Crowdsourcing the Supreme Court

March 31st, 2013

While the U.S. may not be quite ready to formally decide constitutional issues à la Iceland (Overcoming a Meltdown with Social Media), it is becoming apparent that social media plays an ever increasing role in shaping U.S. policy, governmental agendas, and even the outcomes of elections.equalitylogo This week, in preparation for the Supreme Court review of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and California Proposition 8, the not-for-profit Human Rights Campaign urged followers to change their Facebook profile to support marriage equality.

“Who’s wearing red tomorrow? Show your support for marriage equality — make your profile image red for tomorrow and check out www.hrc.org/StandForMarriage for more ways to get involved!”

Human Rights Campaign, Facebook March 25, 2013 1:00pm

Like a wildfire whipped by storm force winds, the phenomenon spread across Facebook, the US, and around the globe. The Facebook Data Science team estimates that within 24 hours 2.7 million additional users had altered their profile picture, a 120% increase over a typical Tuesday. The Facebook team even graphed the impact geographically; the darker the color, the more profile picture updates in a locale. Not unexpectedly, college towns are easily recognized.

Facebook Picture Map

No one expects the Supreme Court Justices to hang their decisions on social media responses. And many still argue that online social networks have little-to-no influence in social activism (a.k.a. slacktavism), citing minimal real world participation due to the “weak-ties” engendered by online networks. As that argument goes, it takes the “strong-ties” of friendships and face-to-face relationships, respect earned shoulder to shoulder, for activism to drive significant change in society and culture.

“Weak-ties are… terrific at the diffusion of innovation, interdisciplinary collaboration, seamlessly matching up buyers and sellers, and the logistical functions of the dating world. But weak-ties seldom lead to high-risk activism.

Malcolm Gladwell, New Yorker 2010

To be clear, it was “strong ties” that compelled citizens to take to the steps of the Supreme Court this week. Many protestors showed up to defend their “strong ties” to same sex lovers. But even more were there on behalf of their “strong ties” to their children, parents, siblings, friends and organized communities of support. And yet the decision of the justices will no more be swayed by throngs chanting outside the building then they would a sea of red avatars on social media sites. Or will it? Can millions of people in a memes showing of psychological solidarity make a difference? Research on prescriptive and descriptive norms shows that people care a great deal about two things:

“We don’t really care so much about what we should do (prescriptive norms). We care about what other people do (descriptive norms). And then we really, really care about not being different. “

Melanie Tannenbaum, Scientific American 3/28/2013

In this odd twist of human nature, advisors, organizers, bloggers, and marketers continue to believe they need to tell us what we should do, while the reality is that we take action based on what other people are doing, and even more so if “everyone” else with social capital is doing “it.” Paradoxically then, social media becomes a high-powered, instant gratification engine. It reinforces and amplifies what we believe about ourselves, what we want for ourselves and what cultural, political and personal standards we hold ourselves to.

We aren’t at the point where changing your avatar, or stating your belief online, will necessarily affect legislative and judicial decisions. True enough. We are at the point, via social media, where we can easily see others taking positions that compel us to respond and act- all of which will inform politics, policy and progress. Protests and marches need to happen, as do social networking (online and off). Together, the combination is powerful enough to help us shape the world we want, not the world we are being told we should have.

“For a long time, when people stood up for a cause and weren’t all physically standing shoulder to shoulder, the size of their impact wasn’t immediately apparent. But today, we can see the spread of an idea online in greater detail than ever before. That’s data well worth finding.”

Eytan Bakshy, Facebook Data Scientist

Leave a Reply