It turns out that even a high tech company like Intel can fail to understand the power of social media in the hands of activists – and so far, their public relations response has been a gaffe a minute for the past several days.
It was all part of a grassroots campaign using Facebook in a new way to get support for the bipartisan Conflict Minerals Trade Act that is making its way through Congress. The bill would regulate the global trade in conflict minerals that has fueled years of civil wars in which more than 5 million people have died in the Congo. These conflicts feature rape as a war weapon and some of the most horrific mass atrocities the world has ever seen. Intel and other tech companies benefit from the conflict minerals trade.
Perhaps the most remarkable of Intel’s PR pratfalls came last night, when the company deleted protestors’ comments on its Facebook page – then reposted them after a battle raged on Twitter and Facebook. Now Intel has shut down all posts on its Facebook page (although a vigorous thread of "comments" can still squeak through), thereby creating a "virtual no-protest zone."
Here’s the back-story to this game-changing Facebook protest, which illustrates how a few passionate activists can leverage the public power of social media to bring legislators -- and now even a major tech company -- to account.
‘I can't eat a part of my mother’
On Monday, human rights activist Lisa Shannon, author of A Thousand Sisters, led a protest at the Intel campus in Hillsboro, Oregon, calling on the company to fully support the Conflict Minerals Trade Act, without amendments to weaken it. She organized 30 protesters, mostly women and children, to bring jars of pennies: 45,000 pennies to represent an estimated 45,000 lives lost per month due to violence and the humanitarian crisis in the Congo, fueled by the global trade in conflict minerals.
Here's a video of Lisa telling the story of Generose, a Congolese woman whom she has met. Generose had her leg hacked off with a machete and forcibly fed to her six children. When her eight-year-old son refused to eat, saying, "I can't eat a part of my mother," they shot him to death in front of her. Lisa said that the lives of women like Generose and their children are worth the estimated one penny per product that it would cost Intel to audit its supply chain and ensure that its products are free of conflict minerals.
Intel did not hear Lisa’s statement or the story of Generose: instead, they sent out two burly security guards to greet her. So Lisa and her mother, Ann Shannon, sat for five hours outside Intel’s Hillboro, OR campus holding laminated signs as the skies opened and rain poured down.
Ann sat in a lawn chair with a Wendy’s biggie drink, holding over her head a sign reading: "Your supply chain. Your problem."
Other signs showed photos of little girls and old women, stating, "We think she’s worth the 1c."
Notably, some Intel employees came out of the building, carrying pennies to hand to Lisa and her mom. Even passersby stopped their cars, rolled down their windows, and offered pennies as a token of support.
Intel’s Virtual ‘No-Protest Zone’
Then last night, these Oregon activists, on their own, politely hijacked Intel's Facebook page, posting dozens of messages, urging the company to support the Conflict Minerals Trade Act as written. And Intel showed its fundamental lack of understanding of social media by deleting the protestors' public comments. Then a social media battle took place via Twitter and Facebook overnight. In the end, Intel relented, and reposted the comments. Here are screenshots – page after page of comments urging Intel to support the bipartisan Conflict Minerals Trade Act.
Then this morning, Intel suddenly shut down all comments on its Facebook page – promising instead to create a side space to carry on discussion – a virtual version of a "no-protest zone," where meaningful opportunity for freedom of expression is removed far from highly trafficked public space.
Intel’s talk-to-the-hand message, posted at 11:15 a.m. Eastern on May 19, states, "All, there have been a lot of posts on the same topic within the last 12 hrs. We appreciate hearing your opinion and we have left your posts on the wall, per our guidelines we have only removed offensive comments. We are temporarily turning off the ability for fans to post. We are in the process of creating a place for... this type of discussion and we will share the link of this page as soon as we have it."
Why Facebook protest is ‘The new wave of activist lobbying’
This week’s action comes in the wake of a key victory – unanimous passage by the House Foreign Affairs Committee on April 28 of a vital bill to protect human rights in Africa – driven in part by old-fashioned, shoe-leather lobbying in the halls of power by human rights activists, combined with an audacious new organizing strategy using social networking.
In the week of April 19-26, supporters of the Enough Project (where I serve as Director of Communications) used Twitter and Facebook to politely hijack the official Facebook pages of 10 Members of Congress. The lobbying campaign, called "Change the Equation for Congo," used Twitter and Facebook to target two Members of Congress each day for five days. Enough Project supporters blanketed legislators’ official Facebook profiles with calls to co-sponsor HR 4128, the Conflict Minerals Trade Act. In the course of the week, more than 1,500 comments were posted – in most cases completely blanketing each Member of Congress’ Facebook profile.
Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), Ranking Member on the House Committee on Foreign Relations, was targeted on the first day of the social media campaign. She told The Miami Herald that she was "deeply grateful when constituents and folks who care deeply about an issue use every avenue to communicate their opinions with me."
She also told The Miami Herald, "I fully agree that we need to take concrete steps to address this illegal trade that helps fund and fuel the conflict in the Eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo." She added, "Meanwhile, keep those Facebook comments coming. They mean a lot to me."
On April 28, Rep. Ros-Lehtinen became a co-sponsor of the Conflict Minerals Trade Act.
Another Facebook target, Congressman John Boozman (R-AR), started following the Enough Project on Twitter. Responding to public calls for him to co-sponsor the Conflict Minerals Trade Act, he tweeted on April 22: "@Enoughproject is working to Change the Equation 4 #Congo and I'm proud to help as a cosponsor of HR 4128 Conflict Minerals Trade Act"
The Hill called Enough Project’s creative social media campaign "the next wave in activist lobbying."
Congress.org reported: "Congressman John Boozman (R-AR) started following the Enough Project, run by the liberal Center for American Progress, on Twitter and tweeted on Thursday that he is 'proud to help as a cosponsor of HR 4128 Conflict Minerals Trade Act.' Congress.org noted:
"The strategic win was a direct result of the Facebook campaign. Boozman's Facebook page was still dominated by comments from activists who urged his support of the bill on Friday.
"The Facebook tactic is yet another weapon in the arsenal of an activist, and it allows groups to leverage their base of supporters without having to travel to one spot and hold a protest.
"Lawmakers may also feel more compelled to respond to a stream of Facebook comments than to phone calls or letters because the former is so publicly displayed."
At the same time, Enough Project and other human rights advocates combined grassroots action and quiet lobbying to support the Conflict Minerals Trade Act (HR 4128). Enough Co-founder John Prendergast and a group of student constituents of Congresswoman Ros-Lehtinen met with her aides at her in-district office on April 9, laying the groundwork for concerted action. As a partner with Enough Project in the week of action, Amnesty International urged its followers two weeks ago to call Members of Congress in support of the Conflict Minerals Trade Act – generating an estimated 21,000 calls in the span of three days. And together with partners at Global Witness, World Vision, Catholic Relief Services, and Amnesty International, Enough sponsored a staff briefing in the capital to support the bill.
Influenced by this dramatic, public show of support, the House Committee on Foreign Affairs suddenly sprang into action, moving the bill to markup on April 28. Immediately, a staffer who oversees new media for Chairman Berman called Enough Project to say that the Chairman’s office had noted the flood of Facebook comments and prominent media coverage. He informed us that the Chairman had just posted on Facebook his statement regarding the two bills, and that they would welcome public comments.
In response, Enough Project emailed and tweeted to its supporters, asking them to publicly thank Chairman Berman and Ranking Member Ros-Lehtinen – on their Facebook profiles. And the public praise quickly blanketing the official Facebook pages of these Members of Congress.
This model campaign shows that social networking is not just cool; it’s also an effective, bipartisan organizing tool to advance human rights.
What’s next? Enough Project is drafting an email to announce the next phase of its Facebook campaign, this time targeting tech companies – starting today with Intel.
(1) If you’re on Twitter, please ask @Intel to reopen its #Facebook page to supporters of the bipartisan Conflict Minerals Trade Act.
(2) On Facebook, Enough Project is coordinating a campaign aimed at prominent tech industry leaders, starting today with Intel. Join us.
(3) Ask your U.S. Representative to co-sponsor the bipartisan Conflict Minerals Trade Act, H.R. 4128. Find out if your Representative is already a co-sponsor and send an appeal here. If s/he is already a co-sponsor, send a thank-you letter.
Disclosure: I am Director of Communications for the Enough Project at Center for American Progress
UPDATE: Within half an hour after the Enough Project blasted its supporters an email criticizing Intel today, Intel relented and reopened its Facebook page to posts.
Here is what Enough Project stated in its email:
Rarely does anything inspire us more than seeing activists loudly push those in power to do the right thing. Today we are very inspired. On Monday, author of "A Thousand Sisters," Lisa Shannon led a group of activists to the Hillsboro, Oregon campus of Intel with a powerful message about conflict minerals: support the Conflict Minerals Trade Act (H.R. 4128), the bipartisan legislation that would require companies to clean up their supply chains, all for the modest cost of about a penny per product.
Inspired by Lisa's actions, other activists have picked up the torch and turned to Intel's Facebook page to communicate to the company their support of conflict mineral free supply chains. Unfortunately, Intel's first reaction was to delete posts supporting the bill. Under pressure, Intel then restored these posts but shut off all new posts. However, a vigorous comment thread still squeaks through.
So Enough is taking our Change the Equation for Congo Facebook campaign from the halls of Congress to the electronics companies, starting with Intel. We need to support the Portland-area activists and tell Intel that passage of conflict minerals legislation this year must happen, and they can't shut out public voices just because they are loud. This is where you come in.
TAKE ACTION On Facebook Today
Click here to visit the Facebook page of Intel. You will see at the top of the screen that they have posted a message in an attempt to shut down the voice of activists. Click the "Like" button above this message, and then you will see a box where you can make a comment.
Here is a sample comment you can use:
Intel, make us proud by actively supporting the Conflict Minerals Trade Act (H.R. 4128). You are an industry leader, and an example in many ways. We will continue to support your good work if you do the right thing. Visit http://bit.ly/... to learn more.
Ask your friends to take action as well. You can send them to our Change the Equation page for more information on the campaign. And stay tuned, with this momentum, we can't stop here. Next week we'll be kicking off another week of action under our Change the Equation banner. We'll be asking you to speak out to an industry leader each day, asking that they clean up their supply chains.
At 8:50 p.m. Eastern on May 19, Intel posted the following message atop its Facebook page.
We’d like to apologize for deleting some comments and briefly shutting down the page for comments. We can tell you that our intent wasn’t to silence your valuable opinions. In trying to remain sensitive to all our fans, we often delete repeated messages that could be perceived as spam. We should have been more sensitive to this topic though. We welcome conversations and hope to have a meaningful dialog with you!
However, Intel has yet to issue any specific response to questions from its consumers, employees, and human rights activists as to whether the tech company will take a leadership role in publicly supporting the bipartisan Conflict Minerals Trade Act without amendments to water it down, or whether it will pressure other tech companies to do the same. To date, Intel has simply spammed Twitter and Facebook discussions with a stale, non-responsive statement about conflict minerals generally.