Social Media is Giving Boycotts New Life

New Orleans   Frequently, I’ve quibbled about the role of social media tools in building organizations. I’ve argued such tools are powerful communication tools, rather than organizing tools. They can spread the word to people, lots of people, but they are not a substitute for actual people, participation, meetings, and actions. They might even spark a movement by communicating about actions and work on the ground, but social media does not organize movements. Nonetheless, where social media has carved out a powerful role because of its unique facility at almost instantaneous mass communication is in creating instant impact boycotts of companies and their products.

Look at the quick crash and burn experienced by United Airlines as an example. The impact of a passenger’s video of police forcibly ejecting a passenger from a crowded airplane and dragging him down the aisle was immediately viral. The reactions led to one revised statement after another by the United CEO reckoning with the fact that the reaction was dropping the company’s stock price forcing him to acknowledge that no passenger should ever be treated this way and promising to never use law enforcement to handle such situations in aircraft again. The company became the face of brutality on the internet.   One picture showed passengers inside a United plane with most of them wearing helmets. Another joke circulated that United was now specializing in its role as “first in Chinese takeout.” Corporate apologists commented on how the airline industry had become a kleptocracy where customer service was no longer a factor. Conservative economists asked why the airline didn’t keep raising the price it was offering to passengers to leave the flight until it was successful? Who wants this trouble? No company, and with 44,000 passengers bumped per year for oversold situations, it is the one where social media swarmed that made a difference.

The work of campaigning efforts like Sleeping Giants and #grabyourwallet have been extremely successful in bringing the heat on advertisers for companies with hypersensitive public profiles dependent on consumer purchases.   Breitbart News has lost advertisers from such efforts. Protests have been launched impacting Trump companies and supporter brands. Unquestionably Bill O’Reilly, a longtime Fox News rainmaker, is teetering on the edge of losing his show because the reaction has been so strong that half of his sponsors have pulled out over the paradox of his moralizing versus the $11 million in settlements for sexual harassment claims that he and Fox have paid in recent years.

Admittedly, these are thunderstorms that light up the sky, rather than permanent weather patterns. It is impossible to predict which calls for a boycott will strike lightning and create a social media storm, but the very fact that it is possible and that the clouds can move so quickly from balmy to raging is changing the corporate calculations. The drug companies withdrawal from executions in Arkansas was an example. The hypersensitivity that Trump tweets have brought to corporate America now are also part of the new environment.

Who knows what will last, but for the moment, social media has again weaponized the consumer boycott, and that’s a good thing.

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Google Steps Up and Bans Ads from Payday Lenders

054985500_1441013137-google-headquarters-sign-640x0_digital_trendsNew Orleans   Just because we’re chasing them, doesn’t mean that payday lenders are on the run, but recently we got a break that could end up as a fatal blow and perhaps stiffen the backbone and open the eyes of those unwilling to confront the predatory practices that define the business model of payday lenders. Google or Alphabet or whatever they are calling themselves are one the largest tech companies of the world, and they have now announced that forthwith they would no longer accept advertising from payday lenders. Hooray!

A number of consumer advocates weighted in with congratulations, and, surely, this was a win that undoubtedly came after extensive behind-the-scenes meetings, but no matter how the result was achieved, it’s a significant victory. In the highly competitive online advertising world, hopefully, it will be “monkey see, monkey do,” and followed by Facebook, Twitter, and the hundreds of other sites and applications that worship that almighty ad dollar. The payday lenders association, or whatever that gang of hyenas call themselves at the predators’ ball, cried “foul,” and claimed they were doing a public service in stealing from the poor, but they were left with no recourse. Google is a private company after all, and not some politician they can just ply with a campaign donation or sic their lobbyist on.

All of which calls into play whether or not tech companies might be good targets for more and more campaigns, and that’s worth some thought. Even while we praise Google, we shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that they will be pushovers if the history and ideology of tech companies is any guide.

Apple certainly waged a huge battle under Steve Jobs and his successors to prevent unionization of its contract janitors, and to this day, unless something has changed recently, solved the problem by simply taking the work in-house as direct employees rather than deal with the union. Many of these tech companies and their execs are Ayn Rand fanboys and hard leaning libertarians. The role of Microsoft’s Gates and Facebook’s Zuckerberg in trying to privatize and charter up public school systems is now legendary, where often their main partners are the Walmart Foundation and its conservative crew. Michael Bloomberg and Charles Koch coauthored an op-ed recently where they wanted to get their two cents in on the amount of free speech on college campuses where they are afraid that administrators and professors are bending over too far to kowtow to minorities, women and others that might built the power to object to some of the baked in dogma opposing their interests. Austin, Texas voters just had to administer a butt whipping to the ride-sharing Batman and Robin, Uber and Lyft, who wanted to allow their drivers to not be fingerprinted like other drivers in that city. Facebook is taking heat as well for slanting its newsfeed and creating an echo chamber. Amazon seems the most Teflon, since it seems to still be consumer crack.

The good thing is that at their current size, none of these tech behemoths can just hunker down and hide in Silicon Valley anymore. To the degree that public perception and buying power still is a major part of what makes them winners or losers, we may have some collective power to punish the baddies, like payday lenders, that we need to exercise even more by putting tech companies on our “must target” list.

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Who Owns Social Media?

HMV-StaffTakeoverNew Orleans     If you’re lucky, you’ve never had to give any of this a second thought, but increasingly social media has blurred the lines between personal, political, and business, and forced the classic question about property:  who owns what?  There are blogs, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and god knows what else, and when it’s working, it’s working well, but what happens when there’s a bump in the road, a business disagreement, or a bankruptcy?  The social media companies are very little help and often either obscure or worse, irresponsible, in how they deal with all of this and the courts and lawyers are only recently getting in the game, so it is worth thinking about this now, even though it may already be too late for many.  In the newness of the media, we all jumped in feet first, leaping now, and looking later. 

            Twitter is without a doubt the worse since their communication skills are limited to 149 characters it seems in all transactions.  The number of Twitter users is always suspect because passwords are linked to email addresses, and forgetting one means death to the other and the account, forcing another account with another random email address and starting the cycle all over again for many.  In the early days, some young eager beaver might have seized the opportunity or for that matter been asked by some doddering soul of forty or higher to “yeah, sure, go ahead and open one of those ‘tweet’ things.”  Years later the staffer or volunteer is gone, it now seems more important to actually deal with the account, and no one can remember what and whatnot. 

            We run into these problems frequently with the volunteer armies that keep our noncommercial radio stations on a forward line of march.  We had a great Facebook account for KABF that started as a so-called personal account and hit the maximum of 5000 friends before Facebook changed to “fan” pages.  Eventually, we were able to post on the account, but no matter how many times we entreat them, they will not honor the fact that KABF is the owner of the KABF account, so we can’t administer it, and were forced to start anew two years ago.  DJs, enthusiastic about their shows or leaders enthusiastic about their local groups, start Facebook accounts on their own that sprout up like weeds in the garden.  Does it build the organization or the station or siphon interest and support away into side channels and still bayous off of the mainstream?  Both in all likelihood, and trying to rein them in often breeds the worst results, even though everyone agrees it is important to speak with one voice and protect your so-called “brand.”  Once we even had to fight to get back on own website domain, sheesh!

           To keep up with the sites, a kneejerk reaction becomes to make lots of people administrators in order to feed the beast.  On Facebook that can be a disaster.  Any administrator can suddenly evict any other administrator from the site just on their say so without a nevermind it seems to the entity which owns it all and is responsible for the content.  Yikes!  And, Facebook is no help in resolving this.  We eventually discovered, thanks to our webmaster’s diligent research, that you can have one administrator and give “privileges” to others, so we’ve changed that on all of our sites, but how many know about that hidden nugget of information.

            A gun store owner in Texas recently spent seven weeks in jail because he refused to turn over the business Facebook and Twitter accounts to a partner acquiring the outfit after a bankruptcy, claiming he had used the accounts as a personal soapbox and his speech was being silence.  A South Carolina internet company sued a former employee for taking a Twitter account with 17,000 followers with him when he left, costing them thousands.  In Pennsylvania, a federal court had to get into the mess with a woman and her former employer over who owned the Linked-In account.  Discussions about all of this largely uncharted intellectual property ownership with Doug Young, our Austin-based attorney, give him huge migraines, he reports.

            My advice:  this is a mess, so best straighten it out now BEFORE there are problems.  Just saying.

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Silicon System of Selling Personal Information for Profit is Under Attack


New Orleans    
The cult of Silicon Valley reigns supreme in these times.  The moguls of Facebook, Google, Linked-In and the rest have become the 21st century of the auto barons of Detroit in the 20th.  They are at the center of the financial pages, fashion shows, and political pundit speculations.  They are worldwide ambassadors of the new American message of innovation and business prowess.  Recently Google officials were the first US corporate ambassadors visiting both Burma and North Korea with our new message of peace and prosperity.   The world is captivated by their tools, searching, posting, tweeting, and networking to create the coming paradigms of the future.

We love the fact that all of this is often free, not the hardware, like our computers, but we often lull ourselves into thinking the rest of it has no cost.   Why should we think about the business model that drives all of this, especially since that story is a less stylist and nostalgic story of the “Mad Men” of Madison Avenue.    Monetizing these free and fun internet tools, as the Siliconers say, is all about advertising, and frankly, as too few realize, we pay for that with our privacy, sold to unknown bidders to try to sell us tons of stuff.

A coming struggle in the California legislature may bring this story more attention than Silicon Valley wants.  A bill by a Long Beach assembly woman would force, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal “internet companies, upon request, share with Californians personal information they have collected – including buying habits, physical location, and sexual orientation – and what they have passed on to third parties such as marketing companies, app makers, and other companies that collect and sell data.”

Various Silicon oriented industry groups are predictably saying that this will retard innovation, I guess for advertisers and their soap and suds companies, and of course will cost them more money.  European regulators already require a ton more disclosure about personal information kept by Google, Facebook, and the like.  Facebook when confronted by earlier investigations of how much they give over to their app folks, claimed they have limits, but of course without legislation like this, they are not required to disclose information about their “over sharing.”

The ACLU is all over this at least in California and has mobilized their members to write the companies and ask about their information.  Frankly, believing that California will bite the Silicon Valley hand that feeds it seems unrealistic, almost as unrealistic as believing that all of these modern toys are really free.  Other states need to take the lead on this issue.  Nonetheless it is one thing to pay the piper, and quite another to not even be allowed to know how much we are paying.

Please click for the Silicon Valley Report on the Radio.

 

 

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Bringing Down Bank of America: Social Media or Social Movement?

New Obank-transfer-dayrleans The queue to “count coup” on Bank of America and its decision to step back from stealing debit card fees from its customers is almost unseemly.  We expect it from politicians, and props to Senator Durbin, VP Joe Biden, and the rest of the DC gang for the pile-on, which in fact was about damn time and very helpful, but at another level it’s the old story of defeat being an unwanted child and victory having a thousand fathers, but the self-aggrandizement is particularly stark in the face of community organizations, unions, and now social movements through the Occupy forces that have made Bank of America and its corporate confederates like Chase and Wells Fargo the largest corporate targets of direct action activity.

The Times post-mortem for the business readers continued with their usual theme of trying to manage protest by promoting social media (remember Egypt which they immediately had to retract with the “real” story?) as the “organizing tool” for change with the enthusiastic, over-the-top help of www.change.org, which is a great outfit, but seems to have had no boundaries in their personal congratulations on this one.

“But those customers may have found their voice, which has been amplified by social media. “People can now use tools like Change.org, Facebook and Twitter to rapidly organize and collectively act to influence the policies of even the largest companies,” said Ben Rattray, founder of Change.org, which allows consumers to start grass-roots campaigns using its online platform.

He pointed to Molly Katchpole, a 22-year-old woman from Washington who collected more than 300,000 signatures opposing the fee by using his company’s platform. And then there is the grass-roots effort that is calling for this coming Saturday to be “Bank Transfer Day,” where customers of big banks move their accounts to community banks and credit unions.

Mr. Rattray and other consumer advocates said the outcry was about much more than fees. “Bank of America’s new debit card fee was the last straw for many consumers who are tired of banks that got bailed out that are now turning around and hiking fees,” said Norma Garcia, manager of Consumer Union’s financial services program. “There was this phenomenon with banks and others confusing passivity with loyalty. And consumers are saying, ‘You can’t take us for granted anymore.’ ”

To be fair the “powers that be” want to make sure that protest continues to operate between the straight lines, so ample praise of course in the same piece by Tara Bernard (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/02/business/bank-of-america-drops-plan-for-debit-card-fee.html?scp=1&sq=social%20media%20and%20bank%20fees&st=cse) :

Lawmakers also openly criticized Bank of America’s planned fee. Days after the bank announced that it would charge the fee, President Obama said customers should not be “mistreated” in pursuit of profit, while Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. called the move “incredibly tone deaf.” And Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Senate Democrat, spoke out on the Senate floor, urging consumers to vote with their feet. He had sponsored the rule, known as the Durbin amendment, that limited the amount banks could charge for debit card transactions.

On Tuesday, he took to the floor again. “What we have at work here is a very fundamental principle of our economy, the free market economy, transparency,” he said. “So people know what they are being charged. So they have a choice.””

But, speaking of “tone deaf,” how is it possible not to mention the daily protests around the country and the world around banks and the admitted traction that Occupy has picked up in hitting Bank of America hard where previous large protests by community organization networks and unions had failed to gain traction?

I don’t mind being manipulated by the media anymore than the next person, but, gee, can’t they be a little more slick about it?  I know we are not supposed to believe that direct action, social movements, and mass protests make a difference as we parse the new tools that focus on a “theory of change,” but it takes people to use tools, and when the people are in motion, as they are now, let’s at least be clear about stating the obvious no matter how much credit some might want to claim or how much others might want to deny.

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The Curious Contradictions of Community Organizing and the United Kingdom – Part III

Nelondon_citizens_2_3w Orleans Without having read the final paperwork on Locality’s winning proposal to train 500 community organizers and the final contract terms agreed to by the British government, it can be impossible to be sure how far afield the eventual program will evolve from the initial advocacy and intentions of Citizens UK.  It is clear that despite their best intentions the core competency and experience of the partners forming Locality and their primary training design contractor, Re:generate Trust, is not in community organizing, as we would classically understand the concept and methodology, though it is immediately important to state unequivocally that we may be witnessing and forcing to recognize a evolutionary development of community organizing along a branch moving in a different and perhaps troubling direction.

Re:generate Trust has focused on developing “community activists” according to its literature, rather than community organizers.  Their methodology correctly takes “listening” as a foundational part of the organizing process, which I agree is fundamental and often not sufficiently credited (see my NPR piece on this website), but then it veers away from developing organization and engaging in building power at least in any way that I can discern.  To the degree that Prime Minister Cameron’s Big Society centerpiece now focuses on training and developing 4500 volunteer “organizers” as the outcome of this contract it is a certainty that we are really only talking about identifying gatekeepers and channeling activists.

For all of the talk about these community insertions, particularly in the wake of the ongoing riots, it seems that we should really translate the language of “building social capital” into “achieving social control.”  Those that might have ascribed an agenda to Cameron and his government of creating burrs in the saddle of local governments and bureaucracies in the current austerity slimming have misunderstood their intentions completely.  This is about tamping down trouble, creating pressure values for hopelessness, rage, and malaise, and effective use of soft power to achieve great social control in poor localities.  Community organizing is at risk of undergoing a total perversion of program and purpose in the way this worm has now turned, regardless of what might have been the best intentions of Citizens UK and Locality, particularly given the current crisis in British society.  Given the evolution of this type of organizing methodology in Britain, perhaps this evolutionary aberration was inevitable and intentional.

The “lessons” being drawn by the powers that be in Britain from the current unrest are profoundly disturbing.  The role of the police and second guessing of its tactics in dealing with British unrest recall nothing so much as the same debate in Cairo in the wake of the street protests there and whether or not police are an instrument of public safety or the hard fist of political power.   Cameron might be vying for a place in the dock with Mubarak in his widely reported call now to shut down social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook, curtail use of smartphones, and generally eliminate civil liberties in a new British Raj imposed on poor neighborhoods in London, Birmingham, and other cities.

As George Lakoff or Drew Westen might argue, part of this is a desperate governmental effort at strategic reframing.  Cameron wants to limit all debate and conversation to the issue of vandalism and “criminality” wrenched from any other context.

The context that British society with the help until very recently of most of the press and world media is most interested in fleeing has to do not just with poverty, but as importantly with race and the huge divisions that are masked over in denial in British culture and politics.  The riots were ignited after all in Detroit like fashion with the injury to a black man, yet the usual “narrative” stumbled when so many of the rioters seemed to be the young whites typecast as soccer hooligans in Brit-speak.  The tragic killing of three South Asians acting somewhere on the fault line in Birmingham between vigilantes and community “police,” through vehicular homicide with an Afro-Caribbean driver underscores this divide as well as recalling the fierce violence in the UK’s second largest city a couple of years ago between black citizens and south Asian cities.

There seem to be acknowledged institutions that respond to the rigid class divide in British society though like the unions and the Labour Party they are weakening and diluted, which may be part of the problem here as well.  There do not yet seem to be such recognized institutions that are part of the practice and byplay of power in the UK.  Given the different though critical importance and recognition of the role of race in the last 60 years of American political life, it is past debate that gatekeepers, activists, mediators, animators, and others are all nice, but irrelevant to making progress around race and its tensions.  Dialogue and debate in the absence of real political, institutional, and economic power is a fake conversation from the first words to the last.   We are witnessing powerlessness feeding on itself not on some kind of text messaging, flash mob phenomena and then erupting in violence and rage.  Race matters in Britain, too, and they need to read the memo, not just note that they saw it on streets and in the news.  This is a call for radical surgery and not Band-Aids.  People have to find a place and a voice now or there is nothing but the fire next time, especially for the disposed among the poor and racial minorities.

A government now even more committed to command-and-control, cutbacks, and conservativism does not get that, but community organizations and organizers need to fully embrace both the challenge and opportunity.  The curious contradiction at the heart of the United Kingdom debate over the role of organizers speaks to a growing, unacknowledged divide in our work as well.  Even while we all continue to speak the language of power building, the role of organizers in this process is being distorted.  They are being placed at the head of class, not at the back.  They are being separated from their role as organization builders and twisted into a role as mediators, translators, reconcilers, and advocates, which may all be valid parts of the job description but have no meaning when uprooted outside of specific organizational service and context.

Though it is controversial in the United States, it is ridiculous for organizers to pretend that we are not agitators, since our business is creating change and building power.  Somehow in the United Kingdom, and perhaps elsewhere, community organizers are being confused with collaborators, confidants, networkers, process technicians, organizational theorists, and relationship experts, which can easily lead to misunderstandings about whether we are instruments of social control or organizational empowerment.  There is hardly anything more strange than imagining community organizers as insiders (there reasons that Barack Obama was not a good community organizer and had to find a way to make a living elsewhere after all!) rather than outsiders.  We are not the handmaidens of power, but the working tools of the powerless.

The riots in the United Kingdom against the backdrop of the potential distortion of community organizing as part of Cameron’s Conservative Party Big Society are a wakeup call for organizers and organizations to get back to basics and the fundamentals of our work.  The traditional culture of community organizing emerged from the riots in the United States that centered the debate about poverty and race.  The contemporary culture that puts a necktie and a prayer on the deep demand for power and change needs to remember and return to a recognition that power is not build without struggle, demand, and, even conflict.  The United Kingdom now needs great community organizers to help build powerful community organizations to work fight right at the crossroads of these issues now.  The advertisements are not for training programs with the “kickstarters” in September, but right now in the headlines of the daily papers and the film footage of burning stores and cars.   The organizations and organizers that step into the streets of London and Birmingham and elsewhere now can create the change that matters.

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