What #TebowCallMatt Can Teach Us About Social Media & Policy Change

There’s something to be said about social media. Love it or hate it (and does anyone really hate it?), it has changed the way we go about our daily lives. It has connected us to people we have lost touch with, brought us closer to those we may have stopped calling on a regular basis years ago, allows us to share photos of our beautiful children and families, and, of course, gives some of us a pastime when we’re looking for an activity to go along with that bottle of wine (aka “Facebook stalking”).

I know it’s been said before, but it truly does help create and foster communities.

This past weekend, a horrible tragedy occurred in my high school community. Two seniors at Shenendehowa High School in Clifton Park, N.Y. – Christopher Stewart and Deanna Rivers – were killed in a car crash after a drunk driver plowed into them, causing their SUV to flip over several times. Christopher was on the football team, and Deanna played softball for the school. A third student from our high school – Matthew Hardy – also was injured, as was a fourth student, Bailey Wind, from Shaker High School, a few towns away.

The tragedy stunned our community. On Monday, everyone wore green – our school color – to honor those killed. Even rival schools donned green in solidarity that day. Meanwhile, Shen students donned blue – the primary color of Shaker High School – to show their support for that suffering community, as well.

I know this not because I’m keeping tabs on the local papers, but because so many people I went to school with are taking to Facebook to post photos of those lost, stories of plans for candlelight vigils, and calls for all graduates from previous classes to post words of support on Facebook and other networks.

Meanwhile, people in the greater Albany area took to Twitter using the hashtag #TebowCallMatt to encourage New York Jets Quarterback to personally call the injured Matt Hardy to help lift his spirits. That social media campaign had the desired effect: Tebow called, then later Tweeted: “Thanks to everyone who got #TebowCallMatt trending & helped connect us. Matt truly inspired me. God bless y’all.” The story was covered by ESPN and other national news outlets.

Tweets urging Olympic medalist Missy Franklin and Olympic diver Tom Daley to call Bailey Wind, the Shaker senior also injured who is on her school’s swimming and diving team were so voluminous that #MissyCallBailey and #DaleyCallBailey were trending on Twitter nationally Monday night. 
Franklin later Tweeted that she did in fact call.

In another event, more than a year ago, Pat Casey, a beloved member of my high school class of 1996 – a football player who went on to serve his country in Afghanistan – was senselessly killed. Tears quickly came to my eyes as I read the local paper stories posted to Facebook by fellow classmates, and the outpouring of support on social media for his family and friends. Old high school photos were posted of Pat as a reminder of the kid we all knew and loved. And, later, social media outrage was directed at the Washington, D.C. police, who many believe did not do Pat justice in their investigation, pressuring the police to delve deeper into exactly what happened.

These events have made me realize more than before that even though so many of us are now living in far-flung parts of the country – or even world – this social media revolution closes the distance between even the most remote of us.

But, perhaps even more importantly, these events have highlighted the power of online communities to get people’s’ attention and to effect change – even in the political realm.

Platforms such as Facebook and Twitter offer us invaluable channels to connect with our lawmakers and make our voices heard. And at a time when so much is at stake in our country – our economic future, our children’s education, women’s health, privacy, etc… – there’s no time like the present to test just how far we can push the boundaries of these platforms in placing pressure on just the right places to get things done in America.

We saw a prime example of social media affecting change with the Stop Online Piracy Act early this year, as SOPA opponents shut down lawmakers’ attempts to expand the ability of law enforcement to fight online illegal trafficking of intellectual property and pirated or counterfeit goods. Granted, a lot of technological gurus were behind that giant opposition force, but they used social media as one of the many venues to rally support for their cause: to defeat SOPA. And it worked.

As we enter into a new Congress in 2013, let us remember the power of social media and just how strong a force it can be in urging even the most powerful among us to listen to everyone’s voices, even those without deep pockets. Let’s use social media to remind our politicians that it is WE who elected them, therefore they are beholden to US, not simply their biggest campaign donors or the extreme wing of their parties. We have at our disposal invaluable tools to utilize in this endeavor; let’s maximize our resources to make change for the better in this country.

Guest contributor Liza Porteus Viana is a journalist with more than 12 years of experience covering politics. She also covers business, intellectual property and homeland security for a number of media outlets, and is editor of genConnect.com. Like many other moms, she is always trying to find that oh-so-elusive work-life balance as a full-time freelancer with a toddler at home in New Jersey. She previously worked at FOXNews.com as a national and political correspondent, and National Journal as a technology policy writer in Washington, D.C., and her work has appeared in publications such as Worth Magazine, Portfolio, Politics Daily, The Huffington Post and Forward Magazine. Liza tweets at @lizapviana and is on Facebook. She also blogs at lizapviana.com.

Image via Shenendehowa Central School District Facebook page

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