How Technology Shapes Social Movements
Digital platforms broaden messages and their support
In September 1994, after years of grassroots advocacy, Congress passed the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) and President Clinton signed it into law. VAWA provides federal funding for enhanced law enforcement, social services, and legal services for victims of domestic violence. By its express terms, Congress must reauthorize VAWA every five years. And for the first few reauthorization cycles, bipartisan support to renew the law was common, and Congress even added enhancements to the law over time to expand its coverage. In 2011, the law was up for renewal in a hyper-partisan atmosphere, with a strongly divided Congress and an upcoming election year where President Obama faced a tough reelection fight. At the same time, a diverse group of advocates led by the National Task Force to End Sexual and Domestic Violence Against Women mustered to not just renew the law, but strengthen it in important ways, including ensuring that it offered support to members of the LGBTQ community, expanded protection for Native American women, and increased resources for undocumented victims of domestic violence. While the law expired again recently, and efforts to pass renewal legislation in the Senate have stalled, lessons from the last reauthorization fight, and what they say about social movements and their relationship to technology, are instructive for this and other efforts to advance social change in the digital age. The following excerpt from The Future of Change: How Technology Shapes Social Revolutions picks up the fight in early 2013, after President Obama won reelection, while reauthorization was still pending.—Ray Brescia
A law that had long had bipartisan support in Congress, the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), lapsed in 2011 and an agreement could not be reached to reauthorize it. But after the Republicans lost the presidential election in 2012 and did not gain as many seats in the Senate as they had hoped they would, an opportunity arose for advocates to seize the moment and press for change. For Pat Reuss, a long-time veteran of VAWA reauthorization fights, the situation created a “rare confluence” of events and offered an opening to advocates to renew the reauthorization campaign. After mostly waiting until the completion of the 2012 election cycle, leaders from a broad network of advocacy organizations worked collaboratively to renew their demand for a reformed VAWA that would be more inclusive. In order to bring about the change they hoped to achieve, diverse members of this coalition harnessed technology, fostered trust, promoted a unifying message, forged a diverse network of members who had more in common than they had differences, and faced down efforts to divide them. The hallmarks of this campaign offer lessons for advocacy in today’s hyperconnected—yet often isolating—world.
One of the strategies advocates used to promote their message to harness the power of social media. Using Twitter and Facebook, advocates urged their constituents to share their stories of intimate partner violence and to express their support for a VAWA with strengthened protections for members of the LGBTQ communities, undocumented immigrants, and Native Americans who had survived such violence. They used the Twitter hashtag “#realVAWA” to share personalized stories of survivors of intimate partner violence and educate the public about what strengthened protections under a reformed VAWA could mean to members of communities who were vulnerable under the wording of the act that had expired. Reuss says that local and state groups pulled these stories together because “almost everyone had been, or knows intimately, a friend or a relative who has been the victim of incest, sexual assault, spousal battering.” The message that the task force tried to convey was a simple one: intimate partner violence “happens to everybody; it’s not just a secret.”
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