Digital dustups: Can social media protest force corporate change?

Backlash against online protests is likely

A week after Mozilla's CEO was forced to step down for his stance against gay marriage, an ad hoc group is calling for a boycott of cloud storage company Dropbox because it plans to include former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on its board of directors.

The Drop Dropbox website image.

The announcement of Rice's appointment on Dropbox's blog site was peppered with comments both fervently for and against the move.

At the very least, the protests are being enabled by the Web, if not specifically encouraged by it and social media sites that spread the opinions of users in ways never before capable.

There are two components driving the trend in Internet protests: They tend to be effective against Web services and online networks allow people to mobilize quickly, according to Daniel Castro, a senior IT policy analyst with the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a non-partisan think tank.

"I think these types of protests can be very effective if [used] against online services like a Dropbox or a Mozilla because their users are online and they can quickly take an action," Castro said. "They can go online and switch their service or not download Firefox anymore."

Yesterday, a webpage called Drop Dropbox popped up on the Web and began building momentum after being posted to sites such as Reddit.

"This is deeply disturbing, and anyone or any business who values ethics should be concerned," the Drop Dropbox website states. "When a company quite literally has access to all of your data, ethics become more than a fun thought experiment."

The webpage cites Rice's position as President George W. Bush's National Security Advisor in the lead up to the Iraq War and her support for the war. It also claims Rice supported the torture of al-Qaeda suspects and warrantless wiretaps.

"Condoleezza Rice could have resigned from the Bush Administration if she believed these actions -- all of which she was deeply involved with -- were wrong. She did not," the protest page concludes.

Last week, Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich stepped down after less than two weeks in the post after he came under fire because of his support for California's Proposition 8 ballot initiative. In 2008, Eich contributed to supporters of Prop 8, a measure that banned same-sex marriage before a court overturned it as unconstitutional.

The week prior to Eich's resignation, Mozilla employees used Twitter to protest his appointment.

And two weeks ago, a campaign on Twitter to get Comedy Central to cancel the late-night satirical television program The Colbert Report garnered thousands of "retweets" and news coverage.

Michelle Malkin, an American author with nearly 700,000 followers, called out what she considered a racist tweet from the Twitter handle @ColbertReport that read, "I am willing to show #Asian Community I care by introducing the Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever."

Comedy Central quickly deleted the tweet after Malkin jumped on it with a #CancelColbert Twitter campaign. Colbert's deletion of his post just threw gasoline on the fire, as Malkin then called him a coward.

Malkin may not be widely known, according to Castro, but because so many people follow her Twitter posts, her protest quickly escalated.

"On one hand, it's not just the ability to communicate, but it's the fact you have these strong networks and a few strong people within them mobilizing them; and when it's against an online service that can be easily affected from just a few key strokes, you see it accelerate even more," Castro said.

According to a study released last month by Georgetown University's Center for Social Impact Communication, 55% of digitally active American adults are likely to do far more for a cause than simply "like" it on a Website.

The study, " Digital Persuasion: How Social Media Motivates Action and Drives Support for Causes," revealed that 82% of respondents believe that social media is effective in getting more people to talk about causes or issues.

The survey also showed active Web users were prompted by social media to donate money (68%), donate personal items or food (52%), attend or participate in an event (43%), and even volunteer (53%).

Survey respondents named social media as their top source of information about the causes they support, the study stated. That was true even for respondents who only support their chosen causes offline, which further supports this shift.

"The study demonstrates that these tools can go beyond just building awareness and creating connections to compel meaningful, measurable action," Denise Keyes, executive director of Georgetown University Center for Social Impact Communication, said in a statement.

But Castro believes online protests are likely to have a short shelf life, and there soon may be a backlash. That's because people who are constantly online tend to become fatigued when asked over and over again to participate in a protest.

Companies are also likely to be more proactive in the future to try to determine what might cause a protest and get out ahead of it. "These protests are new, so companies will have to figure out how to adjust to them and operate in that environment."

And companies being targeted may also push back by "sticking to their guns" and refusing to take action, Castro said.

Dropbox, for example, knew Rice's political background before hiring her, so it would come as no surprise that some customers might oppose her appointment to their board.

Lucas Mearian covers consumer data storage, consumerization of IT, mobile device management, renewable energy, telematics/car tech and entertainment tech for Computerworld. Follow Lucas on Twitter at @lucasmearian or subscribe to Lucas's RSS feed. His e-mail address is lmearian@computerworld.com.

See more by Lucas Mearian on Computerworld.com.

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