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Humor, Twitter Can Build Audiences for Labor’s Message

Justin Krebs of Living Liberally and Negin Farsad, comedian and filmmaker

Instead of getting angry over labor issues, have fun and project that fun through social media, two nationally known progressives told an audience of activists at Texas AFL-CIO headquarters.

Justin Krebs, a “political and cultural entrepreneur” who co-founded Living Liberally and wrote 538 Ways to Live, Work and Play Like a Liberal, and Negin Farsad, a comedian and filmmaker named one of the “50 Funniest Women” by Huffington Post, said humor and the use of networks like Twitter can reach people who might not have been disposed to listen to a drier union message.

“Comedy can be a Trojan horse, in a way,” Krebs said, during a workshop held as part of labor’s “Work Connects Us All” activities during the South by Southwest music, film and interactive festivals in Austin.

Krebs and Farsad showed examples of comedy videos that spread a serious message by repeating the more ridiculous things that opponents say. “Healthy Americans Against Reforming Medicine” (HAARM) was a mock brainstorming session in which opponents of health care reform decide, hilariously, that the most palatable way to oppose medical care for all Americans is to label the idea “socialism” and to single out “fat people” for attack. HAARM ironically wheedled its way into the top 10 anti-health care groups on search engines, Krebs said. (See it here.)

Other examples included Stephen Colbert’s Twitter campaign to mock Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), after Kyl told a dramatic falsehood about Planned Parenthood and his office later said Kyl’s remark was “not intended to be a factual statement.” Colbert encouraged viewers to make up stories about Kyl with the Twitter hashtag #NotIntendedToBeAFactualStatement. 

Farsad, an Iranian American, previewed a portion of her upcoming film, “The Muslims Are Coming,” in which “Ask a Muslim” sessions were held in “red” states like Alabama, Idaho and Georgia. The humor arises in large part from the absurd and insulting questions that were asked of a number of outstandingly likeable people. Krebs said this tactic is designed to dissolve perceptions of people or an organization as “the other” and can benefit unions. For example, when opponents talk about “union thugs,” bring out “a sweet middle-age teacher” to show the absurdity of the accusation.

“If Negin can make people not be scared of Muslims, we can definitely make people not be scared of ‘union thugs,’” Krebs said.

Labor’s associations with recognized spokespeople can also be used to deliver messages, Krebs said. As an example, he showed a video from unitedforthepeople.org that attacked the Citizens United campaign finance “corporations are people” decision by using funny visual props—for example, a baby on the desk of Katrina Vanden Heuvel and a Mentos-in-cola eruption from Jim Hightower—to make the points.

When Twitter messages are picked up and re-circulated, a campaign can soar very quickly. Krebs cited the film director Kevin Smith’s one-man campaign after he was tossed off an airline flight for being too overweight for the seat. Within 15 minutes of his Twitter campaign—“What, was I gonna roll on a fellow passenger?”—he was promised satisfaction by an airline executive.

Farsad and Krebs said tweets around Work Connects Us All are working because workers like being thanked, customers appreciate a job well done and businesses appreciate positive mentions. When the message is re-tweeted, Farsad said, “This is the early stage of what can become a meme.”

Krebs and Farsad emphasized that neither humor nor Twitter are substitutes for the hard work of research and message development. They can supplement, but never replace, the messaging work that labor already does. Messages need to be informative, they should be “fun” (comical or light or breezy) and they should credit others.

Once the message is prepared, the presenters offered pointers for getting tweets noticed:

—To build audiences, follow more people, reply to people and keep a dialogue going. “Twitter is about being generous,” Farsad said. Krebs added that Twitter is not a competition about who goes first; it’s more “an economy of abundance.”

—Use hashtags (the # signs) to develop a topic that resonates, such as #WorkConnectsUsAll. It’s OK to start with multiple hashtags—“creative construction cacophony,” according to Krebs—and as the message develops, the Twitter community will settle on one or several identifiers for regular use.

—Use websites like bit.ly, which reduces the size of URL addresses, and act.ly, which functions like a petition, to streamline tweets.

—To get a conversation going, use re-tweets (RT), which copy and extend the reach of friendly messages, modified tweets (MT), which does the same while allowing for editing or additions, and direct messaging (use of the @ sign to reach specific recipients).

—Get allies to help on coordinated messages.

Farsad said effective tweeting takes time, but time spent on developing a Twitter following pays off. While Jon Stewart may have many more TV viewers for "The Daily Show" than Rachel Maddow has for her MSNBC program, Maddow has many more Twitter followers because she has worked the medium harder, Farsad said.

Twitter gives progressives an opportunity to build a signature, she said.

“You guys should be the best source of information about unions in Texas,” said Farsad.

After the presentation, Krebs and Farsad worked with attendees, who ranged from novices to near-experts, to improve their Twitter skills or, in some cases, to develop their first tweets.

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