Halt Catch Fire: The Power of “Advocacy 2.0”

It was inevitable that the social media movement was destined to collide with Washington’s K Street corridor, common shorthand for that infamous row of real estate long home to the nation’s top lobby shops.

But nobody – from the well-heeled power brokers to Congressional leadership –predicted the unprecedented backslash that would end consideration of dueling legislation in record time.

It may sound like revisionism of sorts, but the extermination of the Stop Online Privacy Act and the Protect IP Act – acronyms (#SOPA) and (#PIPA) as they became known on Twitter, where millions of followers condemned the bills and their supporters in and out of Congress, merits a reexamination of the true heroes behind the success of an advocacy campaign that forever changed the digital landscape.

If politics could be “hacked”, these were players behind it inspired by a network of mass support driven not by paychecks, election cycles, egos or backroom deals but rather the raw and visceral power of a nation digitally engaged.

Today, some two years later, their statistical records stand as a monument to the pantheon of heroes who refused to become victims of draconian legislation penned by Congressional villains: a) over 3 million emails; b) an online petition topping 10 million signatures and c) phone calls which, to this day, are still being counted.

It didn’t take long for Congress to get the message. Co-sponsors begged off, respective Chairman withdrew the legislation with promises of a “MacArthuresque” we will return; as lobby shops backslid into the more familiar worlds of energy; healthcare; defense.

Yet in spite of this retreat, this hyper political world where policy often masquerades as politics, players seemed utterly lost and perpetually confused.

Still, they just didn’t get it. As evidenced by the yell by one well-known lobbyist on Blackout Wednesday, “What the hell happened to Google?!”

Campaigns had been using electronic technology for the better part of at least three election cycles.  Candidate operations could now pull up the addresses, donation amounts, income brackets, even the reading habits of every potential and longtime supporter in all neighborhoods nationwide.

Wasn’t advocacy just an offshoot of this modern day practice?

As Congress learned the hard way, politics and advocacy campaigns may share certain traits but they are hardly differences without distinction.

The defeat of SOPA and PIPA involved social activism in action.  Somehow, someway an Internet community had managed the impossible – to constructively act on their emotions and place their suggestions coupled with reasonable solutions in front of over 600 lawmakers all with the push of a “send” button.


Lost on so much of the traditional political culture is this basic and critical fact: Internet activists are idealistic.  They hold to a sense of democracy in action, freedom of unfettered expression and transparent governance.

Time honored rules and smoke-filled back-room deals hold little to no value. Ill-conceived problems are ones that might be better solved with more technology.  And quaint political theater has no place in this digital world.

It’s a world where emotion dictates the strength of advocacy.

 What spreads like wildfire is the fervent belief that the digital world can bring about systemic change.

Online communities are just that, a network that is eager to be tapped into not one motivated by a clause in legislation. It takes a keen sense of understanding of the passion that drives activism built on consensus, open debate and complete transparency.  Pecking orders or titular leadership isn’t what the digital world craves, rather a chance for each user to express their point of view based on the strength or weakness of their argument.

These are the takeaways of the online nature of the SOPA/PIPA movement.

Sure Google, Facebook, Twitter, Wikipedia and Reddit to name just a few, had their rightful say in the debate.

But these uber-billion and multi-million dollar cooperations are not what will carry the day; week; moth; year; decade.

It’s the communities behind them, the tens of millions of users – “residents” of the rapidly growing digital neighborhoods.

Advocacy’s true power today rests in the hands of these masses which, when properly cultivated and awareness raised. have the power to take action and drive systemic change through emotional and belief in a structure they create -- not one that’s created for them.

These are the true heroes of the digital advocacy story, one that is just unfolding.


Michael A. Siegel, guest contributor

Michael A. Siegel has spent over 20 years working at the intersection of politics and policy.  Presently a consultant in Washington D.C., he specializes in the development of digital and traditional tactical advocacy campaigns for clients at home and abroad.  His publications and commentary on issues ranging from domestic to foreign policy have appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, International Herald Tribune and Politico.