Live Action: on Google it is a “Youth-led, pro-life movement for human rights!” Its’ site banner calls it “a new media movement.” Until a few days ago the banner was framed on the end with a camera lens–presented as proof of its “truthiness” and a symbolic representation of its methods and tactics as a “new media movement.”
Live Action posits itself as the bearer of truth for a blind public, setting up exposés with undercover actors in the vein of James O’Keefe of the “guerrilla theater” ACORN and NPR Stings. Through videos produced under the name LiveAction Films, the organization aims to expose the fundamentally corrupt nature of Planned Parenthood; one that allegedly permits giving advice to pimps about underage girls and supports undercover sex trafficking. Lila Rose calls it “undercover evidence.” The strategy seems to rely on a lazy but almost visceral human response to the use of the machine/lens-which is to assume that when the operator makes use of this “objective” recording instrument, he somehow takes on the nature of the lens and delivers the material unencumbered of any subjective vision. Trust us-we got it on camera.
Of course, the content used against Planned Parenthood is never unmediated–both by its nature as “content,” which always comes with a bias– and through deliberate production processes. For this reason, Live Action’s primary strategy is to emphatically sell its content as raw material. Yet media sources refute its claims on a daily basis, demonstrating evidence of questionable splicing of video and audio footage. In one released video, the time stamp for the edited video doesn’t match the conversation happening in a longer released version. A conservative commenter on liberal site Motherjones.com responds to doubters of the veracity of the “sting” videos with the observation:
“This looks like another Wikileaks operation except it could be called Fetusleaks? By the way, why is everything Wikileaks post is true, but live video is “doctored”? Oh yeah, I forgot I’m on a leftist denial website, my bad.”
There is much to parse in those few sentences, but here is the clearest counter-argument:
“Because technology allows us to detect doctored video. The video clowns could settle it by releasing the original, unedited versions for examination. However, they learned from O’Keefe how doing so utterly discredits the originally released edited versions.”
It would seem that enough clear evidence of Live Action’s deceit would shut the organization down, yet instead of fighting back to prove itself, Live Action continues to produce its content at such a constant pace that it drowns out threatening counter-arguments with sheer noise. This mode of production makes Live Action function as what I term a “legitimacy generator”; a smart digital content factory that spreads its noise as far out across and beyond its network as possible. Legitimacy generation is intended to create strategic, fast-paced instantiation of social capital, through digitally situated networks. (The term implies the intent, not necessarily the result.) The fact that this spread takes place over digital space largely through social media means that the noise spreads quickly and arguably with greater emotional impact on viewers–who discover it through sources they already trust; that they already share social capital with. The mechanisms by which users consume content on the web and specifically through social media make it probable that those who have already sided with Live Action or are generally aligned with the pro-life movement will probably never encounter counter-claims exposing Live Action’s questionable production.
The overwhelming focus of Live Action is a concerted effort to take down Planned parenthood, yet Live Action takes great pains to diffuse the fact of its hyper-focus with careful language espousing a soulful and justice-seeking love for the sanctity of life in America. When Lila Rose speaks on the evils of abortion, her voice carries a quivering inflection expressive of a heartbreak that begs the audience to feel it too. This gets to the heart of Live Action’s strategy: while the take-down of Planned Parenthood is the foremost priority, Live Action implicitly invests itself in the wider Pro-Life agenda.
For Live Action to Win, there are two ways to go: it can either put its focus on strengthening its current ties or bridging new ones. Bridging entails possibilities of varying difficulty. Because of the volatile nature of the Pro-life Pro-Choice debate, battle lines have been drawn in bold. The truth is that Live Action probably has little chance of ever convincing most people to cross from the other side of the line. Aware of this, Live Action throws out this untapped potential and instead focuses on two types of connections: 1. Bonding type alliances with parties it already shares common political interests with, and 2. Aiming a flood of language about the sanctity of life and the corruption of Planned Parenthood onto an audience of people young enough to be fully mailable. Live Action has built itself from the start around an awareness that its target audience gets a very significant chunk of its information through social media; using Youtube, Facebook, Twitter, et al. with a “givenness” unique to its generation. (The central members of Live Action are themselves all in their early to mid twenties, so digital strategy is native to them as well–still, they are up to a generation older than the younger members of its audience.)
Ultimately, the ties that Live Action seeks to bridge are the ones seen to be the most feasible to undertake bridging. Parties deemed to be irrevocably behind the opposing lines are cast as the enemy. The goal is to get “big” enough to drown out the Enemy. This begs to question why, if Live Action is already either preaching to the converted or to those not yet informed enough to form an initial bias, does it need to keep its hyper focus veiled with vague mission statements and banners? My hypothesis is that Live Action does this in order to deflect attention away from the specifics of its questionable tactics and thus maintain an image of civility.
Even though Live Action will never convert Everyone, the organization acknowledges the greater societal expectation that legitimate civic groups follow a certain set of ethics, which arguably make it controversial for an organization to rise to the the levels of aggression, spectacle, and questionable veracity in Live Action’s strategy of exposé. Live Action does the work to keep face in order to continue to build legitimacy in the civic sphere. Yet the modes of production Live Action uses to generate and spread its content fundamentally change how the organization functions as a Civic Group.
Live action’s overwhelming focus, Planned Parenthood Federation of America, (founded 1942), along with its lobbying wing Planned Parenthood Action Fund, Inc. is the largest family planning organization in the US, with a total annual budget $1.05 billion dollars, $300 million of it government funded under Title X of the Family Planning Services and Population Research Act signed into law by President Nixon. In addition to “family planning,” the group emphasizes its H.I.V. counseling, treatment for sexually transmitted diseases, cancer screenings and other services. According to its self-published fact sheet, the total Number of Planned Parenthood activists, supporters, and donors numbers more than 4,000,0002 people. Planned Parenthood has always been a lightning rod at the center of a decades-long fight, but in the last months of 2010 through the beginning of spring 2011, arguments for and against its government funding have turned into a point of impasse within the greater federal budget debate.
Over the months of January through April (8th), both sides devoted enormous amounts of energy to picking up new affiliates and followers, in a sign that a new urgent state of affairs mandated a simultaneous focus on both bridging and bonding their respective (and completely mutually exclusive) social capital. Exploring the trajectory of arguments over the last few months exposed a clear, fascinating pattern; noise over Planned Parenthood and Live Action skyrocketed with the release in January of a video of a pimp i.e. Live Action actor asking about available services at at the Central New Jersey location (the first series undercover videos, titled the Mona Lisa Project, were produced in 2008.)
Response to Allegations
PP originally responded to Live Action’s undercover sex ring videos with the argument that while the “pimp” may have received certain information, informing him of his options simply conformed with Planned Parenthood’s walk-in policy and culture of confidentiality, pointing out that the appropriate personnel reported the incident to the FBI a full two weeks before the Live Action videos were released, stating “This isn’t “complicity with sex abusers.” The New York Times reported: “Planned Parenthood calls the videotapes “misleading” and “dirty tricks,” taking advantage of its culture of confidentiality.” Yet the organization said it would immediately retrain all employees on requirements for reporting any threats to minors.” After the videos were released and bad PR began to flood in, Planned Parenthood fired the implicated employee and manager. Indeed–after every subsequent release of “sting” videos, implicated employees were fired, and organizational training was conducted to better identify suspicious walk-in cases and better prepare for the next Live Action infiltration.
Unfortunately, it took a relatively long time for Planned Parenthood to respond in an official manner. Between the visit of the alleged pimp and the release of the videos, Planned Parenthood reported the incident to the FBI, but this did not immediately become public knowledge. In the intervening time, Live Action spun the fact that Planned Parenthood fired employees as proof of PP’s fundamental corruption. It was a substantial victory for Live Action. Were it not for PP’s decades-long buildup of social capital, and its resulting legitimacy-a sort of proof of trust in the organization built through Planned Parenthood’s long record of services-the PR damage could have easily been fatal.
A Longer View
MS Granovetter writes that the “strength” of a tie is a (probably linear) combination of the amount of time, the emotional intensity, the intimacy (mutual confiding), and the reciprocal services which characterize the tie”. Trust must be gained over a span of time that shows a parties’ behavior to be consistent and reliable. For an organization started in 1942, building up social capital was a gradual process by default: functioning as a legitimacy generator wouldn’t have been possible without the speed facilitated by digital social networks. Does Live Action loose any depth in its social capital with its focus on content output? It’s arguable that establishing true legitimacy (to the point that your ties carry your message forward to turn it into fact) requires both bridging and bonding social capital in multidimensional ways. What does it cost its potential social capital to focus on demonizing a particular organization? Would Live Action be more effective if it retained its energies within a more generalized Pro Life message? In theory it’s possible, but without a long view on this young organization, it would seem they’ve found an effective strategy for now.
Live Action is compensated for the risk it takes to its capital with ties to a powerful political engine that spreads its work. The trade-off seems reasonable. In a sense, this is what happens at a larger scale in American politics every couple of years: when political parties choose to go on the attack, they sacrifice their ability to establish new ties, huddling instead into a defensive bonding mode with its pre-existing ones. Candidates attempt to beat this reality by toeing the line so as not to appear too negative of the opposing party. Though the two organizations demonstrate respective advantages in their social capital strategy, there seems to be no clear winner. When you create social capital with certain groups, you sacrifice it with others. Legitimacy is not universal in itself. The hope is to build out social capital to the point that its mass and reach speaks for its legitimacy.
Continuing with the narrative: Video Responses from PP
Around the time that Planned Parenthood reeled from its new expose, the Defund Planned Parenthood Campaign began in full effect. A contest was set in place for videos best explaining why congress should defund Planned Parenthood. Thousands of entries were sent in by kids ranging in age from early adolescence upward, hosted on Youtube and embedded on the Live Action site. Videos show individual boys and girls, groups of students, even an aspiring rapper, repeating back Live Action’s messages on abortions and sometimes sharing personal narratives. In one video, a 17 year old girl heartrendingly looks into the camera and shares that “Planned Parenthood allowed my father turn into my abuser,” going on to describe a pattern of domestic and sexual abuse facilitated by easy trips to the abortion clinic. This marked an important point for Planned parenthood: the response to the Defund Planned Parenthood videos came from outside of the organization. The alternative media group The Coffee Party claims to have inspired a student at Wesleyan to create a video of a number of students holding up a banner reading “I Have Sex,” proclaiming the need for easy access to contraception, birth control, and health services. Text follows, arguing “we want to stay educated and safe and plan for our own futures.” This video campaign also turned viral to a certain extent; inspiring nearly dozen college campuses to respond with their own I Have Sex videos. On March 7th, live Action launched a Defund Planned Parenthood bus tour in the midwest and northeast, teaming up along the way with Sarah Palin, Colorado Rep. Marilyn Musgrave (Rep), and the old, widely respected Susan B.Anthony List. By this point in time, Planned Parenthood seemed to have figured out that the best response was a fast, direct permutation of Live Action’s newest move, so it launched a last minute “truth tour “of its own, (which Live Action aptly titled the “Peptobismol bus tour”,) “there to counter their lies with the truth and to demonstrate just how much support we have in communities and online.”
Throughout this pattern of action and reaction, Planned Parenthood took deliberate care to avoid presenting its campaigns as a take-down of Live Action, however, during this period, liberal media sites such as Mother Jones, Media Matters, and the Coffee Party, became increasingly quick to refute the constant barrage of claims from Live Action against Planned Parenthood. Lila Rose appeared on the O’Reilly Factor, Hannity’s America, The Glenn Beck Show, EWTN, and The Laura Ingraham Show. Cecil Richards also covered her bases with television appearances. Both organizations actively utilized Facebook, Twitter, and email blasts, and put strong efforts towards organizing meatspace protests. While Planned Parenthood’s site seems to have deliberately utilized an architecture devoid of space for commentary, Live Action’s site proved rather successful at facilitating conversation. Anywhere between 5-100 comments could be expected at the bottom of daily-updated blog posts. Ironically, while the blog posts themselves were often written without proper citations or even any seeming efforts at copyediting, user commentary remained mostly constructive, to the point that it aroused suspicion at the idea that the digital space of such a volatile organization could be conducive to polite strings of argument and counterargument. After one blog post, a Pro-Life commenter conducted a fact check, pointing out a discrepancy in numbers of deaths in NY state vs. abortions in 2006 vs 2008: “This discrepancy doesn’t change the truth of your article but leaves one to question how or when other pro-life articles are inaccurately reporting statistics, and gives pro-choicers a foothold with which to discredit pro-lifers”. These types of recommendations occurred fairly often, posing the possibility that perhaps Live Action intervenes within the comments in order to coach people to respond better to arguments coming from Pro-Choice interlopers.
Wider Liberal Fears
A comment posted mid March on mediamatters.org expressed liberal worries for the future in the frank manner that an organization would never officially broadcast: “Don’t put it past congressional Republicans to put ideology above the facts. The right-wing media will bring their wrath upon the House Republicans if they don’t start wasting the nation’s time on PP soon”. What became clear on Friday, April 8th is that the greater Pro-life Pro-choice debate and its politicized use by parties is about more than Planned Parenthood; for even after the Republicans failed to push through defunding, the budget compromise included a concession to conservatives in a rider that would prohibit use of federal funding for abortions in the District of Columbia, and in exchange for agreeing to raise the current $14.25 trillion federal debt ceiling, Republicans will now push even harder for deeper spending cuts beyond the $38 billion for the six-month budget deal agreed to late Friday night. It will be interesting to see how Live Action’s rate of activity post April 8th compares to the last 3 months leading up to the vote.
Defining What “Civic” Means
Live Action’s clear record of manipulating and propagating the materials it presents as proof against Planned Parenthood launched me into an investigation of the defining characteristics of civic groups. Idealistically speaking, a civic group serves as a by-the citizen/for-the citizen catalyst for a better democratic system, its value shared by creators, participants and non-participants. Civic groups are by premise created to function independently, to generate a productive push/pull tension with the government over how to improve societal elements towards the greater good. To create enough push, civic society depends upon the active creation and reinforcement of “trust at hand”–a form of trust that can be instantiated for use of the resource we call social capital.
Can a group’s degree of bias, narrowed focus and the nature of its alliances throw its legitimacy as a civic group into question? Live Action repeatedly claims that at the heart of it all, it’s fighting for the civil rights of the unborn child; a wherefore unacknowledged citizen. If we are to drink Live Action’s Kool-Aid, we could say that Live Action is an organization that fights for the constitutional rights of citizens born and yet unborn under law/American legislative system in the realm of human rights:
“We are a youth led movement dedicated to building a culture of life and ending abortion, the greatest human rights injustice of our time. We use new media to educate the public about the humanity of the unborn and investigative journalism to expose threats against the vulnerable and defenseless.”
I set out to find a useful framework by which I could better understand the ethical guidelines for civic groups. Larry Diamond, in his talk “What civil society can do to develop democracy” to NGO leaders in Baghdad in 2004, lays out one possible framework:“The first and most basic role of civil society is to limit and control the power of the state.” A second is “to expose the corrupt conduct of public officials and lobby for good governance reforms, and a third function of civil society is to promote political participation.”
Considering that Planned Parenthood receives a full third of its funding from the government, the fight against Planned Parenthood could be cast as a fight to keep government forces in check; in the words of Live Action, “uncovering institutional crisis.” Of course, since institutional crisis implicates the government as a whole, Live Action would need to frame it as a Democratic Party Problem.
The argument for the civil rights of the “preborn”, by which Live Action compares the status of the fetus to that of the slave, “which took years to change attitudes about”, places the organization within a long-spanning civil rights narrative. Live Action points out an alleged shift in awareness in the American public towards an acknowledgment that perhaps we’ve all been dehumanizing fetus’ in the same way slave owners did their slaves:
“2009 marked the first year that a majority of people called themselves pro-life.” Diamond also posits that “civil society groups must have respect for the law, for the rights of other groups to express their interests and opinions.” Live Action claims a policy of non-violence; “Live Action is strictly non-violent and only endorses or allies with groups that are also non-violent.” This statement would seem to prove that Live Action does aim to respect fundamental laws as they apply to other groups.
Following Diamond’s framework, here is where we may hit a wall:
“Part of what the word “civil” implies is tolerance and the accommodation of pluralism and diversity, and Civil society groups may establish ties to political parties and the state, but they must retain their independence, and they do not seek political power for themselves.”
How do we judge the relative independence of civic groups, and where do we draw the line? Live Action stands proudly in alliance with highly volatile figureheads, including Arizona Senator Jon Kyl and Sarah Palin (who appeared publicly with Lila during the Defund Planned Parenthood bus tour), and directly feeds many of the arguments Republicans use in their efforts to push forth their defunding initiative. On the cusp of the budget deadline on Friday, Kyl used Live Action’s arguments verbatim on the senate floor, stating “Planned Parenthood is not the only entity that can provide medical care in this country,” an argument Lila Rose uses with emphasis in nearly every public appearance and video.
Diamond concludes that “Some of these groups may merely be fronts for political parties or movements that seek to win control of the state. These groups are not part of civil society and they do not contribute to building a democracy.” Ahah. Live Action may not exist solely to provide fuel for the Republican engine, but the flow of its produced content from the emitter to the conservative mouthpiece is nearly simultaneous. To be fair, the same could be said of Planned Parenthood, which by the by takes no pains to emphasize that it’s not a non-profit organization by law, and takes in a yearly profit (the vast majority of which is spent on operations). Like Live Action, Planned Parenthood has deep and extensive political alliances. One big difference, however, is that Planned Parenthood provides a clear set of services for a significant percentage of the populace, focusing the majority of its energy and funds on deploying services rather than fighting directly against any one organization. As demonstrated by the recent back and forth, when Planned Parenthood does fight an organization like Live Action, it appears, at least in recent months to be done primarily as a defensive move, rather than as primary motive for its existence as an organization. The bottom line? Planned Parenthood does not appear to exist primarily for any other parties other than those individuals it provides services to… this is highly debatable, of course.
While Lila Rose and the rest of the organization proselytize the idea of civil rights for the preborn with what appears to be genuine emotion and belief, behind all of this is (for me) the nagging feeling that Live Action’s content production strategy begins to subsume the authenticity of its emotion.