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Why Facebook Went Red and Pink Over Same-Sex Marriage

April 1, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
While the Supreme Court heard arguments for and against same-sex marriage, scores of Facebook users changed their profile pictures to show their support with a red equal sign. For more on the image and social media's impact on this issue, Judy Woodruff talks with the Daily Download's Lauren Ashburn and Howard Kurtz.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: As the Supreme Court took up arguments last week in two high-profile cases looking at same-sex marriage, many users of Facebook, Twitter and other forms of social media took to changing their profile pictures. What was behind that viral online campaign?

We ask two journalists from the website Daily Download.

Lauren Ashburn is the site’s editor in chief. Howard Kurtz is Newsweek’s Washington bureau chief and host of CNN’s “Reliable Sources.”

Welcome back to you both.

HOWARD KURTZ, Newsweek/CNN: Thanks.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Howard, what was behind this? How did all this get started?

HOWARD KURTZ: The Human Rights Campaign, which of course lobbies for same-sex marriage, put out this logo against a red background, punk equals sign, and Facebook itself says that 2.7 million more people changed their profile picture to adopt some form of this logo, and people were pretty creative, than usual. And this amounted to 120 percent increase.

And you won’t be surprised to know that the most active people were around 30 years old.

LAUREN ASHBURN, Daily-Download.com: And what’s interesting also about this, Judy, is that this logo, the person who created this logo said it exceeded her wildest expectations of being shared across the Web.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, this started as the Supreme Court was having these arguments last Tuesday and Wednesday. Who was doing this?

LAUREN ASHBURN: Most of it, you know, it was — most of it was the younger generation, 30-year-olds. And, you know, 80 percent of 30-year-olds are on Facebook.

But, in addition to that, there was some really high-profile people who did it, including Martha Stewart. Martha Stewart, there was one that was put up.

HOWARD KURTZ: Here we go.

LAUREN ASHBURN: A red velvet cake. And you can see that the icing on that is the equal signs. And there was also George Takei, the “Star Trek” — of “Star Trek” fame, now soon-to-be-”Star Wars” fame — wrote for those opposed to marriage equality. And instead of the two lines, he made it into a division symbol.

HOWARD KURTZ: And other corporations are getting involved as well. I think the next one was Bud Light and going to the creative aspect. There we see two beer cans. And you will like the next one.

LAUREN ASHBURN: My favorite is this of the two corgis. It’s such a cute picture. It was just done by an average — an average person.

And then Beyonce weighed in. And she has a lot of heft in social media. She has 44 million followers. And what she did, instead of changing or making a symbol, she wrote, if you like it, you should be able to put a ring on it. And that is, of course, a play …

JUDY WOODRUFF: Playing off of her song.

LAUREN ASHBURN: … of her popular song.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Howard, how often does something like this happen, where an organization, an advocacy organization gets something going and — it was an issue getting a lot of news coverage last week. But how unusual was it that it just took off like this?

HOWARD KURTZ: The way it spread like wildfire is pretty unusual, but in this age of social media, everyone is trying to do some version of this. What I think is interesting here is rather than just create a page and you get a certain number of likes, the fact that people could adopt this and put their own twist on it, make it their own, do it and make it a little funny is what contributed to its popularity.

LAUREN ASHBURN: In previous times, you have breast cancer and people turn things pink, right?

You had Arab spring and everybody would turn their profile picture — there was a piece that you could put over it that was green. And so everybody who was supporting what was happening there would turn their Facebook profile green.

HOWARD KURTZ: Although there was such a tide of this that some people started to find it a little bit annoying or perhaps feel like it was trivializing the issue. But as a galvanizing tool, boy, it’s hard to match these kinds of results.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Trivializing because some of them were silly or didn’t — made you take it not as seriously.

LAUREN ASHBURN: Right, yes.

I think there are people who said — that we’re reporting on who said, why would you put corgis there lying upside-down as something to talk about gay marriage rights? And so there were people who just thought it did, it minimalized this very important issue.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What does something like this accomplish? I mean, when that many people are saying they agree, yes, it’s kind of a referendum on what some in the public are thinking, Howard. But what does it do for the movement? I mean, do we know?

HOWARD KURTZ: Well, since the issue that galvanized this is the Supreme Court taking this pair of cases, I don’t know that it’s going to change any five justices’ opinions.

LAUREN ASHBURN: Although there was a very funny cartoon that said — of Justice Kennedy saying, can we rule yet? Well, have we checked in with Facebook?

JUDY WOODRUFF: I saw that.

HOWARD KURTZ: Right. Right.

LAUREN ASHBURN: We have to check in and see who worked …

HOWARD KURTZ: And it does have the potential, I think, to turn off or alienate people who are on the other side of this issue who don’t support same-sex marriage.

And there’s — even though the polls show now 58 percent in a Washington Post survey supporting same-sex marriage, there’s still a lot of people in a lot of states that are opposed to it. But it raises the visibility I think in a way that we haven’t seen and probably energizes those who feel like this is the moment that gay marriage is finally getting cultural acceptance.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What about those on the other side of this issue who are not — who don’t think that same-sex marriage should be legalized?

LAUREN ASHBURN: We did some research into that. And the comparisons are vast.

The amount of momentum that gay rights advocates have on social media is 10 times that of anti-gay.

HOWARD KURTZ: There was one page.

LAUREN ASHBURN: There was one page that really we found on Facebook was a million stand for anti …

HOWARD KURTZ: Traditional marriage.

LAUREN ASHBURN: Right, anti-gay marriage. And it had only 3,000 likes. JUDY WOODRUFF: That’s reflective of the age of those who are using, which you both have been talking about.

LAUREN ASHBURN: Right. 80 percent of 30-year-olds are on social media. So, that’s a very logical conclusion.

HOWARD KURTZ: It could also reflect the fact that even Republicans who have been opposed to same-sex marriage have been pulling back or muting their opposition as it surges in popularity, which is in part because many younger people grew up thinking there’s no problem with this.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, meanwhile, as Facebook is being used more and more as a political tool, we find the founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, has announced that he’s going to himself get more involved in political issues. I heard his name connected with immigration in the last week.

LAUREN ASHBURN: Immigration and education.

He’s forming a new political group. He has already hired lobbyists, both Republican- and Democrat-leaning lobbyists. And he is interested in championing causes that benefit him, obviously. He would like more visas for skilled workers. So, he has an incentive to really get involved in issues like this.

HOWARD KURTZ: But Zuckerberg, who is a wealthy guy, is entitled to use his money any way he wants, to push for any position that will help him or his company, but I do think there’s a danger here if he becomes associated with one side of divisive political issues.

People who just want to use Facebook to check in with their friends and post pictures of their children might be turned off if it seems excessively political.

LAUREN ASHBURN: I don’t know. CEO of Starbucks, Howard Schultz, came after an investor during a meeting. The investor didn’t like the fact that he had supported gay rights. And he said to the investor, I don’t care.

And I think people are still going to Starbucks.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It’s an interesting question, though, because so many people are using Facebook, and then Zuckerberg is clearly associated with an issue on one side or the other. It will be interesting to see what the reaction is.

HOWARD KURTZ: Exactly.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Howard Kurtz, Lauren Ashburn, thank you both.

LAUREN ASHBURN: Thank you.

HOWARD KURTZ: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You can weigh in online. Do you think these types of social media campaigns can influence change? Go to our website to be part of that conversation.