Social Media Beat Big Soda

by on November 10, 2014

Social Media's soda tax activism is a model for other campaigns

All activists should examine how Berkeley’s soda tax got a staggering 75% of the vote and San Francisco’s got over 50% despite a nearly $10 million opposition campaign. Because for all the phone calls, framing and other standard grassroots campaign techniques, what distinguished the soda tax campaigns was their powerful use of Twitter, Facebook and social media.

And what worked against Big Soda can have similar success against other big money interests.

In the decade since we started Beyond Chron, no local campaign on any issue has come close to promoting itself as effectively as what we just saw around the soda tax. Beyond Chron’s soda tax stories were routinely retweeted dozens of times, and regularly reached an audience in the thousands and even tens of thousands.

There is nothing unique about the soda tax issue that made it particularly ripe for challenging mass corporate advertising falsehoods through social media. The following factors can and should become part of tenant, labor and other social justice campaigns that routinely also come up against big money oppositions.

A Social Media Infrastructure

Activist campaigns need groups and individuals active on social media who can be counted upon to retweet and repost positive stories. This may seem obvious, but I can’t tell you how often this does not occur in social justice campaigns.

In the soda tax example, Dana Woldow made sure that her Beyond Chron reporting and soda tax stories from others were consistently promoted to the broader network of soda tax backers. Some of these backers—the Berkeley Media Studies Group, Casey Hinds, Nancy F Huehnergarth, Andy Bellatti to name just a few—consistently retweeted stories to their large groups of followers.

Soda tax stories also were retweeted by prominent backers like Mark Bittman, Michael Pollan and Marion Nestle, whose followers included Berkeley and San Francisco voters unlikely to have otherwise seen the original posting in Beyond Chron.

Woldow’s September 22, story “Talking Back to Big Soda,” foresaw the capacity of soda tax backers to “level the playing field” against Big Soda. And they exceeded expectations.

It’s a message that all activists should hear. The social media infrastructure for the soda tax can and must be built for other activist campaigns.

Tenants could especially benefit by enhanced social media.

While our reporting on the soda tax unleashed a blizzard of retweets throughout the day, our many stories on San Francisco’s Prop G were regularly retweeted by only a handful of groups and individuals. Tenants Together was the most consistent, along with the Anti-Eviction Mapping project. But whereas the soda tax stories were regularly retweeted by new names, tenant stories were not.

It’s more than a difference in educational, wealth and skill levels between the soda tax and tenant issues. The San Francisco tenant movement has potentially thousands of supporters who could be enlisted in social media activism, but creating this infrastructure has not been a priority.

Prop G showed that as ballot measures become more complex, and it’s not clear from the ballot question that an anti-speculator tax even impacts tenants, social media is more necessary than ever to spread the truth. And this is even more imperative as national real estate interests throw big money into San Francisco campaigns.

Social Media +Grassroots Activism=Victory

I argue in The Activist’s Handbook that social media is most effective when linked to traditional grassroots activism. And that clearly was proven in the soda tax victory.

The great former UWF organizer and Agnos for Mayor 1987 field director Larry Tramutola provided the grassroots component in Berkeley, even coming up with the brilliant framing, Berkeley vs. Big Soda (which they also made a Twitter handle).

Berkeley had phoning, yard signs, and the other strategies that typically define grassroots campaigns. Social media amplified their effectiveness by reaching people who don’t take political phone calls (a larger and larger percentage of voters).

Making personal contact with a voter is still the best way to win their support. But when you think of how much time is spent leaving messages on answering machines and phones, and compare it to how little time it takes to actually reach people through Facebook or Twitter, emphasizing the former and downplaying the latter makes little strategic sense.

I do not think it’s a coincidence that the California Nurses Association/National Nurses United is so often praised for its grassroots activism. The nurses union is also the most prolific labor organization on social media. Other unions may be just as active on the streets, but most people never hear about it.

I also think the election success of transit and bike activists can be attributed to combining social media with grassroots activism. Walk SF and the SF Bike Coalition are a constant social media presence, and are reaching people not easy to contact through traditional media. The rise of social media in recent years has dramatically bolstered the political clout of transit and pedestrian safety groups, who have also expanded their traditional activism and outreach.

With tens of thousands of San Francisco tenants fearing Ellis eviction and skyrocketing rents, the ingredients are there for a mass tenant social media infrastructure. All it takes is for activists to make building it a priority.

Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron


Randy Shaw

Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron and the Director of San Francisco’s Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which publishes Beyond Chron. Shaw latest book is Generation Priced Out: Who Gets to Live in the New Urban America. He is the author of four prior books on activism, including The Activist's Handbook: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century, and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century. He is also the author of The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco

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