The Evolution of Revolution (and that other story…)

Posted on February 6, 2012


If you have a Facebook account (and if you’re reading a blog, chances are you do…), then I’m fairly certain I can guess which story appeared day after day at the top of your newsfeed last week.  “So-and-so and 10 other friends posted about…”?

Answer: the Susan G. Komen and Planned Parenthood controversy.

In case you are still fuzzy on the details – last Tuesday, Susan G. Komen for the Cure, the world’s largest breast cancer research organization – the one responsible for creating the pink ribbon campaign – decided to no longer give grants to Planned Parenthood. Komen said the decision to pull funding was based on its policy of not giving money to organizations under investigation, as Planned Parenthood is (an investigation into whether it has used federal funding for abortions).

However, Planned Parenthood said Komen – namely its CEO Nancy Brinker – bowed to political pressure from anti-abortion lobbyists who despise Planned Parenthood for performing abortions (even though the organization says only three percent of its services are abortions).

In a matter of days, Komen reversed its decision and reinstated its funding and partnership with Planned Parenthood.

What caused the about-face? The nearly unanimous credit is going to social media. Countless headlines have drawn the conclusion that Facebook and Twitter fueled the fury among supporters of Planned Parenthood and the pressure on Komen/Brinker to reinstate the funding became overwhelming.

In a conference call with the press after Komen reinstated the funding and Brinker apologized, Planned Parenthood’s CEO, Cecile Richards, said, “”I absolutely believe the exposure on Facebook and Twitter really drove a lot of coverage by mainstream media. I’ve never seen anything catch fire [like this.]”

While I do recognize the monumental impact that social media had on this story – I fear that it is becoming the story. The article that led me to this thought was by Andy Ostroy, political and pop culture analyst for the Huffington Post. In his article, “The Komen Controversy: Enough Already With “The Power of Social Media,” Ostroy argues that people, more than social media, should be given the credit for making Nancy Brinker change her mind.  He reminds us that the American Revolution and the Civil Rights Movement were successful without the tools of Facebook and Twitter.  It’s human nature’s urge to protest when it witnesses wrongdoing that is really the magnificent part of this story.

I appreciate this concept.  The fact is, there are two very important stories here, and only one is getting attention. That story is the “evolution of revolution”. We witnessed this on a grand scale in Tunisia and Egypt, and here is yet another example of the incredible power this new technology can wield.

The other story is what the people were actually protesting against. As New York Times op-ed columnist Ross Douthat reminded me in his article, this country is virtually split on the abortion issue. It is the most controversial issue of our time, so it is almost understandable that the media would rather focus on the social media angle than the abortion angle – almost.

As Douthat wrote in his piece: “[J]ournalists betray their calling when they simply ignore self-evident truths about a story. Three truths, in particular, should be obvious to everyone reporting on the Komen-Planned Parenthood controversy. First, that the fight against breast cancer is unifying and completely uncontroversial, while the provision of abortion may be the most polarizing issue in the United States today. Second, that it’s no more “political” to disassociate oneself from the nation’s largest abortion provider than it is to associate with it in the first place. Third, that for every American who greeted Komen’s shift with “anger and outrage” (as Andrea Mitchell put it), there was probably an American who was relieved and gratified.”

Social media is undeniably fun and interesting to analyze, and it is still “newsworthy” when it impacts a story like it did here.  But all communicators – journalists and PR pros – should not ignore what the people behind the social media posts really want to talk about.