It’s arguably the best slice of dialog from Aaron Sorkin’s 2010 film, The Social Network. Sipping an espresso, Napster founder Sean Parker coyly describes his efforts to bring the record industry down. A skeptical Eduardo retorts: "You didn’t bring the record companies down. They won." Sean replies: "In court … You want to buy a Tower Records, Eduardo?"
This exchange is the perfect analogy for what’s presently unfolding in the realm of corporate activism. Except in the case of corporate activism, the disruptive variable isn’t a hotshot entrepreneur. It’s the collective voice of millions of people. During the past few weeks alone, we’ve witnessed a surge in civil disobedience, political backlash and brilliantly executed activist campaigns—not just in the United States, but worldwide.
For instance, Hungary just deliberately destroyed 1,000 acres of maize farmland as a bold stance against biotech giant Monsanto and its GMO seeds. Nazma Akhter, a female Bangladeshi factory worker, used Facebook to spark an international movement to improve working conditions and call further attention to the recent Rana Plaza factory collapse that claimed 1,127 lives. And hundreds of thousands people watched live as six young, female Greenpeace members free climbed the side of London’s tallest building in protest of Shell’s operations in the Arctic.
These initiatives, along with the corresponding digital strategies behind them, demonstrate a new and powerful truth. You don’t have to be knee deep in corporate resources to command immediate, international attention. You just have to be creative.
While Greenpeace’s Save the Arctic campaign might have cost a few thousand dollars to execute, the free climb stunt produced millions of media impressions, with the corresponding hashtag, #iceclimb, ranking number one on Twitter for nearly two days. That’s not the kind of social media attention money can buy. It’s what happens when you tap into a deep-seated, international pulse.
"We’ve gotten an unbelievable response from this campaign," says Philip Radford, executive director at Greenpeace. "Over 2 million people around the world have have signed the petition. People want companies like Shell out of the Arctic."
Perhaps not surprisingly, Shell’s Twitter and Facebook pages made no mention of the Greenpeace campaign—although according to Radford, the company has responded in some rather pointed ways: "They have responded by filing injunctions. They have also responded by pulling out of the U.S. Arctic and shifting to far less accountable areas like Russia."
To Radford’s point, the courage behind each of the campaigns listed above is staggering when you consider the ramifications. In each case, it seems that target corporations have retaliated against protesters, not responded to them. Monsanto has sued GMO activists and in cases where the company itself was sued, it prevailed. Monsanto has also reportedly hired infamous mercenary firm Blackwater to hunt activists around the world.
Similarly, for her transgressions against Bangladeshi factory owners, activist Nazma Akhter has been labeled an "enemy of the nation" and is under constant government surveillance. You’d think consequences like these would quell activist groups and their followers. But if anything, they seem to fuel the fire.
"We think this is an important time for activists around the world," says Radford. "Perhaps due to the economy, more people are prone to respond to what they perceive as injustice."
With more people around the world standing up and fighting for what they believe, the Monsantos and Shells of the would do well to adopt new engagement strategies, or else lose in the higher court of public opinion—just like Tower Records did.
As Greenpeace puts it: "[These] companies may have all the money in the world, but we have truth, creativity and youth on our side."