Tuesday this week was The Day We Fight Back. Thursday this week there was a massive snowstorm up and down the East Coast. The two may have more in common than you might think.
The Day We Fight Back was a day-of-action protesting government snooping. Evoking memories of the SOPA “blackout” day of action, a coalition of 6,000 websites added a banner (see below) urging visitors to take action against NSA surveillance. The single day of action generated half a million emails to legislators, 89,000 phone calls, and over 300,000 petition signatures. …Not bad for a day’s work.
The snowstorm, meanwhile, was the “biggest storm since Snowmaggedon in DC.” We got about 8″ of snow in my neighborhood. Classes were cancelled. The government closed down. My dog loved it (see below). But it didn’t live up to the multiple feet of snow that fell on DC back in 2010. It was just a really big snowstorm. Nothing to see here, move along.
Both the protest and the snowstorm were treated as “the largest [rare event] since [EPIC event].” That’s true, but the framing also detracts from thinking about their overall impact.
The online reaction to the protest has been pretty muted. The New York Times Bits Blog labeled it “The Day the Internet Didn’t Fight Back.” The Verge posted a story titled “Not many of us actually fought on The Day We Fight Back.” TechCrunch offered a (pretty cool) side-by-side comparison, “SOPA vs NSA Protests, In Pictures.”
All of these articles return to a common refrain: this just wasn’t as EPIC as the SOPA Blackout. Where was Google? Where was Wikipedia? The New York Times piece even concludes with some Reddit-snark: “Online petitions. The very least you can do, without doing nothing.”*
It’s true, The Day We Fight Back was no SOPA blackout. But should we have expected it to be? As event co-organizer David Segal from Demand Progress put it, “To mark all organizing a success or failure by measuring it against the single biggest online activist moment ever is ridiculous.”
There were (at least) three important differences between the SOPA moment and The Day We Fight Back.
(1) SOPA was defense, The Day We Fight Back was offense. When the SOPA blackout happened, some awful legislation was imminent. The Day We Fight Back calls on Congress to support The USA Freedom Act and oppose the FISA Improvements Act. Neither of these bills are facing a vote right now. It is a lot harder to galvanize a public to stop something bad than it is to support something good.
(2) SOPA was a direct threat to major Internet companies. NSA surveillance is an indirect threat. The Stop Online Piracy Act was a threat to Google and Wikipedia themselves. It was a power-play by Hollywood to turn the Internet into a giant copyright-enforcement engine. Organizing against SOPA didn’t happen overnight either. But one reason why TechCrunch’s side-by-side photos showed more participation from big websites during the SOPA blackout was because those websites had more directly at stake.
(3) SOPA was first, and that yields an innovation edge. The sheer scale of the SOPA blackout makes everything else look smaller by comparison. I wrote about this in my chapter of Hacking Politics: How Geeks, Progressives, Anarchists and Suits Teamed Up To Defeat SOPA and Save the Internet. Part of the blackout’s effectiveness came from it never having been done before. Once “we’ve fought back” one time, targets begin to adapt and the power of the tactic slowly dulls.
The point here is that, like judging every big snowstorm against Snowpocalypse (or every hurricane against Katrina), judging a massive day of action against the SOPA blackout will obscure the impact of the action itself.
The Day We Fight Back wasn’t supposed to be as large as the SOPA Blackout. And even if it had been, it wouldn’t have had the same direct impact, because getting Congress to pass a proposed law doesn’t happen as fast as getting Congress to abandon a proposed law. The Day We Fight Back was part of a longer campaign. It yielded mass attention, and increased cohesion within a gigantic, cross-partisan coalition, and it built a list of committed supporters who can be contacted for future actions.
And that’s the real point about online petitions. Sure, they can be “the very least you can do without doing nothing.” But they can also be a damn good initial entry point into the broader campaign. 555,000 people took action through their system on Tuesday. That’s 555,000 people who have signaled their interest and can be re-engaged for later actions.
Active issue publics don’t appear overnight. They don’t rove the digital terrain, waiting to ride in and save the day. They are built through time, action, and effort.
The real question to ask about The Day We Fight Back isn’t “how does it compare to the SOPA blackout.” The real question to ask is “so, what’s next?”
*Okay I’ll admit it, that’s a pretty good line.