The U.S. Supreme Court in 1941 said picketing is “the workingman’s means of communication.” Picket lines in the United States can be dated back to 1917 when ten women suffragists were arrested for picketing outside of the White House. They were trying to put pressure on President Woodrow Wilson to approve the “Anthony amendment” that would guarantee women the right to vote. Since that time picketing has been used for the civil rights movement, war protests and labor disputes. It’s been an effective mobilization tool of the American people to draw awareness to corporate greed, health and safety as well as social injustices to illicit change.
With the dawning of the information age and the spread of social media, pickets have gone beyond a local effort. They have now become grassroots virtual movements. The seeds planted in the past are now starting to bear fruit. The SEIU’s (Service Employees International Union) Fight for $15 campaign started with a 200-person strike in 2012. Through Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and other social media avenues this has now turned into a global effort with seven states adopting a $15 minimum which was once considered to be a radical fringe idea for an advancement of a living wage.
Teachers have also used the power of social media to amplify their mobilization efforts. A 2018 strike in West Virginia was coordinated primarily via a Facebook group. When started the ‘secret’ group numbered only a few hundreds members, but grew to over 20,000 quickly as word spread on-line.
This is the key to why social media is such a powerful force in creating a virtual picket line – word can spread like wildfire. The limits of traditional means of communication cease to become a factor. With the mere click of a button thousands can be made aware of a situation when before it was strictly limited to the exposure seen by standard media coverage or those passing by. In the world of Twitter, getting the right social media influencer to take notice of your cause can catapult the support and pressure into the stratosphere in seconds.
Labor organizations in contract disputes now use informational picketing in conjuncture with social media pickets to amplify the effect and outreach. Twitter and Facebook can become a media feeding frenzy of exposure when the right political figure or celebrity lends their social media following to a cause. Those figures also now understand the power that comes with a large on-line following and leverage that to apply pressure for causes they support. It drives corporations and those the virtual pickets are used against mad, because of the wave of support it can generate and the speed in which it can be harnessed when done wisely.
The most powerful part of a virtual picket line when done correctly is the ease and cost for which it can be implemented. The shares and content creation can be done right from a phone at a moment’s notice. The cost to share it is nothing. The reach and exposure you can gain is practically instantaneous. It is also a reservoir that continues to build as time passes. The likes and followers that are gained continue to build and amass creating more publicity. The pressure that once needed a maintained line of people physically holding an area is now forever there and accessible with just a share of a post away.
There is a leveling of the playing field where a corporation or organization with deep pockets is now challenged in its aims to shape the social narrative because of the information being presented from the other side. The people once again become players as the driving catalyst for social justice and labor disputes. The virtual picket lines can quickly turn into very real boycotts that make CEOs and shareholders extremely nervous. That pressure when used properly can be a vital tool in using social media to fight for social justice.