Social Mobilization and the Networked Public Sphere: Mapping the SOPA-PIPA Debate
is a scholarly paper by Yochai Benkler (et al) that analyzes the links, traffic and spread of the anti-SOPA campaign to see how the story went from an obscure area of wonkish concern to a massive Internet-scale shitstorm that put millions of phone-calls through to Congress and ultimately killed a bill that was tipped to be a sure thing. In the wake of SOPA, a lot of inside-the-Beltway commentators assured their constituencies that the SOPA fight wasn't really any kind of grassroots effort — it was led by Google, or Wikipedia, or someone. It wasn't masses of people making such a big noise that Google (et al) were finally able to lend their support without getting clobbered by their policy people.
As Benkler and co show, the truth is that this really was a bottom-up, grassroots effort. I knew that, but it's nice to have it all laid out in black and white here.
This novel, data-driven perspective on the dynamics of the networked public sphere supports an optimistic view of the potential for networked democratic participation, and offers a view of a vibrant, diverse, and decentralized networked public sphere that exhibited broad participation, leveraged topical expertise, and focused public sentiment to shape national public policy. We find that the fourth estate function was fulfilled by a network of small-scale commercial tech media, standing non-media NGOs, and individuals, whose work was then amplified by traditional media. Mobilization was effective, and involved substantial experimentation and rapid development. We observe the rise to public awareness of an agenda originating in the networked public sphere and its framing in the teeth of substantial sums of money spent to shape the mass media narrative in favor of the legislation. Moreover, we witness what we call an attention backbone, in which more trafficked sites amplify less-visible individual voices on specific subjects. Some aspects of the events suggest that they may be particularly susceptible to these kinds of democratic features, and may not be generalizable. Nonetheless, the data suggest that, at least in this case, the networked public sphere enabled a dynamic public discourse that involved both individual and organizational participants and offered substantive discussion of complex issues contributing to affirmative political action.