Most often, on a day-to-day basis, and with any issue that's at all complicated, there is little wisdom in crowds, and "the people" are, as a group, often wrong. Not convinced by the New York Post's commenters? Try YouTube. Day-to-day reading of what "the Internet" has to say is enough to make one want to put a gun in one's mouth.
And yet, three recent incidents seem to show that if an issue is big enough and important enough to make the crowd invested enough and large enough -- by bringing in a lot of people who don't normally mob up -- the crowd becomes wise and is taken seriously. The defeat of SOPA, the retreat of the board of the Komen Foundation, and the exits of sponsors from Rush Limbaugh's radio program all show what can happen when the crowd is big and (crucially) correct.This is all thanks to social media. Not the Internet, mind you, but social media. Before Facebook and Twitter really took off, the Internet -- in terms of social discourse -- mostly meant blogs and news sites (and their comments sections), or sites like Digg, which, though it was social media, wasn't particularly inclusive or diverse.
There was no centrality to any of it, the way there is with today's social media. People were all in their little corners, talking or ranting among themselves. There was nothing to give a big issue true cohesion, to help it reach a tipping point where public sentiment quickly became obvious. Your grandmother wasn't on Digg. But she is on Facebook.
Limbaugh has been saying awful things throughout his career. That is his career. And he uttered many of those things well into the Internet age. People have repeatedly tried to whip up sentiment against him, to boycott his advertisers or at least get him to back off. It never worked, online or off, until now: his troglodytic remarks about Sandra Fluke (he called her a "slut" and a "prostitute" for testifying before Congress in favor of mandated coverage of contraception) were instantly known by all, and the backlash and calls for boycotts against his advertisers was immediate. Advertisers quickly began to bolt, the media kept the story alive, and his non-apology apology showed that he was running scared.
Not that he's going anywhere. His legions of angry, life-hating fans will stick by him, and so his distributor, Premiere Radio Networks (a nest of right-wing blowhards and other lowbrow talkers, owned by Clear Channel) won't easily let him go. And many of his advertisers -- largely ambulance-chasing lawyers, weight-loss scammers, and iffy gold merchants (talk about your targeted advertising) -- will stick by him. A whole bunch of them "suspended" their advertising, but it seems likely that at least some of them will come back once the heat is off. (A notable exception is Netflix, which as of this writing hasn't said whether it means to keep advertising. The company's Facebook page is overrun with people demanding that it pull its ads from the show, lest they cancel their accounts. My guess: Netflix is getting ready even now to yank the ads.)
The defeat (for now) of SOPA was a bit less of a popular uprising, spurred on as it was in part by companies with a vested interest in the outcome. But that doesn't mean it wasn't a popular uprising, or certainly that people were duped into opposing SOPA. It was a stupid bill that could have wrecked the Internet, and people recognized that -- enough of them that members of Congress retreated in the face of their pressure.
The Komen foundation last month announced that it would pull funding from Planned Parenthood for breast -cancer screenings. As with the Limbaugh matter, umbrage spread quickly across social networks, as did the fact -- unknown to many until then -- that the foundation, which finances anti-breast cancer initiatives, had recently appointed a pro-lifer to its board. Not only did the foundation reinstate Planned Parenthood's funding, but the pro-lifer is no longer on the board.
All these incidents share something in common: the umbrage was entirely justified in each case. It's not particularly controversial to be offended by a radio buffoon calling a private citizen a "slut" for no good reason. Nobody wants the Internet to be broken just to appease the misdirected wishes of Hollywood. And no matter what your stance might be on the abortion question, is there anyone who thinks it should be harder for women to get breast-cancer screenings?
With less important or more controversial issues, such uprisings are unlikely to happen, or at least to find success. The right thing happened in each of these three cases because a lot of people signed on who don't otherwise take public stands on issues: the non-political; the middle-of-the-roaders. That's what made the wrongdoers retreat in all three cases. It wasn't the volume -- loudness permeates public discourse every day -- it was the numbers. If only ideologues and dogmatists took part, nothing would have happened, because nobody would have been surprised by their sentiments. In these cases, it really was "the people" who stood up.
None of which should be taken as an endorsement of mob rule, or direct democracy. Most issues are far more complicated than these, and are best left to our system of checks and balances. Thanks to California's referendum system, its residents regularly pass all kinds of stupid laws that cause all kinds of harm. These three incidents didn't prove that the public is always wise, or that we should always be led by general public sentiment. What they showed is that, thanks to social media, it's a lot harder now to do something that's clearly terrible and get away with it.