INDIANAPOLIS — When the Indiana AFL-CIO decided to launch a Statehouse protest tied to a walkout by House Democrats, a handful of young staffers created a Facebook page to mobilize some forces.

They needed people to show up quickly, and while they relied on local labor leaders to call out their members, they also wanted to attract union sympathizers who could respond swiftly to a political situation that was fluid.

They dubbed the Facebook page, “Stand Up for Hoosiers,” posted news stories about contentious labor-related bills in the Statehouse, and started promoting the page among their own Facebook friends.

Within 48 hours, more than 8,000 people had visited the “Stand Up for Hoosiers” Facebook page and indicated they “liked” it.

By Thursday, more than 19,000 people pressed the “like” button on the page. In doing so, they signed up for daily updates from protest organizers.

The page creators don’t claim that their use of Facebook — a social media site with 500 million users — was the impetus for the thousands of protesters who filled the Statehouse this past week in support of House Democrats who fled the state to stall Republican-backed legislation.

But it helped. “It was an outreach to people who can’t get down here and it was a source of information for people who could,” said Becky Smith, a staff member with the Unite Here labor organization affiliated with the state AFL-CIO.

Last Monday, as protesters staged a sit-in outside the House chambers, Smith asked protesters to pull out their smart phones and post messages and pictures to the Stand Up Facebook page as well as their own Facebook pages. She also asked them to start sending tweets — short messages — out on their Twitter accounts.

Given the capability of those smart phones, which is like having a laptop computer in your pocket, those posts and messages quickly went viral.

“We didn’t have to wait till the news came on TV that night to let people know what we were doing,” Smith said.

Social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter have been credited for helping launch the recent uprisings in the Middle East.

They’ve played a role in the political turmoil unfolding in the Wisconsin legislature, where a walkout by state Democrats over labor bills inspired the walkout by House Democrats in the Indiana Legislature.

But how much credit those platforms should be given is subject to debate, said Jonathan Rossing, an Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) communications professor who teaches a course in social media.

Rossing said protesters involved in the so-called “Arab Revolution” that began in Tunisia and spread to Egypt and beyond, were compelled to use social media platforms to mobilize their forces because their repressive governments controlled the traditional media.

“That was about getting people out into the streets,” Rossing said.

Simply accumulating followers on Facebook and Twitter isn’t the same. As Rossing said, “a mouse click isn’t the same as political engagement.”

He was impressed with the spike in numbers of people who visited the Stand Up for Indiana Facebook page but hesitant to gauge its impact.

“How is it much different from a phone tree, with the exception of speed?”  

He also noted the competition for attention created by what he called the “electronic media heap.”

There’s now a Facebook page called the “Stand Up for Indiana House Democrats” that was created the day the House Democrats walked out. And a “Tell Indiana House Democrats to Get Back to Work” page, created the day after. Neither seem to be getting much traction.

Still, there were two instances where Facebook and Twitter did seem to have an effect this week at the Statehouse. An Indiana deputy attorney general was fired Wednesday after he reportedly sent out a tweet advocating state police “use live ammunition” to clear protesters out of the Wisconsin Statehouse.

And Facebook came to the aid of protesters in the Indiana Statehouse, when users started posting pleas for donations of water and food. Boxes and boxes of pizzas, ordered and paid for by Facebook users who’d seen the posts, soon started arriving, filling the Statehouse with the scent of pepperoni.
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