Jon Stewart’s Rally to Restore Sanity a Good Test of Social Media Power to Mobilize the Masses

Lots of my friends are today talking about Stephen Colbert’s official testimony, in character, to a Congressional subcommittee (which is either a brilliant PR move by committee staff to raise the profile of an issue, or a mockery of one of America’s proudest institutions, depending on your point of view) on immigration and migrant farm workers. But while the media is understandably discussing his testimony today, they will soon dissect his and Jon Stewart’s recently announced rallies on the Washington Mall to be held the day before Halloween– rallies that I feel provide an amazing opportunity to truly gauge the power of social media to mobilize the masses.

Just take a look at the tweets exploding into a google search just moments after its announcement:

Literally within minutes, the rally was trending across twitter.  Within days, the event was plastered all over facebook- as this writing there’s over 150,000 people RSVP’d to Jon Stewart’s rally alone.  These rallies follow in the great tradition of mobilizing a movement in our nation’s capitol. For decades the Lincoln Memorial has served as a backdrop for memorable speeches, important moments, and events that have shaped our history as a people– but this will be the first one organized primarily from the social web.

Last year, I helped organize a large-scale rally at the Pennsylvania Capitol in support of legislation that would make it illegal to fire someone because they’re gay.   We knew we had to fill the Rotunda, show legislators that people from across Pennsylvania care about this issue, for it to be successful.  Obviously we jumped onto facebook and twitter, and I’m sure countless attendees discovered the event through their own social network- but we also tapped into the community of people and existing organizational infrastructure working on gay rights issues to turn out the crowd.  We sought out organizations to co-sponsor the rally, raised funds to bus people in from different cities across the state, spoke at meetings and gatherings, and got ourselves booked onto several radio programs to spread the information.  In other words, we implemented a massive on-the-ground turnout effort with the help of an existing infrastructure of organizations working on the issue.  In the end, hundreds of people came, rallied, and our event was a success.

Looking at recent rallies on the National Mall (such as the March for [LGBT] Equality and Glenn Beck’s event to restore “honor”), they each had this existing organizational infrastructure of people and organizations to tap into.  Beck worked alongside dozens of national conservative organizations, FOX News, local and national Tea Party groups, and others to turn out his crowd.  These groups provided buses, promoted the rally on their list-serves and meetings, and raised money to put on a successful event.

In just a week’s time, yet another rally is scheduled for Washington- One Nation Working Together– sponsored by the AFL-CIO with MSNBC host Ed Schultz as a featured speaker.  Just look at their front page:  Join the Movement (to receive countless reminder emails), Find a Ride (to connect local groups of people and encourage higher turnout), Volunteer (to organize small groups from across the country to attend), and Tell a Friend (to invite your own network of friends and family). In the header is a nice-sized donation button.  With just the click of a mouse you can find the vast list of endorsing organizations, including groups from the gay rights, choice, labor, and progressive movements, among others.  You better believe each one of these endorsing groups are sending out action alerts, talking about the rally at their meetings, chartering buses, and getting their people to the event.

Which brings us to Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert’s rally next month.  While appealing to a broad audience, which existing organizations are getting their people to the event?  Which grassroots organizations are chartering buses?  Who is sending information out to their membership?  Obviously Comedy Central as well as the hosts themselves will play up the rally on their network and respective shows, but this is one of the very first, large-scale rallies that I can think of without that built-in, on-the-ground constituency of people to tap into for turnout.

Almost all the organizing is happening online, and the power of social media to mobilize the masses by itself will be tested by this event.  Everyone knows that when you have 20 facebook RSVP’s to an event, 5 actually show– so I’m curious to see how many of those 150,000 will be there in Washington.  This post is not in ANY way discounting the rallies– I think they’re needed and will hopefully excite progressive voters out of their apathy.  I also think turnout will be good; it’ll certainly receive a lot of coverage in the press.  But organizing on such a large scale solely through social media, and without the benefits of a built-in constituency, is a hard thing to do. I think this is a good case study on the power of social media to mobilize on its own.

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