Two pink lines inside of a red square replaced profile pictures on Twitter and Facebook this week as the Supreme Court began hearing arguments about same-sex marriage. The Human Rights Campaign created the avatar to help spread support for marriage equality through the avatar’s use of an equals sign and colors representing love. In a matter of hours, the image spread as celebrities, public figures and citizens incorporated it into their online profiles. What effect will this avatar have on impacting public opinion and influencing the Supreme Court’s decision?
The logo can be considered a success in terms of creating visibility in the digital sphere of social networks. The director of marketing at Human Rights Campaign, Anastasia Khoo, posted the image to the group’s Facebook page at approximately 1 p.m. on March 25th. Followers were asked to replace their profile pictures in light of the Supreme Court’s deliberations. Star Trek actor George Takei helped spread the image, which led to other celebrities and corporations taking part in the viral campaign. While it is difficult to estimate how many users have changed their profile pictures, some individual images of the red marriage equality logo have been shared more than 70,000 times (Gill). Within my own social network, the number of friends and followers using the image in their own profile continues to grow. Thus, I argue that the image is creating visibility of marriage equality issues that will continue to further the public dialogue.
However, the marriage equality logo lacks the “high-risk” activism quality needed to influence a decision and the public at large (Buchanan). Sarah Sobieraj argues in her article Reporting Conventions: Journalists, Activists, and the Thorny Struggle for Political Visibility that activism’s impact on political discourse is often insignificant. This is particularly true when activists use passive, non-aggressive techniques to garner attention. Activists must often riot or cause public damage to get noticed and create a significant impact in public discourse. Facebook and Twitter users who simply change their profile pictures are not participating in the high degree of violent activism needed to make a substantial political impact as defined by Sobierja.
Thus, the use of the marriage equality image does not have the same weight as taking the issue to the streets because it is a passive action with minimal effort and no real sacrifice. The viral influence created by the image also may not impact the Supreme Court Justices’ decision because their time is not spent counting activism avatars on social media platforms (Estes). Thus, some argue that the avatar’s widespread use and support may come too late to significantly impact the decision.
While the avatar may not impact the Supreme Court’s decision, I argue that it will continue to influence public opinion by furthering the dialogue. Sharing the image online creates a personal connection to the issue and may persuade social network contacts to consider their position in the debate. This increases the relevance and credibility of the issue, and influences what people will talk about online.
Ideally, citizens would have a greater impact if they transitioned the public dialogue and activism offline and into the streets. Imagine if everyone who shared the avatar or changed their profile picture protested or rioted for marriage equality. It is at this point when avatar activism carries the weight and risk needed to significantly effect the Supreme Court’s decision.