How the Internet Rescued Planned Parenthood

Last week, NARAL, one of the country’s oldest and most vociferous champions of the abortion industry, released a YouTube sketch called “Comedians In Cars Getting Abortions.” The video isn’t funny by any stretch of imagination, pro-life or otherwise. But I doubt very much whether NARAL’s purpose in producing the sketch was even to score laughter. Rather, the whole video feels like an exercise in what C.S. Lewis called “flippancy,” the lowest species of humor wherein morals and good taste are always assumed to be their own punchline. The point is not to get people to laugh at abortion, it’s to get them to scoff at the idea that one shouldn’t laugh bout it.

Anyway. The video isn’t really worth much angst. What was far more interesting than the content of the video, however, was the timing. NARAL published the sketch on YouTube on the anniversary week of the Center for Medical Progress’s video expose on Planned Parenthood. Those series of undercover videos recorded Planned Parenthood executives discussing the methods of “harvesting” the tissue and anatomy of aborted infants, for the purpose of selling them to research labs. The videos progressively go deeper into a ghoulish world of unborn human trafficking, and at every turn, the employees and doctors running the show demonstrate a chilling apathy toward their visceral marketplace.

When the videos first started to release last year, many pro-life activists believed they would be hugely consequential for Planned Parenthood. The Center for Medical Progress framed the sting as conclusive video evidence that the abortion provider was violating multiple federal laws prohibiting the profitable business of selling human body parts. Calls for Congressional investigations began immediately. Planned Parenthood CEO Cecile Richards initially ignored the videos but eventually apologized for the “insensitive” language recorded on camera. For several weeks, it looked like the most important player in the abortion lobby had finally seen its foot slide in due time.

But nothing happened.

Though several states did vote to cease any taxpayer funding for Planned Parenthood, the fallout for the country’s biggest abortion provider was miniscule. Hearings in Washington went nowhere. Cecile Richards kept her job. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton called the videos “disturbing” during the first few weeks of outcry, but promptly reaffirmed her support (with PP returning the favor). National opinion on abortion law saw little or no change. One state even exonerated Planned Parenthood and indicted instead David Daleiden, the head of the Center for Medical Progress (those charges have since been thrown out).

By the end of last year, it was clear that the videos had skipped off the surface of public consciousness like a stone on a lake. There would be no reckoning, no cultural moment. Why?

The videos’ producers probably bear some responsibility. As Joe Carter has noted, the release of the videos was (seemingly) unaccompanied by any larger, coherent strategy. There seemed to have been a tactical failure to think through, “What are we asking the public to do with this information?” By the time that media outlets were begrudgingly acknowledging the sting’s existence, the space for narrative and action had been ceded already to Planned Parenthood and its legions of allies.

But the strategic failures are only part of the explanation. The CMP may not have come up with the best plan for releasing their footage, but such a misfire doesn’t take away from what the videos actually show. The pro-life community was almost immediately mobilized, and as mentioned, several state legislatures felt pressure to respond. It’s not as if the videos were (as many in Planned Parenthood’s corner have insisted) simply smokescreens. So what happened?

The truth is that the sting’s impact was limited by social media. That may seem like a self-evidently false statement, given the fact that for a long while social media seemed to be the only outlet where the videos could be seen. Sure, the number of times that the videos were streamed, counted against how many mainstream media outlets refused to acknowledge them, may seem like a victory for conservative conscience on social media. But the failure of the videos to translate into a wider sociopolitical moment is actually a commentary on the inherent limitations of social media.

Popular perception is that Facebook, Twitter, and internet commenting threads are populist locales, providing a kind of grassroots rebuttal to the “elite” culture of big media. This is only partly true, though. When Facebook employees acknowledged a few months ago that their news aggregation services were explicitly designed to exclude conservative news outlets, they were revealing how deep of a misconception the “populist” imagery of social media really is.

Before Twitter and Facebook are communities, they are inevitably corporations—corporations with leaders who have ideologies. Every single that happens on social media happens—consciously or not—in a business context. This is why social media can never be a new kind of “town hall.” A town hall binds members together by space, membership and physicality. Social media binds members together by consent to what amounts to a business contract. The business of social media is to make money off its users. This impulse affects not just what social media companies allow on their platform, but even how they present what is allowed. Thus, videos on Facebook are surrounded by “Suggested” videos that have no meaningful tie to the original content. The goal is to get clicks, because clicks are profitable. Distraction means more clicks. Focused contemplation—the kind of thinking that leads to some action—is an enemy of distraction, and thus, an enemy of profit. Therefore, the entire superstructure of social media is one that undermines the appeals to conscience that the CMP’s videos employed.

Unless you woke up each morning last summer determined to take down the abortion lobby, there’s a good chance that your outrage at Planned parenthood didn’t survive the next viral video or trending hashtag that came along. How could it, when there is just so much content to look at it, and so little time for any one thing to stick? When your feed stopped talking about the videos, did it feel wrong, or merely normal? Or did you even notice?

The fuzzy, pixelated thinking that social media foments is a good conduit for getting angry, but it’s not actually good at getting things done. This is one lesson that we should learn from an otherwise lamentable protest culture in American universities. Though social media undoubtedly has played an important role in organization, the campus protests that crippled Missouri and made a think piece out of Oberlin have been remarkably present, physical affairs, protests that are connected in meaningful ways to place and people. With Planned Parenthood, there were indeed local protests and rallies. But these gatherings were not unique to a specific cultural moment. Once the assembling was over, the internet consumed the evidence.

The pro-life movement has historically been remarkably good at mobilizing communities. In this sense, the Planned Parenthood protests were unique in their ineffectiveness. But there is a long term lesson for pro-life here. The kind of social change that will throw off one of the Sexual Revolutions’ most precious and protected dogmas will not happen amongst people who just need their “click fix.” It will happen amongst people for whom wanton destruction of unborn life matters enough to build relationships and make appearances (and not just at protest rallies). The comfort of the social media echo chamber is seductive, but benefits those who are fine with likes, comments, and retweets–just not change.

 

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