How mass media missed the march that social media turned into a phenomenon.
By Paul Farhi
Jan 21 2017
From its inception, it was a social-media phenomenon, not a mainstream-media one.
The organizers of the many women’s marches that filled the streets of cities across the world on Saturday got the word out about their projects primarily via Facebook. From there, news spread from one feed to another, and from one mouth to another, feeding a vast river of humanity.
By contrast, mainstream news outlets — focused primarily on the inauguration of a president, against whom many of the marchers were protesting — gave the run-up to the event relatively scant coverage.
Taken collectively, the Women’s March on Washington and its many affiliated “sister” marches were perhaps the largest single demonstration of the power of social media to create a mobilization.
The march has precedent in the annals of online activism: The Arab Spring demonstrations of 2011 and the tea party, Occupy and Black Lives Matter movements, for example, were all driven by social media. But perhaps no such effort has turned out so many in a single day. The crush of bodies was so heavy that organizers and public safety officials in several cities, including Chicago, suspended plans for actually marching anywhere. That turned some of the gatherings into rallies.
As with those other grass-roots causes, traditional news media outlets were late in catching up to the story. “NBC Nightly News” did its first story about the march on Thursday, two days before hundreds of thousands took to the streets, according to a search of the Nexis database. ABC’s “World News Tonight” aired an 18-word sound bite from one of the march’s co-organizers on Wednesday. And although the New York Times mentioned the event numerous times in the weeks preceding the march, the newspaper featured it just once on its front page through Tuesday. (Its story concerned racial divisions among organizers and marchers.)
“The women’s marches were pretty much under the radar in most mainstream-media coverage over the last few weeks,” says Marcus Messner, an associate professor of journalism at Virginia Commonwealth University, where he studies social media. The number of demonstrators and events, he says, “caught the media and public off guard,” even as the social-media buzz began growing into a “huge groundswell.”
According to Messner, the event demonstrated that “organizers don’t need media coverage anymore to reach large audiences and turn out large crowds for protests when people are passionate about issues and connect via social media.”
TV reporters spent much of Saturday afternoon marveling at the massive crowds gathered in Washington, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, London and other cities. “The Metro system is completely overwhelmed. The cellphone system is overwhelmed. The satellite trucks are overwhelmed,” MSNBC correspondent Cal Perry reported from the Mall in Washington, adding, “We’re looking at a city that’s overwhelmed.”
A few minutes later on CNN, reporter Jessica Schneider also invoked the o-word: “The turnout here in New York City, frankly, is overwhelming,” she said, as thousands could be seen behind her, shuffling down a city street.