Facebook a force on gay marriage

Facebook a force on gay marriage
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Think of it as the “rainbow connection.”

Twenty-six million people added a rainbow filter to their Facebook profile last week after the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage, affirming to friends and family members that they supported the court’s action. 

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The display illustrated the changing views in the country on gay rights, and provided a vivid example of how social media is increasingly intersecting with political debate.

Facebook said that two interns came up with the filter at a hackathon the week of the ruling in preparation for LGBT pride weekend. When the ruling came down on Friday, the company realized the tool could allow supporters of gay marriage to make their voices heard.

“I believe a more open and more connected world is a world where hatred cannot be normalized and where tolerance, acceptance and (ideally) in the long term love and friendship will out and I'm ‪#‎proud‬ we get to play a small role in making that happen,” said Alex Schultz, the company’s Vice President of Internet Marketing, in a post.

Politicians have tried in recent years to tap into the power of Facebook, making the platform a key vehicle for raising money and winning support.

Perhaps the most coveted prize on Facebook for candidates is the simple act of being “liked” by a user — a signifier of support seen by the friends, family members and co-workers who might be persuadable voters.

Academics who study Facebook say the social network, where users see content posted by people they know and trust, has the power to shape public opinion in unique and powerful ways.

“You’re much more likely to take a piece of information and apply it and act on it if it’s coming from a friend,” said Jessica Vitak, an assistant professor at the University of Maryland’s College of Information Studies. “And that to me is why Facebook has so much potential influence.”

Politics is a popular topic on Facebook, providing fodder for debates that play out among users, often in long threads that can become heated and emotional.

Because people typically use Facebook under their real names, expressing political opinions can be risky for people who might fear generating a backlash.

Some conservative opponents of same-sex marriage sought to counter the popularity of the rainbow filter with postings of American flags, but the campaign never caught fire to the same degree.

Whether the dominance of the rainbow reflects the demographics of social media, changing public attitudes, or simply a choice by some people to remain silent is hard to determine.

But what’s not in doubt is that social media is coming of age as a bottom-up force in politics.

The prominence of social media in the marriage debate was amplified in 2013, when the Supreme Court was weighing whether to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act and California’s Proposition 8.

Ahead of the ruling, the Human Rights Campaign asked its followers on Facebook to change their profile pictures to a red and pink version of its equals-sign logo.

The campaign went viral. Facebook estimated that roughly 2.7 million people changed their profile picture to show their support.

“For a long time, when people stood up for a cause and weren't all physically standing shoulder to shoulder, the size of their impact wasn’t immediately apparent. But today, we can see the spread of an idea online in greater detail than ever before,” Facebook’s data science team said in a blog post at the time.

In a paper published this year, Facebook-affiliated scientists found that data from the red equals-sign campaign in 2013 showed “that most individuals need to observe several of their friends taking the action before social proof is sufficient to justify deciding to engage in the action themselves.”

“This could be the result of the effort (downloading the photo, and then re-uploading it takes several steps relative to a single click reshare), but also uncertainty about the meaning, importance and popularity of the initiative,” wrote authors Bogdan State and Lada Adamic, who said that other factors also contributed to the prevalence of the campaign.

A 2010 study co-authored by Vitak found that seeing friends do political activities on Facebook would increase the likelihood that a user would engage in similar activity.

Some dispute the idea that by simply changing their profile photo, a Facebook user is making an effective political statement. They level accusations of “slacktivism” at the campaigns — calling it a lazy and safe alternative to protests or grassroots organizing.

But strategists within the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) movement say that digital efforts gave them momentum as public opinion swung in favor of same-sex marriage.

“Social has in a sense been kind of like steroids, enabling us to really scale our storytelling, really scale the amount of public persuasion we were able to do,” said Freedom to Marry Digital and Creative Director Michael Crawford.

He said that the organization would use social media to test potential new messages for its campaigns before they were rolled out in other parts of the organization.

Gay rights supporters also said that social media has given LGBT people around the country and world a channel for sharing their stories. This has, in turn, has helped sway public opinion, said Scott Zumwalt, who managed digital efforts for the It Gets Better project and is now a consultant.

“The studies have shown that the best way to win over a supporter of equality is for someone to know and meet someone who is LGBT. And 9-in-10 Americans know someone who is LGBT today,” Zumwalt said.

“You can definitely attribute that to social media as a way to connect a distinct group to others.”