Social Media Changing The Nature Of Activism?

Websites and social media can garner the support of hundreds of thousands for a particular cause. They can even bring issues to light that might otherwise have been overlooked by mainstream media. Host Michel Martin speaks with Shelby Blakely of the Tea Party Patriots, and Rashad Robinson of ColorOfChange.org.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Later, we are going to hear more of your tweet poems. It's part of our Muses and Metaphor series for National Poetry Month, where we've reached out via Twitter and asked you to send us tweet-length poems and you are, and the poems are amazing. And you might have noticed that social media isn't just having an impact on poetry; it's changing the way we do a lot of things, including politics and other social activism.

Sticking a pamphlet in each door has been replaced by email lists in a lot of places. Standing on the corner with one of those megaphone things has become Twitter. Petitions can easily be shared on Facebook instead of being taken from door to door or standing outside the supermarket. And thousands of people can organize for rallies and demonstrations in almost no time at all. And in some cases, stories that might have been overlooked by the mainstream media are kept alive by online activists, as in the Trayvon Martin Case.

We wanted to talk more about all this, so we've called upon Shelby Blakely. She's the journalist coordinator for the Tea Party Patriots. She's with us from time to time to talk about issues within the Tea Party and also with us is Rashad Robinson the director of the civil rights group ColorOfChange.org. Welcome to the program, both of you. Thanks so much for joining us.

SHELBY BLAKELY: Great to be back.

RASHAD ROBINSON: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Now Shelby, you have an interesting story, a personal story, about the way you feel that the kind of the online world of social media has kind of brought you into activism in a way you don't think would have been the case, say ten or fifteen years ago?

BLAKELY: Well, for me personally I have small children and I was a stay-at-home mom and because of that I wanted to get involved politically but as I saw the Tea Party emerge I couldn't start a group. I couldn't go to rallies because I was extremely limited in the amount that I could travel, so I found something that I could do within the scope of my responsibilities as a stay-at-home mother, and that happened to be journalism and researching and calling people and things like that and producing articles and, you know, as everything progressed I wanted to become the journalist coordinator for Tea Party Patriots and now I train other people with the experience that I've learned through my activism online.

MARTIN: Did you have to teach yourself this? Were these skills you already knew, you just didn't know how to use them in this way?

BLAKELY: I'm self taught as far as journalism goes. I've read journalist textbooks. I've attended classes. But a lot of the innate ability, such as interviewing, writing articles, you know, debating back and forth and holding people accountable, those are skills I already had.

MARTIN: Well, and Rashad to you, I mean, the Trayvon Martin story is the kind of thing that civil rights leaders would have been interested in anyway and the whole question of how individuals are treated by, you know, police entities or law enforcement entities or quasi-law enforcement entities has long been a concern of civil right activists. But you were saying and we've been saying that the Trayvon Martin story is the kind of story that might not have gone national without social media. Can you talk a little bit more about that?

ROBINSON: Absolutely, I mean every single day we're hit with all sorts of information; on the radio or television, on the news and sometimes it makes us angry or inspired or upset. I think the power that we have through social media and through online advocacy in particular is that we can pair that information up with the ability to take action. So folks weren't just seeing information around Trayvon Martin on the news and becoming maybe outraged or upset, but they had the opportunity to take that moment where they had a feeling about what was happening and put it to action.

And so there wasn't just one single leader doing work for the community, but people all around the country who had never met each other, of all races and backgrounds, could be their own individual activist. Could sign petitions and share them online, could get people and their friend, family, and, you know, neighborhood network engaged in this issue. And so the ability of social media and the ability of online media really levels the playing field and gives, you know, people all around the country the ability to make their voices heard against much more powerful entities.

MARTIN: Do you think that the Trayvon Martin story absence social media might have stayed a local matter?

ROBINSON: It absolutely may have stayed a local matter. You know, it's very hard to bring scale to these type of campaign. You know, ColorofChange has worked on a number of issues where they were local issues, but the ability to be able to tell a compelling story to that may have happened in Sanford, Florida or New Orleans, Louisiana and translate that story to people who may live in Seattle or Los Angeles or San Francisco and to be able to help them sort of understand and make larger connections around systematic inequality.

You know, those type of opportunities didn't really exist before we had this ability to utilize technology. But at the end of the day it really doesn't change the theory of change. It doesn't change sort of why we do this work, what we hope to achieve. It just gives us the ability to do it quicker and to build scale quicker.

MARTIN: And we're talking with Rashad Robinson of ColorOfChange.org. That's who was speaking just now. Also with us, Shelby Blakely of The Tea Party Patriots. We're talking about the way online tools and social media are changing activism. Shelby, you know one of the interesting things is you were telling us that you feel that a lot of the work that the Tea Party is doing is local. As you hear with Rashad, their sort of efforts, a lot of their efforts are too sort of nationalized kind of local issues and bring them into kind of a broader national narrative.

What you were telling us is that the Tea Party, actually, you think has been more effective locally. Tell us a little bit more about why you think that is?

BLAKELY: Well, the Tea Party is very diverse and there's a lot of different work to be done and a lot of the work of local coordinators and local groups is to find what people want to do and put them in the job they want and what they want to be good in. There is people who want to doorbell. There's people who want to do research. There's people who want to interview. There's people who want to get petitions signed, and there's really something for everyone to do. But in regards to local races there's people in the Tea Party who are interested in working at the state level, the local level, as well as the federal level. And because it is grass roots, because there is no clear leader, because it's not a top-down leader-knows-best mentality, it tends to be more encompassing and more diverse.

So, we do have a lot of elections on the local elections and activity on the local level. A school board here, a county commissioner here, a fire marshal there, and it's really members taking back their community and standing up and taking responsibility for the shape their community is in.

MARTIN: Shelby, do you every worry about what some of these tools that - you know, there's a new phrase that a lot of people are using these days called dog whistle politics, where people are kind of using certain tropes or certain images to kind of get people stirred up, you know, hoping that they'll react, you know, viscerally and emotionally to something. Do you ever worry that with some of these tools because there is a premium on speed and brevity that sort of the nuance is getting lost in the prep? Some people get interested for the wrong reasons or because they feel it kind of an emotional connection that isn't really backed up by facts. Do you every worry about that? And obviously Rashad I'm going to ask you the same question. But Shelby, you first.

BLAKELY: There is definitely the potential for that. I mean, one of the reasons I got into journalism is because I would read news articles and I thought to myself, this contains about 25 percent of the information I need to make a rational decision. There's always huge chunks of information missing in these condensed stories. So, you always - I guess they always wanted the - they want the reader to want more and read more, but, you know, you got to start giving us something that we can take and digest and some meat of the argument.

And there is that danger. But then again, with speed you trade - with a dearth of information you're going to gain some speed. And so I think its really just a balancing act of which is more important to you at the time; getting one soundbite of information out, which has been going on for decades and which the American population has been trained to for decades. Or do you want to get the bigger, larger case out there and risk losing portions of your audience because they're not going to stay for the final chapters? It's really a balance and deciding what you need to achieve.

MARTIN: Rashad, what about you?

ROBINSON: You know, hundreds, possibly even thousands of petitions are created everyday and so many of them fail, right? So many of them don't go anywhere, don't get signatures. The public is smarter than sometimes we give them credit for, and folks look at and examine and read this information, decide what type of campaigns they want to be part of.

At ColorofChange, you know, we really research and look into sort of what we're putting out to our members, and our members really rely on us to walk them through the political process, to have a clear theory of change of why we're reaching out and why we're asking them to take action on a particular subject.

And, when our members are not with us, when they think that maybe this doesn't necessarily make sense or we should be going a different route or there should be a different target for the energy around a particular issue, they let us know.

MARTIN: Can you give an example?

ROBINSON: You know, there was a lot of debate, you know, as we headed to the final days around fighting for justice for Troy Davis. Troy Davis was an inmate on death row who was executed September 21st and ColorofChange mobilized over 100,000 of our members over the course of a couple of years to fight for justice for Trayvon Martin. There were a lot of different theories around whether or not, you know, energy should be directed at the Georgia Board of Pardons, whether it should be directed at the Department of Justice, whether people should be directly calling the district attorney in Savannah.

And everyday people who are on our list who we had worked to educate over the course of a couple of years were reading the news and making very clear decisions about what they wanted ColorofChange to do and they were letting us know every single day, you know, we think you should be going this route or we think we should be going this route. And we were working very closely with a number of coalition partners to help walk people through the process. But at the same time, you know, the goal of this work is to empower the voices of everyday people. You know, that is part of the mission statement of ColorofChange - to empower the voice of black Americans.

And so you just can't empower the voices if the only thing you're asking people to do is click a button. You have to be able to listen to them and walk people through a process of not just signing petitions, but other things they can do once they've signed that petition to be involved in the process and to be engaged in the long term.

MARTIN: OK. Final thought...

BLAKELY: I totally agree.

MARTIN: Shelby, final thought from you?

BLAKELY: I totally agree and it's about - the Tea Party is about education and providing tools to all Americans to facilitate the change they want to see in their community. SOPA was a great example of how speed was used to stop a horrible piece of legislation and now we have CISPA coming up on the horizon, which is...

MARTIN: Which is - which are - for people who want to know.

BLAKELY: CISPA is basically SOPA copied and pasted under the guise of homeland security or cyber security, but it's a very vague bill. It's really just a horrible bill. It's another attempt...

MARTIN: OK.

BLAKELY: ...for the government to control the Internet.

MARTIN: OK. Well, we'll have to follow up on that. Shelby Blakely is the journalist coordinator for the Tea Party Patriots. She was with us from Georgia Public Broadcasting in Atlanta. Also with us, Rashad Robinson, director of the civil rights groups, ColorofChange.org. He was with us from NPR's bureau in New York.

Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

ROBINSON: Thank you for having me.

BLAKELY: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Coming up, Lynn Peril is a secretary. You got a problem with that?

LYNN PERIL: The idea of the secretary as this hot-to-trot, pencil-pushing woman who's there to have an affair with the boss, meet a husband, it's not a very positive image.

MARTIN: Lynn Peril on her new book on the history of the secretary. That's just ahead on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

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