Phony Facebook Activism: Big Bird Edition

REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

David Williams and Ross Marchand Taxpayers Protection Alliance
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To most Facebookers, clicking “refresh” in the news feedsummons enticing photos of meals and live videos featuring canines. But, regulars on the social network have increasingly observed their friends and acquaintances changing their profile pictures to embrace the cause celebre. And, unlike dog posts and culinary fodder, this latest fad is annoying and alienating.

To anyone with a politically active  feed, it’s easy to observe what’s gone awry. Ever since the inauguration of President Trump, the “outrage machine” has been in high gear across the social network. Rambling statuses show that the despised five-paragraph essay format from middle school is still alive and well. Live videos promise tears, invective, wildebeest yells, and everything in-between.  The latest, particularly irksome trend, is to post “I PBS” as a way to show support for public television and keep the taxpayer spigot open.

President Trump’s budget proposal targeted, among many other things, the annual $445 million subsidy to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), which helps to bankroll the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) and National Public Radio (NPR). Outraged online politicos took to their news feeds, demanding that Big Bird be saved from certain death. A popular video shared by MoveOn.org and What’s Trending showed Elmo being laid off, rendered a pauper by heartless federal budget cuts. People who dare to suggest that PBS and NPR were better off completely privatized are greeted by a torrent of angry comments. Some are more tactful, claiming indifference to the plight of young rural television viewers. Others are less kind, suggesting a subservience to “corporate masters” in the media world.

But the most disturbing thing about these hostile revelers is not the accusations of insincerity or the annoying hyperbole. Rather, it is the insistence that taxpayers should continually fund any content or program favored by the left. To defenders of the status quo, these concerns are irrelevant because CPB funding is a minuscule portion of federal spending. But writing pithy comments pointing out all of the things that cost more than public media funding simply misses the point. Given how little is needed to make up for the CPB shortfall, concerned netizens can easily fundraise to make up for the funding cost.

Real activism consists of citizens persuading fellow citizens to pitch in for a cause, not whining and changing a profile picture.  Currently, there are roughly 214 million U.S. Facebook users.  If we assume that the political affiliation of U.S. Facebook users reflects America on the whole, around 100 million Facebook users are liberal.  That means to “save” CPB, each liberal Facebook user would only have to donate less than $5 for the program.  Or, roughly the cost of a Lemon Bar Frappuccino at Starbucks.

Or, if just one-third of 3.3 million people on Facebook who currently “like” PBS on Facebook donated $25 each month to the organization, current federal funding could easily be replaced. For the cost of (not even) two movie tickets, all of the nonsensical name-calling and bitterness can come to an end.

Another reason for phony Facebook agitation to be turned to real action is because that writing that $450 million check to CPB may actually leave the organizations worse off by relying on taxpayer funds.  Taxpayer funds may also stymie incentives to innovate.  The influence of member stations on NPR, for instance, have led the organization to downplay their digital offerings in a number of ways. Executives, for example, have forbidden the organization from advertising their iPhone app on their terrestrial radio stations. The power of the legacy stations bolstered by federal funding has hobbled public media’s ability to go toe-to-toe with private competitors.  And, remember, the private sector ultimately saved Big Bird, Elmo, and the rest of the gang at Sesame Street when HBO absorbed the show into its programming.

This tactic isn’t just limited to Big Bird or Elmo.  Any cause worth saving should be left to real activism, not the phony stuff on Facebook.  The Taxpayers Protection Alliance taxpayers and we show it by questioning spending on many programs and projects.  Don’t get caught up in phony Facebook activism.  If you truly “like” something show with actions, not profile pictures.

David Williams is the President of the Taxpayers Protection Alliance. Ross Marchand is a Communications and Policy Associate with the Taxpayers Protection Alliance.