and the only Congressional staffers who will see it are the ones charged with monitoring the blogs.

Overall, we should feel good about this one. It was a remarkable tactic, and demonstrates that the big companies in the digital environment are beginning to recognize that they have to push back against the big companies from the traditional entertainment environment. That’s no revolution – Google is still a corporation, after all – but it provides a bit more pluralistic balance in a policy arena that has been where the MPAA has gone unchallenged and unchecked for far too long.


*There was a sort-of precursor in the 1990s, when early “netizens” protested a managerial decision at geocities by turning their geocities pages dark.

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