OPINION: On Internet activism

BY SHRUTHI DEIVASIGAMANI
Columnist

I logged onto Facebook last Tuesday afternoon to behold a sight that I’m sure was not unique to my computer screen. Somehow, over the course of the previous few hours, it seemed as though all of my friends on Facebook had changed their profile pictures from idyllic spring break beach shots to the same graphic of a pink equal sign on a red background. I was initially confused, and with good reason, but a quick Google search told me what was going on.

Last Tuesday marked the first day the Supreme Court heard a series of cases involving gay marriage, regarding specifically the Defense of Marriage Act and California’s long-contested Proposition 8. The Human Rights Campaign posted the now seemingly iconic image of a pink equal sign on a red background Tuesday morning and encouraged proponents of same-sex marriage to share the image or post it as their profile picture.

Cynical backlash was instantaneous. “Hurry!!” said one status. “Supreme Court is tallying up all the red equal signs right now!” “Before we make our decision,” said another, the phrase superimposed over a picture of Sotomayor, “did enough people change their profile pictures?” While it’s a valid point that the SCOTUS doesn’t care what the college kids of America have to say on a social networking platform, the blatant skepticism and contempt is misplaced. People disparaging “Internet activism” for not enacting surefire change are missing the point of it completely.

The point isn’t to enact change so much as it is to draw attention to important matters — and in a generation in which political apathy reigns supreme in adolescents and young adults, simply knowing what’s going on at Capitol Hill on any given day can be a huge step. Facebook campaigns are an innovative way to keep up with the ever-morphing uses of technology.

According to Google Trends, Google searches for “red equal sign” became the top trending topic on Tuesday, the day the Facebook campaign was launched, garnering over a million searches. Searches for “Human Rights Campaign” came in seventh for the day with over 50,000 hits. Seeing something viral piques people’s curiosity, and they try to figure out what’s going on themselves, creating an interactive engagement with matters that their peers deem important. While the red equal sign certainly won’t affect the Supreme Court’s decision, it was successful in instantaneously spreading awareness about the cause.

The effects of such a campaign on Princeton’s campus is significant for two reasons. First of all, deny it as we might, the Orange Bubble can at times seem double bolted and reinforced with steel. Take Hurricane Sandy, for example. The first day of fall break last semester was also the first day that I heard there was a hurricane headed for our area. Being so wrapped up in midterms, I had no clue what was going on outside of the FitzRandolph Gate. While people were probably aware that the SCOTUS was to hear gay rights cases sometime in the future, most I talked with that day weren’t aware that it was happening this week until they saw the Facebook campaign. Second of all, Princeton’s campus is by far lacking political activism (particularly when compared to a certain other Ivy situated in a certain other nearby city). “Internet activism” lets people debate about topics through a different medium. Though the image of an indignant college sophomore hunched over a computer screen might not be as iconic as that of a row of protesters picketing an office in downtown D.C., it might be just as effective in getting a point across, particularly as students have a limited amount of time.

Of course, Internet activism isn’t limited to Facebook profile pictures. Internet backlash is a potent force that has played a hand in several hot-button political issues, such as the SOPA/PIPA Internet censorship acts that caused several sites to “black out” in protest. It’s easy to be dismissive of Internet activism, but in reality it has the potential to play a significant role in shaping politics.

We’ve reached a day and age when being homophobic is just as unacceptable as being racist. Religious excuses for narrow-mindedness just don’t cut it anymore. The national climate has reached a point such that even Rush Limbaugh recently resigned himself to the fact that gay marriage will inevitably be legal in the coming future. And what’s the reason that the national climate on the matter is so clear and obvious to us without having to gather a simple random sample or look up the latest Gallup Poll? Just check your newsfeed.

Shruthi Deivasigamani is a freshman from Creskill, N.J. She can be reached at shruthid@princeton.edu.

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One thought on “OPINION: On Internet activism

  1. “We’ve reached a day and age when being homophobic is just as unacceptable as being racist.” You seem to suggest, though, that everyone who doesn’t support gay marriage is homophobic and that is just not the case at all.

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