SOPA: Protest and Politics in a New Media Landscape

27 Jan

On Monday January 23, #K12Media (a weekly chat for teachers interested in Media Literacy/Studies/Education) discussed how we might bring last week's SOPA protest into our classrooms. We began by looking at the media texts produced that day and we hope that the discussion can continue in the comments. We will definitely come back to the topics of piracy, privacy, copyright and sharing in future #K12Media talks.

This past week a virtual protest yielded real results. Wikipedia led the charge and many websites went black on January 18. In the end, politicians in the US listened and SOPA was effectively scrapped. 

Though a battle was won, the war continues as politicians, special interest groups and the public try to determine who has control over the internet. This protest and the issues it publicized are rich with resources, topics for discussion or debate, and media texts.

Image: Screen Shot of taken Jan 18.



In this week’s #K12Media chat, we began to think about what teachers can do with this teachable moment in the classroom.

For teachers interested in finding out more about SOPA and why it was so widely protested, Clay Shirky’s talk is a great overview:



He explains that the bills (SOPA and PIPA) try to police the internet in a way that “won’t accomplish its stated goals but will produce a lot of pernicious side effects.” This video could be used in a Civics class, Politics, Law, Social Studies and more. Some preliminary questions you could ask your students:

  • How does Mr. Shirky make his argument?
  • What evidence does he provide?
  • How might the MPAA or other content providers respond?
  • Is this talk an effective way of presenting the information and making the argument?

American Censorship has another way of presenting this information, an infographic:

  • How does this infographic make its argument against SOPA and PIPA?
  • What evidence does it provide?
  • From where do they get the data?
  • How can we verify the accuracy of the graphs and charts?
  • How are images, fonts, graphs, colours and other design elements used to convince the reader?
  • Is this infographic an effective way of presenting the information and making the argument?


When #K12Media examined the Key Concepts of Media Literacy, we talked extensively about Key Concept #6, Media Have Social and Political Implications. We noted that:

Media have many spheres of influence—political and social change can stem from shifts that occur within and because of media. The sensory input from visual and aural media, for example, can influence people’s impressions of leaders, world events, and catastrophes. New media has just as much of an impact, connecting people in ways not possible before their advent; shifting how people socialize and form connections.



During the protest, we saw some of the impact of the internet as a medium. Over the course of one day, people became politically active and changed the minds of their elected representatives. Sociological Images illustrates this change with an image from that shows support for the bill as of January 18, compared to January 19. Clearly people were able to connect, not only with websites affected by the legislation and each other, but also with the legislators themselves. As Media Studies teachers, we’d like to have our students examine how the websites got their messages across so effectively and efficiently. One way could be to use the Media Triangle to analyse a screenshot of each website’s effort. A broad range of these images is available through the LA Times website here. A more thorough examination of the design elements used in the protest can be found in Doris Yee’s excellent post on the subject (with much larger screen shots). She points out that “You have never seen #000 (black) applied in such a meaningful way.”

  • Compare and comment on how each website shown uses #000 (black) on the page. Which is most effective? Why?
  • Why did some websites block their content while others simply changed the design? What does that choice imply?
  • What other documents have used these design elements? What allusions are made? Are they effective? Why?

We could also look at other media texts created for the protest. For example, the Oatmeal created a gif (seen here) and uses humour to get its point across. Is this an effective tool? Why? How does humour affect your interest in the issue?

Don McLean’s “American Pie” was re-tooled for the protest as well:


  • Is “The Day the LOLcats Died” an effective protest song? Why or why not?
  • What is the effect of releasing the song as a YouTube video (rather than an MP3)?
  • Would it have been as effective as an audio-only text? Why or why not?

Along with the rich variety of media texts shared on that day, the protest also raised the level of awareness about the issues of privacy, piracy, copyright and human rights that the legislation provoked. As the Canadian government examines Bill C-11 (that deals with some of these issues), it’s useful to gain a greater understanding of these ideas and how legislation might benefit or harm consumers, creators, citizens, corporations, and governments/sovereignty. 


The articles cited at the end of this post are good places to begin research on the subject and the issues, but they are by no means comprehensive. Teachers and students might want to view Brett Gaylor's "RiP! A Remix Manifesto" and think about how the issue can be viewed from a variety of different angles.

  • What argument is Gaylor making?
  • What are some other points of view?
  • Is the documentary an effective way of making this type of argument? Why or why not?
  • What facts are highlighted in the documentary? What opinions are put forth? Are facts and opinions presented in the same ways or differently?
  • How is music used in the documentary? Images?

@ginrob_pt highlights another way of looking at the issue of sharing and free content. He points to Jaron Lanier's opinion piece from The New York Times and argues:


As Google changes its privacy policy and legislators struggle to keep up with technological advancements, it's clear that these issues will be with us for the foreseeable future. We will be revisiting this topic in a future #K12Media! (Scroll past the resources below for the full Storify of Monday's #K12Media chat).

Update (Jan 27): Just came across Matthew Ingram's excellent interview with Neil Gaiman. It's a must read. Gaiman gives a historical perspcetive (new technology is always problematic, see the printing press). Gaiman has a lot to say on the subject, watch the video below (he argues that, rather than costing him money, having his content online has made him more):

  • The debate is often framed as "creators" against "pirates". How does Gaiman's perspective differ?
  • Are we moving to a more direct distribution model for content? How might that help/hurt those involved in the media industry?


Benkler, Yochai. "Seven Lessons from SOPA/PIPA/MegaUpload and Four Proposals on Where We Go From Here." TechPresident. Jan 25, 2012.

Brodsky, Art. "The Web Can't Declare Victory Just Yet -- If Ever." Jan 24, 2012

Downes, Larry. "Who Really Stopped SOPA and Why?Forbes. Jan 25, 2012.

Geist, Michael. "The Behind-the-Scenes Campaign to Bring SOPA to Canada." Jan 23, 2012.

Geist, Michael. "The Day the Internet Fought Back.The Toronto Star. Jan 22, 2012.

Ingram, Matthew. "Gaiman: SOPA and PIPA on the Wrong Side of History." GigaOm. Jan 27, 2012.

Lanier, Jaron."The False Ideals of the Web." The New York Times. Jan 18, 2012

Masters, Kim. "The SOPA War: A Frantic Call, An Aborted Summit, and Dramatic New Details on How Hollywood Lost." The Hollywood Reporter. Jan 25, 2012.

Pachal, Peter. "Could SOPA be Coming to Canada?Mashable. Jan 24, 2012. 

Schwartz, Daniel. "Canada Would Feel Effect of Proposed U.S. Stop Online Piracy Act." Jan 18, 2012

Shirky, Clay. "Pick up the Pitchforks: David Pogue Underestimates Hollywood." Jan 20, 2012