Sarah Prager

[Editor’s Note: In the wake of today’s historic Supreme Court Rulings, we thought it fitting to share a piece from the April issue of our print magazine which recounts how fraught and emotionally charged the struggle has been for those advocating in support of marriage equality. Writer Sarah Prager shares her perspective on Maryland’s recent referendum regarding same-sex marriage. In a separate post, Devin Redmond also explores the responsibilities social network platforms and brands themselves have regarding the handling of online hate speech. For those following the marriage equality news on Twitter today, hashtags #SCOTUS, #DOMA and #Prop8 are good places to join the conversation.]

We know that social media has an impact. You wouldn’t be reading this blog unless you believed that. I went looking for the answer to the question: “Exactly how far does that impact extend?”

I lived through the marriage equality referendum in Maryland in November, where gay and lesbian marriages (full disclosure: including mine) were approved by a narrow margin of Marylanders voting for Question 6. Volunteering for the Marylanders for Marriage Equality campaign was emotional. I cried while talking with voters face-to-face. I was shaken by some of the things said to me over the phone. I pleaded with everyone I knew to get involved.

With such a charged issue, can a tweet really make a difference? I, like you, believe in the power of social media. I help clients reach a wider world of people than they ever could have ten, five, even three years ago. But on issues of civil rights and family values, don’t people have their minds made up no matter what a promoted Facebook post says? Can social media truly change someone’s vote on a social issue?

To answer this question, I asked Rachael L. Stern (@twistedbarbie), New Media Director for the Marylanders for Marriage Equality (MD4ME) campaign. The first thing that she reminded me is that social media’s role in controversial campaigns is not just about changing opinions; it’s about fundraising and engaging the base. While many factors contributed to the win—including national support and an endorsement by President Obama—Stern believes that the social component “played a huge role.”

Stern’s team raised over half a million dollars, 12 percent of the entire campaign’s income, via social media and e-mail. This was used in part to buy more TV airtime in the expensive Washington, D.C., market. Those ads did change minds, and it could be said that social media was behind those changes, even if indirectly. The other major factor is that social platforms gave their ads exponential amounts of additional playtime. The campaign’s 62 YouTube videos have had over a quarter of a million views and those views were certainly driven by other social sites like Facebook and Pinterest. There is no doubt that social media helped get the campaign’s message out there.

A few weeks before the election, The Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project published the results of a national phone survey of “social networking site” (SNS) users age 18 and over. The study found that 25-26 percent of SNS users said that they consider the sites somewhat or very important for recruiting people to get involved in political issues that matter to them, for debating or discussing political issues with others, and for finding other people who share their views about important political issues. Across the board, Democrats and liberals were more likely than Republicans, conservatives, or independents to say the sites were important. Blacks were more likely than whites and younger people (ages 18-29) were more likely than older people to find the social networking sites important for these political activities.

Debating and discussing the issues is one thing, but it wasn’t just politics. This was personal for voters on both sides. This was about religion, family, and culture. I still was not convinced that social posts could change someone’s mind on this issue of morality. Stern says the greatest challenge of dealing with this issue online was: “The hatred. Respectful disagreement is one thing, but we had people sending us hate e-mails even from their work email accounts. We saw some truly painful things. As a digital director who also happens to be a social worker, I see a high possibility for burnout when handling issues of this nature—especially consistent and ongoing exposure to the things people say when they believe they are anonymous online.” With emotions running high and that anonymity giving voters the courage to say what they really thought, extreme bashing of the other’s opinions was common online, as it often is. So was there a productive dialogue that actually swayed voters one way or another?

The Pew study found that 16 percent of SNS users said they “have changed their views about a political issue after discussing it or reading posts about it on the sites.” While the vast majority of social network users do not change their mind based on the posts of their friends, 16 percent do. That’s huge! The voting results of Maryland’s Question 6 were 52 percent-48 percent. Changing the minds of that many people cannot be ignored by any campaign. Of course, this is not changing the minds of 16 percent of likely voters. According to a different August 2012 study by the same Pew project, 69 percent of online adults use social networking sites. Certain populations are more active than others, as expected: 75 percent of women use the sites compared to 63 percent of men, and 92 percent of those 18-29 years old are SNS users compared to 57 percent of 50-64 year olds.

The Maryland Marriage Alliance (MMA), who ran the campaign against Question 6, did not return multiple requests for comment for this article. It appears that social media was not a priority for their campaign since they sent out less than 500 tweets over the year leading up to the election and most were automatic tweets created from the first characters of their Facebook posts. One could assume they chose not to invest in a digital campaign because their target demographic of likely supporters was not as likely to be SNS users. More women support same-sex marriage than men, more older adults oppose same-sex marriage than do their younger counterparts. It was the opposite for MD4ME, and they used Pinterest and other venues where they knew the people they wanted to reach were active. MD4ME also made use of evidence-based methods from the Analyst Institute to inform their language and strategy.

MD4ME had an advantage in the social media arena from the start because of demographics. They were going to have more Facebook likes than MMA no matter what and that wasn’t going to reflect the voting pool at large. But with an election so close, something tipped the scale. It could have been the right get-out-the-vote strategy or President Obama’s endorsement or any number of factors.

Same-sex marriage had been put to a popular vote in 32 states before 2012 and it had lost 32 times. The people who were likely to become voters supporting same-sex marriage were the ones who would be most influenced by social media. MD4ME relied heavily on social media. No election had ever felt the impact of social media like this before. I believe this perfect storm created one of the first times that the use of social networking sites changed an entire group of citizen’s rights.

So, can a tweet really make a difference in moral opinions? At this point it’s hard to deny.


How the Campaigns Stacked Up

Marylanders for Marriage Equality (For Question 6) Percentage Difference Maryland Marriage Alliance
(Against Question 6)
Facebook Likes 39,701 <- 183.7 1,686
Twitter Followers 3,045 <-  165.5 287
Tweets Sent before Nov 6 1,841 <-  115.5 493
YouTube Subscribers 165 <-  140.2 29
YouTube Videos Views 268,338 <-  136.6 50,574
OFFICIAL VOTES 1,373,504 <-      9.7 1,246,045

What Worked for the MD4ME Campaign

  • Focused on in-the-moment tweets instead of prescheduled ones.
  • Lots of paid promotion of Facebook posts.
  • Used HootSuite, Google Docs, and Blue State Digital.
  • Emails sent out at 7:30 AM on the dot performed best.
  • Emails were linked with Facebook posts to drive interaction.
  • “Content suggestions” emails were sent to coalition partners every morning.
  • Online chatter was monitored via Google Alerts, Twitter lists, and by reading every single email that came into the info account.
  • There was a group of community monitors (called the “truth squad”) that were active in helping the campaign pick up what was going on.
  • There were only two people allowed to post things on social channels without oversight.
  • Rachael Stern’s bottom line: “What we learned is that there isn’t too much you can predict, but there is a lot you can continue to test.”


Sarah Prager (@Sarah_Pragersarahprager.com) consults on social media for those working to make a difference in their communities. She is the founder of the Quist mobile app (@QuistApp), which tells the story of LGBT history.