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Can an Oscar Speech Spark Social Change?

It’s routine for Oscar winners to use their platform before a worldwide audience to push a social problem into the spotlight.

That was true in spades at this year’s Oscarcast, as recipients called attention to voting rights, incarceration rates, teen suicide, Alzheimer’s care, veterans’ mental health, immigration, government spying, ALS funding and more.

In the Dolby Theater and on social media, Patricia Arquette’s call for equal pay for women got some of the biggest reaction, bringing celebrities like Meryl Streep and Jennifer Lopez to their feet and generating a flood of second-day op-eds and analysis.

Will it matter?

It’s next to impossible to measure what impact a speech has on moving a social or political cause, although such calls to action do generate at least momentary bursts of awareness.

That appears to be the case with Julianne Moore, who talked of Alzheimer’s in her acceptance speech for “Still Alice,” in which she played a professor with the early-onset form of the disease.

Angela Geiger, chief strategy officer of the Alzheimer’s Assn., said that donations were up 20% since 6 p.m. on Sunday evening, just after the awards started. She also said that sign-ups doubled for an online campaign called My Brain, where the organization gathers commitments to raise money and push for more research money.

She credited the movie with helping to “change the conversation about Alzheimer’s disease.”

Similarly, a number of advocacy groups have highlighted Arquette’s speech, and the social-media reaction that followed, to try to draw new interest to gender disparity in pay and wages.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Secretary of Labor Tom Perez and White House Senior Adviser Valerie Jarrett each tweeted an enthusiastic reaction to the speech.

Yet it’s unclear what will happen with the attention paid to the issue. Immediate action in Congress is doubtful. The Paycheck Fairness Act was blocked in the Senate last year by Republicans; now the party controls both chambers.

Moreover, some comments that Arquette made afterward in the press room triggered criticism for being exclusionary, and she later clarified what she said. Some conservative commentators dismissed the preponderance of political issues at the ceremony as a liberal wish list.

Backlash is just part of the risk that winners take when they use the Oscar platform as a bully pulpit. Just ask Michael Moore, or, going even further back, Vanessa Redgrave. The difference now is that an array of advocacy organizations are much savvier about picking up on messages and promoting them on Twitter and Facebook, giving them more of a social-media afterlife.

Paul Rieckhoff, founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, tweeted during the ceremony and praised the win for the documentary short subject “Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1,” for which IAVA is listed in the credits.

Even though “American Sniper,” a runaway hit at the box office, won just one Oscar, for sound editing, Rieckhoff was just as bullish about its impact. He said that the movie has helped call attention to veterans issues, as well as to a suicide prevention bill that passed Congress overwhelmingly several weeks ago.

“You can see the conversations about those topics, pegged to the Oscars, that’s happening online, and it’s likely that it’s going on in the nonvirtual world, too — what used to be called ‘the water cooler,'” Martin Kaplan, director of the Norman Lear Center at USC, said via email. “But what effects that increased exposure and attention will have on what people know, believe and do, especially people with power, is basically grist for speculation and anecdotes. Measuring actual impact is way more challenging than counting likes and clicks.”

For the short term, however, activists are pleased that a series of issues made it to one of the year’s biggest primetime audiences.

“It was very heartening indeed to see the attention paid to all of these topics, as Hollywood has a very big megaphone,” said Josh Bell, media strategist for the ACLU, which has been advocating for equal pay and voting rights and highlighting overincarceration.

He said there was a “significant spike” in an online petition asking President Obama to grant clemency to Edward Snowden, the subject of the Oscar-winning documentary “Citizenfour.” He is on temporary asylum in Russia, and the Obama administration has resisted calls for clemency.

“Our views on this matter are well known, and they aren’t affected by the decision of the Academy,” said White House spokesman Josh Earnest.

Photo: Common and John Legend accepting the Oscar for best original song for the movie “Selma.”

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