When the news of the school shooting in Newtown, Conn., unfolded across social networks and a host of online news sites, Pat Mitchell took to Twitter. Mitchell’s tweets were not the only calls to action that day, but she does have a deep insight into the influence social media has for sparking debate and raising awareness.
As president and CEO of the Paley Center for Media, Mitchell has made it a big part of her business to recognize and celebrate the transformative muscle of social media to connect activists on every platform.
Since she took the helm in 2006, Mitchell’s worked hard to morph the institution formerly known as Museum of Television and Radio into a productive hive of current programming and collaborations that’s moving the needle on women’s issues. Good thing she’s no stranger to breaking down barriers. Mitchell’s now more than 40 years into blazing her own trail in the media. She was the first female to nationally syndicate her own show and the first woman president of PBS. Not bad for someone who got into journalism—not once, but twice—because she was unemployed.
Mitchell’s garnered a slew of accolades, including a lifetime achievement award (which will also now bear her name) by the Women’s Media Center along with a clutch of other distinctions befitting a mover and shaker in the world of reporting.
Still, Mitchell believes there’s plenty more to be done. "That’s an ongoing battle," she says, of women shattering glass ceilings in media. "I don’t consider that one nearly won." She’s optimistic that social networks will act as an equalizer, not only for women, but for global issues that fly under mainstream media’s radar.
She calls out WITNESS.org as an example of an organization that uses social media to not only raise awareness (through broadcasting its documentaries), but hopefully to lead to advocacy (in this case, for the end of human rights abuses).
"Social media is really good at mobilizing action," she says. Two of the most recent and notably innovative uses she’s seen are Lauren Wolfe’s charting of the sexualized violence in Syria and Lara Setrakian’s Syria Deeply, a website designed to provide a comprehensive source of news coming out of the country. Mitchell says that though both organizations are different, "These are two women using social media to raise awareness of an underrepresented part of the Syria coverage." By creating and broadcasting through alternative means on the web, they are also beginning to change the way people look at the way a major world story is reported, she says.
Likewise, Mitchell points to the arrest of the members of Pussy Riot in Russia. This story wouldn’t have even made headlines, she says, had it not been for social media. Although it may not have kept the women from going to jail, when news of small, unpublicized trial went viral, Mitchell believes, "The global awareness and reaction that came in as a response made a difference for them. We weren’t aware of the level of collusion between church and state in Russia. The arrest brought it up in a context that people were willing to read about, and I daresay they are more knowledgeable because of it."
Mitchell’s got a long list of other inspirational and influential examples. She reels off a set of names that ranges from teen activist Julie Bluhm (who took on Seventeen magazine’s photoshopping policies); Deanna Zandt for her Planned Parenthood Saved Me Tumblr blog; Emily May of Hollaback, as well as more well-known names like Arianna Huffington and celebrity activists Marlo Thomas and Jane Fonda. But when pressed to come up with a superlative in terms of reach and impact, Mitchell tips her hat to Eve Ensler.
Though best known for her Vagina Monologues, Mitchell says Ensler’s One Billion Rising campaign to demand an end to violence against women has so far been a remarkable testament to the power of social sharing. "It is going to bring one billion men and women together on February 14, 2013 all over the planet. Already over 100 countries and 116 million individuals have signed up, and Eve isn’t going to stop until she reaches a billion," says Mitchell, noting that number matches the number of victims being abused across the globe. "We are going to take a dance action," she says of the campaign’s goal. "When you think of the numbers, and that type of global awareness, you couldn’t even begin to do that with traditional media in any way, shape, or form."
Mitchell goes on to detail how, when Ensler makes a stop in the Philippines as part of her world tour, there will already be a massive, mobilized audience that came together entirely through Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. One Billion Rising’s website alone is a profound source of inspiration for Mitchell. "The list of people signing up just astonishes me. All the labor unions, the European parliament, bishops, church groups, Aborigine women, the Australian soccer league, and Philippine Catholic nuns," she says. "They not only have to agree to take an action but they become part of a movement."
Mitchell’s got her eye on some other organizations that are gaining momentum. Fresh off the recent TEDx Women’s conference, she notes that Courtney Martin and Vanessa Valenti hosted a panel on social media change agents. She’s also impressed with the Harry Potter Alliance, Girls Who Code, and PopVox for taking personal stories to influence community policy and politics.
In fact, Mitchell can cite so many examples it’s hard to ignore the obvious: Does she ever suffer from social media fatigue? "I can barely let go of the phone long enough to get six hours sleep," she says with a sigh. "I have to find space between all those emails and tweets and blogs, because I am the first to say that it’s all important and it makes a difference," she adds.
So what’s next? Mitchell admits we can’t have this much content washing over us and have it all be meaningful. "Seven million videos a day on YouTube is more than I comprehend," she says with a chuckle. Turning thoughtful, Mitchell adds that from where she sits, the role of the social media companies going forward must be to help make sense of all the noise. "We had so many innovations in the tools to use and distribute and interact, the next step in usefulness has to be more personalization. I’m not saying put the genie back in the bottle. I’m saying curate her dance. I need her guidance to show me the spots along the way where I need to pay attention."
[Image: Flickr user Andy Rennie]