It’s the kind of story that writes itself. A popular media entity, on one of the oldest forms of electronic mass media, bears the brunt of activists’ Facebook wrath. It combines two old rivalries: liberals and conservatives and new media versus old media. In case you missed it, here’s the brief synopsis of events from ABC news:
Rush Limbaugh remains in big trouble. Advertisers – 11 at last count – are pulling spots off his radio talk show because of the reaction to his calling Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke a “slut” and a “prostitute.” Opponents are mobilizing on social media for a long campaign to try to convince even more sponsors to drop his program. Ms. Fluke herself has rejected as insufficient Mr. Limbaugh’s attempts at apology
Fluke had testified before congress about the importance of “the pill” for medical uses beyond birth control. Rush concluded that she was having so much sex that she needed the American tax payer to help defer the cost of her contraceptives. (This has led to some speculation that conservatives don’t know how hormonal birth control works.) Thousands of people are organizing to get advertisers to pull their money out of Rush Limbaugh’s show, and many of them are organizing via Twitter and Facebook. Will we be subjected to another round of technologically deterministic news stories about “cyber revolution,” or are we going to have a more nuanced conversation? More precisely, does Rush have a social media problem or has he -all things being equal- just gone too far this time?The headlines almost write themselves. The rivals are polar opposites and very well known. In one corner, the old heavyweight champion: syndicated AM radio. In the other corner, the young and nimble contender: social media. The Washington Post is already covering the story from a social media angle: “Limbaugh backlash on Facebook, Twitter put pressure on advertisers.”
But is it only a matter of time before someone writes the headline, “Social Media Versus Radio In Battle Over Women’s Rights”?
Augmented activism is a new tactic but, as we have said before, it is constantly being improved and refined. As I write this, over 31,000 people have “liked” the “Boycott Rush Limbaugh’s Sponsors to SHUT HIM DOWN” page. (In the time it took to proof this post and get distracted by this youtube video another 1,000 or so people liked it.) Although Rush no longer makes the trending topics list, my Twitter feed is still full of Rush-related tweets. The Facebook page is full of people swapping stories about their calls to various advertisers and questions about what advertisers are left. For example here are a few posts about Netflix:
This sort of activism isn’t new. Letter writing campaigns are as old as America itself. What is new, is the immediate evidence of a collective effort. My letter seems small, 30,000 people feeling the same way does not. I may disagree with you on every other topic, but within this narrowly-focused event, we share a similar affinity and purpose. Even more importantly, our activism has an audience even if mainstream media doesn’t pay attention. Social media has a reflexive relationship with the social activity it fosters and enables. We act because we know there’s an effective and easily accessible venue for our speech and collaboration.
This is interesting from a social theory and media/communications perspective, but does it makes sense to talk about social media versus anything? Probably not. To the extent that certain technologies enable certain kinds of action, there is a narrative there. Radio broadcasts a single message to many passive listeners. There are call-ins, sure, but they choose who gets to talk. Social media is about a lot of people talking to each other. Not everyone gets heard, but if an idea strikes a cord with a lot of people it gets very popular very fast. Sometimes its a bunch of people reacting to a popular figure who said something on Twitter, but many times the news-worthy social media event is about lots of people thinking or doing the same thing.
Now, it would be convenient for this narrative if the latter ‘s popularity were rising at the expense of the former, but that is not the case. According to Arbitron, between 2010 and 2011 an additional 1.4 million people over the age of 12 started listening to the radio. NPR and conservative AM talk radio have seen new highs in ratings. Whatever is happening here, it is not a zero-sum game. Its also worth noting that one of the companies buying up recently-vacated commercial slots is a social media service, albiet a morally questionable one.
News-worthy social media stories have two flavors: 1) one person says a controversial or exciting thing and everyone reacts or, 2) an event is occurring and some significant part of it is being mediated through and by social media. I do not think Rush Limbaugh is going to go the way of the dodo bird, but he will certainly take a hit. Social media can help organize an effective large-scale advertiser boycott, but the presence of Facebook and Twitter do not mean conservative talk radio’s days are numbered. Social media helps organize information without the presence of a formal organizing body. But social media and radio are not mutually exclusive of one-another. The only social media story here is the same one we heard in the Arab Spring and the #occupy protests: social media gives us a guaranteed audience for our activism. It is easier to participate, and that participation is much more visible to many more people.
Whatever ends up happening to Rush Limbaugh (probably nothing) social media will certainly be part of the story. Access to social media, however, is not a necessary, nor a sufficient cause for activism. You will see the headlines (Here’s another one! “Rush Limbaugh’s Advertisers Facing Social Media Firestorm“) but you will know better. Dissent happens on social media, it is even encouraged by social media, but it is not because of social media.