Washington D.C.—On Saturday, across the street from Omni Shoreham Hotel, where this year’s Family Research Council-sponsored Values Voter Summit was being held, groups of high-school girls in oversized blazers and too-tight french braids, and high school boys in too-tight button-down shirts and oversized “Make America Great Again” hats crammed into line at a Chipotle, effectively rendering that Chipotle closed.
But inside the hotel, where, on Friday afternoon Donald Trump spoke to thousands of Jesus-endorsed homophobes, things seemed quieter. The presence of national media and secret service agents had largely dissipated after Trump and Saturday morning’s speech from his running mate Mike Pence. Most of the devoted attendees who had chosen to stay for the second day of the conference sat in the main ballroom, listening to speakers like David Daleiden of the Center for Medical Progress, who in his speech vowed that more Planned Parenthood sting videos would be coming, and Virginia Prodan, a Christian, Republican, human rights attorney who—appealingly to this crowd—escaped from communist Romania.
The hotel hallways were basically empty, as was the exhibition hall, where anti-gay, anti-abortion, anti-Communist, pro-modesty groups of all stripes had set up little booths covered in pamphlets and Hershey’s Kisses.
(I got one pamphlet that told the story of Stephen who “used to be gay” but “now has two kids,”; a bumper sticker that says “Trevor Loudon Commie Hunter,”; a print out titled “Media Myths of the Homosexual-Transgender Agenda” which, among other things, claims that being gay is bad for your health. I loitered by a table advertising Samson, a large theme-park-style biblical play in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, until a guy who appeared to be in high school tried to flirt with me. I inhaled an imaginary cigarette, blew it in his face and said with my eyes, You don’t know the things I’ve seen.)
Over and over I was told: the youth are the future of this movement. We need to make our way of life seem cool to the youth. Do you hear us, youth?
After the speeches concluded, conference attendees had the option of attending two breakout sessions on topics that ranged from “How to Protect Yourself and America Against Attacks on Religious Freedom” to “How to Be a Christian Statesman-Citizen,” and “Intellectual Freedom or Ideological Fascism?” I chose to attend “The Roadmap to a Conservative and Pro-Life Culture in America” because I work for Jezebel, and something called “Social Media Trends” because I love social media and also trends.
The first panel, which was held in a freezing, unnecessarily large conference room, attracted maybe 25 attendees, leaving the set up chairs at least half-empty. The overall gist of the panel, which was, in theory, about advancing a pro-life agenda in the United States, became about social media and digitally pummeling organizations into ceding to ultra-conservative wishes. Panelists spoke about the victories of pressuring corporations to stop supporting Planned Parenthood, and, most recently, of getting Lands’ End to disavow its own Gloria Steinem cover story.
Jeanne Mancini, president of March for Life, and one of the panel’s leaders, also gave us an almost charmingly basic lesson in social media: “We at the March for Life, we try to engage in all the different kinds of social media. For example, my understanding right now is that Instagram is one of the most popular kind of mediums of social media that the young people really love. We are very active on Facebook, Twitter, Vimeo is one, and then there’s one I’m forgetting now that starts with a P—”
“Pinterest,” suggested one of her co-panelists, helpfully.
“Well there’s Pinterest, I don’t know if we do that, but there’s another one...”
“Snapchat,” suggested another.
“Snapchat! That’s it, okay. That doesn’t start with a P. [Note: She means Periscope.] It’s got like a little video where you can watch it and it’s up for a few seconds, I think like 10 or 15 seconds and it’s very popular right now.”
She continued to confirm something we’ve all already known: that facts don’t play with a conservative audience:
“The more engaging you are, the better. If you’re just kind of like giving facts, people are not that interested in that. But if you’re asking what do you think about something so that people have to reply, that’s much more engaging and you get a lot more play. Also, a really simple thing, it’s like having memes or pictures increase interest a whole lot.”
The panelists uniformly represented the opinion that the pro-life movement (and the conservative movement) rely on changing public opinion bit-by-bit
“One of the best things we can do in the life issues is just continue to tell the truth.”
If the first panel was amusing for its mom-ness, the second was deadening. For one hour, I listened to a mid-twenties dude with an undercut, Director of Sponsored Content for Liftable Media Luka Cubrilo, explain to a small group of middle-aged social media users how to post articles to their Facebook page.
The presentation included a slide entitled, “Finding Epic Content,” which recommended finding a hero, villain, and story arc in each post with an unexpected element or plot twist. Cubrilo instructed Facebook posters to write titles at the reading level of a middle-schooler and to “mind the curiosity gap.”
In a lesson about how to search for images to attach to posts, we ended up with this beautiful tableau, which is, if I had to guess, exactly what I’d think would happen at the summit:
It seemed to me that these attendees and their online communities were frantically fumbling around in the darkness of cyberspace, and being encouraged to do more. If a flurry of loud, all-caps tweets and Facebook comments could influence companies to cut ties with a feminist hero, the idea was that they could also influence an election. Another overshadowing message: facts don’t matter; emotions do.
“The knocking on door world has morphed into a very convected social media world... The onus is on us to start figuring out how to use that technology,” said Wray in the pro-life session. “Millennials are more conservative... let’s go where they are, especially on the life issue.”
On Sunday afternoon, the day after I left the conference, one of its attendees followed me on Twitter and attempted to engage:
I’m glad Mary Budesheim is helping her cause.