Social Web Mobilizes for - and Against - Sotomayor
By Jose Antonio Vargas
Three weeks before David Souter announced his retirement from the Supreme Court -- and long before President Obama picked a federal judge from New York to replace him -- Mario Christian Lozada created the first Facebook group in support of Sonia Sotomayor.
The group "Sonia Sotomayor for U.S. Supreme Court Justice" grew slowly, from 12 to 30 then 50 members, mostly friends and acquaintances of Lozada, a second-year law student at Boston College. But it grew at a rate of about 300 to 500 a day after May 26, the day Obama introduced Sotomayor in the White House East Room.
As of 7 a.m. Monday, just hours before the confirmation hearing began on the country's 111th justice, the group listed 9,855 members. The goal was articulated in a comment posted by a member late Friday afternoon: "Help us fight the right wing attacks by showing that you stand behind Judge Sotomayor." The group is just one of 63 Facebook groups and fan pages devoted to Sotomayor. Most of the groups, such as "Sonia Sotomayor is my homegirl," sprang up to support the 55-year-old Puerto Rican from the Bronx -- though others, such as "Stop Sonia Sotomayor," stand against her.
"In many ways, the whole procedure of nominating someone to the Supreme Court -- the Supreme Court itself, really -- is this insular thing. Everyday people don't really have a say about it. But by forming the Facebook group, I feel like I have a voice," said Lozada, 23, in a phone interview. After Obama was elected president, Lozada figured that the former senator from Illinois would get to fill at least one Supreme Court vacancy. Hence the early online drumming for Sotomayor. "In the past, unless you're a law student, or some sort of legal geek, you know so little about the Supreme Court. But now people are going online to figure out what her nomination means for them," he said.
There are, in fact, three layers to this summer's Supreme Court nominating debate and hearings, the first to be held in the socially connected age of Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.
(Twitter, it's worth recalling, didn't even exist in 2005, when Harriet Miers, John Roberts and Samuel Alito were all nominated to the highest court. Back in those pre-hashtag, pre-mash-up days, the blogosphere -- and especially conservative blogs -- played the major role. Just ask Miers.)
First, there's the drama that will unfold within the confines of the Hart Senate Office Building, starring Sotomayor and the 19 members of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Then there's the planned wall-to-wall mainstream media coverage, from news articles to a parade of talking heads, feeding off each other.
Reacting to those two traditional sets of actors is the uncontrollable social Web, where the online masses are engaging with the nominating process in novel ways. Within seconds of the May 26 Sotomayor announcement, the online left and online right began to try to define her. For a few days in late May, searching for "Sonia Sotomayor" and "Supreme Court Justice" on Google led viewers to a Google ad purchased by the Heritage Foundation, a D.C.-based conservative group. Now, searching for "Sonia Sotomayor" on Google pulls up two Google ads -- one from America's Voice, which is calling for immigration reform, the other from dLife: For Your Diabetes Life!, a virtual hub for diabetics. Sotomayor was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at age eight.
"She is the first nominee for the Supreme Court in the age of new social media," notes Don Tellock, a former assistant attorney general for the state of New York who is now a partner at Schiff Hardin, specializing in information/data security and technology cases. "Everything she's written, everything she's said, anything that's out there, people online are looking into."
Indeed, thanks to the curiosity on display on various blogs and social networking sites, Sotomayor has undergone a kind of secondary online vetting process. Searches for "Sotomayor" on Google were up 2250 percent within the first week of her nomination, according to a Google spokesperson. In the past month, the top Sotomayor-related searches included "Sotomayor firefighters," referring to the high-profile Supreme Court case that involved firefighters who sued the city of New Haven for discrimination. On Wikipedia, the anyone-can-edit encyclopedia, the two articles featuring Sotomayor -- the
main Sonia Sotomayor article is separate from the Sonia Sotomayor Supreme Court nominationarticle -- have been edited hundreds of times in the past few weeks as the contest to define her has heated up.
But since the confirmation of Supreme Court justices is up to the U.S. Senate, it's unclear just what impact, if any, all this online activity will have. For the past few weeks, political analysts and legal experts have predicted that Sotomayor's confirmation as the first Hispanic justice -- and the third woman on the highest court -- is nearly guaranteed.
"Yes, at the end of the day, the Senate decides on whether or not she's confirmed. And, yes, the press is still playing a role in framing how Sotomayor is viewed. But that's changing," said Clay Shirky, a social Web expert and author of "Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations." Like many others, Shirky first heard about Sotomayor's nomination on Twitter, after a few of the people that he's following on the micro-blogging site began tweeting about it.
"A few years ago, when someone is nominated to the Supreme Court, a political clock started running. The politicians form their talking points. The press tries to frame the nominee and reporters compete to get to the mountaintop to try to define the nominee," Shirky added. "But what's interesting now is that we're getting, I think, a real political plurality. People are using Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and other social networks to discuss Sotomayor and establish their own opinions."
And just in case members of the Senate are not on Twitter, they are using new technologies to send their opinions to the decision makers in a fashion they have become used to.
District resident Mike Panetta created a fan page in support of Sotomayor the day Obama introduced her, a page which now has 24,100 fans. More importantly to Panetta, the page has a Take Action tab to allow Sotomayor's supporters to send an e-mail urging "a quick 'up-or-down' vote ... BEFORE the August recess" to their U.S. Senators directly from Facebook by filling out a form.
"Senators are moved by constituents writing to their offices about particular issues. So it's important that it's not just a fan page or a group. You have to take action," said Panetta, who works at Grassroots Enterprise, an online strategy firm. "Since I live in D.C. and don't have a specific senator to lobby, I'm trying to mobilize people in other states."
This is one in a series of online columns on our growing "clickocracy," in which we are one nation under Google, with e-mail and video for all. Please send suggestions, comments and tips to email@example.com.
Posted at 11:00 AM ET on Jul 13, 2009
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