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Digital dustups: Can social media protest force corporate change?

Lucas Mearian | April 14, 2014
Backlash against online protests is likely.

Michelle Malkin, an American author with nearly 700,000 followers, called out what she considered a racist tweet from the Twitter handle @ColbertReport that read, "I am willing to show #Asian Community I care by introducing the Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever."

Comedy Central quickly deleted the tweet after Malkin jumped on it with a #CancelColbert Twitter campaign. Colbert's deletion of his post just threw gasoline on the fire, as Malkin then called him a coward.

Malkin may not be widely known, according to Castro, but because so many people follow her Twitter posts, her protest quickly escalated.

"On one hand, it's not just the ability to communicate, but it's the fact you have these strong networks and a few strong people within them mobilizing them; and when it's against an online service that can be easily affected from just a few key strokes, you see it accelerate even more," Castro said.

According to a study released last month by Georgetown University's Center for Social Impact Communication, 55% of digitally active American adults are likely to do far more for a cause than simply "like" it on a Website.

The study, " Digital Persuasion: How Social Media Motivates Action and Drives Support for Causes," revealed that 82% of respondents believe that social media is effective in getting more people to talk about causes or issues.

The survey also showed active Web users were prompted by social media to donate money (68%), donate personal items or food (52%), attend or participate in an event (43%), and even volunteer (53%).

Survey respondents named social media as their top source of information about the causes they support, the study stated. That was true even for respondents who only support their chosen causes offline, which further supports this shift.

"The study demonstrates that these tools can go beyond just building awareness and creating connections to compel meaningful, measurable action," Denise Keyes, executive director of Georgetown University Center for Social Impact Communication, said in a statement.

But Castro believes online protests are likely to have a short shelf life, and there soon may be a backlash. That's because people who are constantly online tend to become fatigued when asked over and over again to participate in a protest.

Companies are also likely to be more proactive in the future to try to determine what might cause a protest and get out ahead of it. "These protests are new, so companies will have to figure out how to adjust to them and operate in that environment."

And companies being targeted may also push back by "sticking to their guns" and refusing to take action, Castro said.

Dropbox, for example, knew Rice's political background before hiring her, so it would come as no surprise that some customers might oppose her appointment to their board.


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