The pro-life movement has taken advantage of the rising popularity of social media to spread its message and gain supporters. During the U.S. March for Life in January 2013, pro-lifers used these platforms to spread information and report on the event attended by hundreds of thousands of participants, which the mainstream media largely ignored.
“This year, we must make our tremendous presence known in a way that breaks through the media blackout,” wrote Kristan Hawkins, of Students for Life of America, in a blog post written before the March, instructing pro-lifers in how to use the internet to draw attention and post content from the event. “The most important thing you can do is speak and elevate the voices of others through social media for events during March Week.”
Pro-life individuals and organizations do not only use social media for large national marches. Campaign Life Coalition Youth uses platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, and Instagram for recruitment, advertising about events, communicating messages to politicians and media, and for uploading videos. Supporters can receive emails and text messages about updates and new content. Its Facebook page, for instance, advertised the Defund Abortion Rally and provides links to abortion polls, blog posts, and content by other pro-life groups. Users who “like” the page receive its postings in their Facebook news feeds. CLC Youth also held a Pro-Life Global Tweet-A-Thon on International Women’s Day, partly to counter the International Planned Parenthood Federation’s own 24-hour Twitter campaign on the same day.
Alissa Golob, head of CLC Youth, told The Interim that the organization uses social media because that is “where everybody is,” with many people spending hours each day on the various platforms, “always connected” through mobile devices. CLC Youth aims to continue to build its database to “help people come to the pro-life movement” where they can learn about how they can engage in activism.
The Canadian Centre for Bioethical Reform uses social media to recruit and to educate. “We alert people to our projects, advertise our work for recruitment purposes, and disseminate materials,” stated Jonathon Van Maren of the CCBR to The Interim in an email. “We reach on average 30,000 people a week through Facebook alone.”
CCBR uses Facebook, Twitter, iTunes, and blog posts. Supporters can subscribe to the weekly educational End the Killing podcast. Stephanie Gray’s appearances on Radio Teopoli, a Catholic Toronto radio station, are also available for download. The group produces pro-life graphics which it posts on Facebook and provides video of its events (such as the New Abortion Caravan campaign) on Youtube.
Student Life Link, operating under the auspices of Toronto Right to Life, primarily uses Facebook to gear its campaigns towards high school students. It hopes “to connect local communities of pro-life teenagers with each other across the country and enable collective action and activism” while establishing links with the wider pro-life movement, Blaise Alleyne, president of Toronto Right to Life, told The Interim in an email. “We’re in the process of developing some activism campaigns, designed for or tailored to the high school environment.” Alleyne explains, “here, social media will be part of our strategy for spreading the word.”
Student Life Link also provides links to pro-life news stories, videos, activism opportunities, and reports about pro-life high school students. Students can find out about SLL’s online platforms through other pro-life organizations, by attending their conference in Toronto, by communicating with other students who attended the conference, or through SLL content shared by friends over Facebook.
Criticisms have been made, however, of the value of social media activism in general. In an article for the New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell concludes that internet activism does not foster the strong interpersonal relationships and willingness to risk life and social acceptance for a cause like, for example, the American civil rights movement of the 1960s. Rather, social media is based upon easy commitment to low-risk situations, he says. For instance, the ‘Help Sameer’ campaign which attracted 25,000 supporters only required them to send in a cheek swab to check if their bone marrow was a match for Sameer Bhatia, who needed a transplant.
Gladwell also cites the Facebook page of the Save Darfur Coalition. When he wrote his article in 2011, the 1,282,339 supports the coalition collected online donated an average of 9 cents each. “Facebook activism,” Gladwell says, “succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice.”
On the other hand, a study on the influence of Facebook on voter turnout in the 2010 U.S. midterm elections published in the journal Nature suggests that social media is effective in influencing people to make small sacrifices that have an impact on public life. Researchers at the University of California San Diego found that over 60 million Facebook users saw a “get out the vote” message at the top of their news feeds on election day, along with profile pictures of Facebook friends who had already voted. The study reported that 600,000 saw no message at all and another 600,000 saw the message, but with no notification about the friends who had voted.
The results of the study showed that users who saw that their friends had voted were more likely to vote themselves, while those who only got the voting message were as likely to vote as those who had no notification at all. “The main driver of behavior change is not the message – it’s the vast social network,” said lead author James Fowler professor of political science and of medical genetics at UC San Diego in a press release.
“Whether we want to get out the vote or improve public health, we should not only focus on the direct effect of an intervention, but also on the indirect effect as it spreads from person to person to person.”
There are also other advantages. CLC Youth’s Golob said much of social media has a “domino effect” – users share pictures or content through Facebook that appears on other people’s news feeds or walls, which they in turn could choose to share with their friends. “Facebook makes it possible to reach out in a place where most high school students are gathering, regardless of their physical location,” stated Alleyne. The same goes for Twitter.
“Young people are tapped into social media,” said CCBR’s Van Maren. “If you want them to listen to your message, put your message where they can see it.”