Well, it’s decided. Anyone who says that online organizing isn’t “real” activism is officially out-of-touch.
Just three days after the behemoth breast cancer foundation Komen for the Cure announced they would defund Planned Parenthood—about $600,000 in grants for cancer screening for low-income women—the organization was forced to reverse their decision when the online backlash became too big too handle. And just this morning, the Komen official widely considered responsible for the debacle, its new vice president for public policy Karen Handel, resigned with a surly letter that implicated the whole Komen board in the decision.
The blowup spanned across email, Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr and individual blogs, with over 1.3 million tweets written by the end of the first week and tens of thousands of Facebook comments left on Komen’s wall. The swift and resounding victory is more than a win for women’s health and reproductive rights—it’s proof that online feminist activism is effective, powerful and the future of the movement’s organizing strategy.
When the news that Komen was pulling their funding from Planned Parenthood broke, the breast cancer organization claimed the decision wasn’t political—it was just a part of a new policy banning organizations under investigation from receiving money. Planned Parenthood was the only organization out of thousands whose funding was affected.
Within hours, Komen’s Facebook page was slammed with thousands of angry messages, and Twitter was aflame with support for Planned Parenthood. Fuel was added to the anti-Komen fire as more information was revealed about the organization’s sketchy decision-making process. The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg reported that Komen’s new policy was designed specifically to cut off Planned Parenthood. Erin Gloria Ryan at Jezebel blogged that Komen’s Handel had tried to run for governor of Georgia on a platform that included defunding Planned Parenthood.
Former supporters said they would never give the organization another dime and would donate to Planned Parenthood instead. Others posted pictures of cut-up pink ribbons. Women who had raised thousands in Komen’s massive Race for the Cure events vowed never to run again.
In the face of this overwhelming opposition, Komen remained eerily silent, save for deleting negative comments from Facebook (a terrible online strategy if there ever was one). While Planned Parenthood was sending out mass emails and pro-choicers were on Twitter and Tumblr raising money, the breast cancer charity had seemingly abandoned all of their social media sites. A note about prostate cancer in a two thousand year old mummy remained at the top of their Twitter feed for more than a day.
When Komen did peek their head out online, it did more damage than good. A young woman named Lisa McIntire from California noticed that Handel—whose Twitter account hadn’t been used for months—had suddenly retweeted a particularly inflammatory message: “Just like a pro-abortion group to turn a cancer orgs decision into a political bomb to throw. Cry me a freaking river.”
“I thought, isn’t this the perfect encapsulation of the anti-choice [movement’s] contempt for women,” said McIntire.
“I’ve seen enough on Twitter to guess that Handel’s moment of truth-telling might not last forever, so I captured it in a screenshot,” she continues. And indeed, within minutes Handel had deleted the tweet—but it was too late. The screenshot has been viewed more than 30,000 times.
Soon after, Komen’s founder Nancy Brinker took to YouTube with a video response titled “Straight Talk” in which the CEO failed to utter the words “planned parenthood” once. If the spin wasn’t bad enough, apparently no one told the Komen communications team that the best way to show they care about poor women isn’t positioning your well-coiffed founder on a comfy armchair, looking like she just got done burning a pile of money and firing the gardener.
Komen’s online gaffes kept on coming, and so did the feminist energy. As Komen officials began to resign in protest, an enterprising pro-choicer hacked Komen’s website, turning their Marathon for the Cure tagline to “Help us run over poor women on our way to the bank.” Social media strategist Deanna Zandt started a Tumblr blog, Planned Parenthood Saved Me, where hundreds of women submitted their stories of Planned Parenthood giving them low-cost screenings, care and abortions.
In twenty-four hours, Planned Parenthood raised over $400,000. By the end of the first week, it was also promised $250,000 from New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg and was given $100,000 from Lance Armstrong’s Livestrong organization. (At last count, the organization has raised over 3 million dollars since the Komen debacle began.)
Komen finally relented, releasing a statement that apologized and promised to restore funding to Planned Parenthood. Much of the energy and anger behind the pro-Planned Parenthood activism was a collective fed-upness. When the House Republicans started their attack on Planned Parenthood we weren’t surprised: we know the GOP doesn’t care about women. But Komen is supposed to fight for women when they’re the most vulnerable, not kick them when they’re down.
One of the many great things about online organizing is that this win for Planned Parenthood is just the beginning. We’re not packing up our picket signs and going home. Now bloggers have set their sights on Komen’s decision to pull funding from institutions that do embryonic stem cell research; others are looking into the organization’s wooly financial history and the questionable ties it has to corporations that put out products that may, in fact, contribute to breast cancer.
Komen floundered because they had no clear online strategy and were baffled when attacked so swiftly. Feminists won because of how much women care about this issue—but also because by now we’re amazingly well versed in how to wage an online battle. So please, no more bemoaning that young women don’t care about feminism or that the only real kind of activism takes place in the streets. It’s a waste of time and a waste of power, and we all know we have much better—and bigger—things to do.
(By the way, do you know how I wrote this article? I looked at my Twitter feed from the bottom up and followed the story. It’s a new feminist world.)