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Can Gun Control Go Viral?

StopTheNRA wants to be like BuzzFeed and HuffPost. It has the brains, but that's not enough.

Wikimedia Commons

If—a pro–gun control website that launched today—sounds familiar, that’s because founder Kenneth Lerer originally launched the site 12 years ago and ran it for two years before donating the domain to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. Its initial goal was to support federal legislation to extend the assault weapons ban, which ultimately failed. “But we made great progress,” Lerer told me today. “We were able to delay legislation and have success.” He added, explaining why it didn't catch on more, “It was very early on. The Internet wasn’t the Internet back then.”

It’s funny he should mention that. Few people have done more to make the Internet “the Internet”—the all-consuming media beast we know today—than Lerer. An AOL executive before creating StopTheNRA, Lerer went on to help found The Huffington Post and BuzzFeed, the two sites most adept at capitalizing on the dominant distribution channels of Internet content: Google, in the case of Huffington Post; social networks like Facebook, Reddit, and Twitter, in the case of BuzzFeed. “I’m going to take everything I’ve learned or haven’t learned over the last 12 years of investing in Internet sites and apply it to this,” Lerer told me.

What’s interesting is that both The Huffington Post and BuzzFeed are successful business ventures (Huffington Post was actually bought by AOL in 2011) that started out with supposedly enlightened motives. The Huffington Post was created before the 2004 elections as a left-wing response to the incredibly influential and unabashedly right-wing Drudge Report. BuzzFeed began as Contagious Media LLC, a company whose raison d’être was to investigate, from a disinterested perspective motivated as much by pure curiosity as anything else, what makes Web content go viral.

The mission of StopTheNRA (the Brady Campaign gave the domain back to Lerer, he said) also appears to be a principled one, prompted in no small part, Lerer said, by Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s leadership on the issue. And, as the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent reported, it is part of a broader campaign that will include signing people up on petitions and even targeted donations to politicians. “I never envision it becoming for-profit,” Lerer said.

Yet it is also, Lerer insists, going to be an Internet site with viral content, just like The Huffington Post and BuzzFeed. “The point of StopTheNRA is to post and create viral content and put it all in one place to bring ongoing attention to the outrageous positions of the NRA and to continue to bring pressure on the issues,” Lerer told Sargent. (One similar outlet might be Upworthy, the “social media with a mission” site founded by former MoveOn people.1) Lerer noted that gun control lends itself to virality: “I think with any issue that is emotional and that people care an enormous amount about, you can be successful with pushing that content virally,” he explained to me. “You saw it in the gay marriage issue over the last couple of years.”

The Huffington Post and BuzzFeed demonstrated that the right technological platform, progressive politics, emotional resonance, and shareable content—the playful or sensationalistic headlines, the eye-catching pictures, the lists—can make for lucrative pageview counts (even at BuzzFeed, which never had the political mission The Huffington Post had and whose politics section is ostensibly nonpartisan, those lists of things "that will restore your faith in humanity" inevitably include things related to gay rights). But is far from there yet. The site, not easy on the eyes, simply aggregates articles about gun control published elsewhere (from Think Progress, NPR, The New Republic, and, yes, The Huffington Post). Even if when it does create its own content, one wonders if the earnestness of StopTheNRA's mission will prevent it from breaking through. The profit motive might actually be necessary, forcing Lerer to make the site appealing to a wider audience.

According to Columbia Journalism Review’s Michael Shapiro, the 1.0 version of StopTheNRA failed because it appealed solely to people who were passionate about gun control. Version 2.0 only just launched, but nothing suggests that it's primed to do much better. Yes, the Internet of 2013 is different: Stories are shared today in ways that were unimaginable in 2003. But even today, stories aren’t just going to share themselves.

  1. The New Republic's owner and editor-in-chief, Chris Hughes, is an Upworthy backer.