Here's a question I recently received from our email list:
How do you feel about social media activism? Is it a real thing, or is it just a trick we play on ourselves to make us think were actually doing something good for a cause? And how much good does it actually do?
Answering this question requires understanding the levels of social media activism - something I've termed The 7 Stages of Social Media Activism Purgatory for purposes of this post. We'll cover those, and then talk about where to target your efforts online to actually be effective.
As an introductory note, I've previously addressed other aspects of social media activism in these articles:
- #ShameGrenade: A Muslim Internet Phenomenon [Bonus: A Podcast on this topic I did with Baba Ali]
- The Unseen Shackles of Social Media Activism
- Bring Back Our Sanity Guide to Internet Debates
Let's dive in to the 7 stages of social media activism purgatory.
Stage 1: Peer Pressure.
Peer pressure is something I learned about while sitting through D.A.R.E. classes in elementary school. For those who don't know, DARE [Drug Abuse Resistance Education], was meant to educate kids on how to say no to drugs. Resisting peer pressure was a large part of this. We had a police officer come by our classroom every so often to talk to us and give us tips on how to say no to our friends who might try to push us to get stoned.
Now there is a pressure to partake in social media activism regardless of your personal stance. If everyone has the France flag on their Facebook profile photo and you don't, a number of questions arise. Why aren't you sympathetic about what happened? Why aren't you speaking up? Are you a heartless soul who is unaffected by tragedy?
The more that people do something - like the filtered profile photo - the more the pressure mounts to do the same. It's so easy, Facebook has it built in, what excuse do you have left? Now you have to either justify saying no, or go ahead and do it. Most choose the latter, although they don't see how this activism makes a difference. It's just an easier option than trying to justify not doing it.
So we fake a "social consciousness" to keep up with our friends.
Stage 2: Faking It.
Now that you've changed your profile photo to the appropriate filter, you can't just rest on your laurels. You have to show you're not one of those fake activists who just does what everyone else does. You're informed. You don't regurgitate soundbites from talking heads. So how do you do that?
You start sharing articles that make you look smart. It should be no surprise then, that most people share articles without actually reading them. The analytics data on this very website supports this hypothesis as well. There are articles on this website that had let's say 100 Facebook shares, but less than 10 clicks. It's frustrating, but I'm also honored that someone who hasn't even read them feels that sharing Fiqh of Social Media articles makes them look sophisticated.
And by the way, those articles with the smart sounding headlines you just shared? You're just a pawn in a game you don't even realize is happening around you.
A core prophetic hadith about social media is this-
Putting on the face of an activist online while not taking any meaningful action is a great trick of Shaytan.
Most people would rather put effort into being known as the type of person who cares about causes than to put effort into the cause itself.
When we realize this, we move to the next stage to try and compensate for it.
Stage 3: Clictivism.
On May 7, 2014, the First Lady of the United States posted this on her Twitter account. Notice the number of retweets.
On November 18, 2015 (yes, you read that date correctly) a Congressman submitted a bill to the House of Representatives to develop a strategy to get the girls back - as they still haven't been found.
There is a satisfaction in thinking that just because everyone's attention is on a cause, it will somehow solve it. So we continue to click, like, and share. We tag others and ask them to do the same. Seth Godin comments on 'slacktivism' saying,
- Good causes in need of support are going to focus on adding the sizzle and ego and zing that gets an idea to spread, instead of focusing on the work. One thing we know about online virality is that what worked yesterday rarely works tomorrow. A new arms race begins, and in this case, it's not one that benefits many. We end up developing, "an unprecedented website with a video walkthrough and internationally recognized infographics..." (actual email pitch I got while writing this post).
- We might, instead of normalizing the actual effective giving of grants and donations, normalize slacktivism. It could easily turn out that we start to emotionally associate a click or a like or a mention as an actual form of causing change, not merely a way of amplifying a message that might lead to that action happening.
Last year another cause went viral - the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge.
In fairness, according to Time magazine the challenge raised over $100 million for ALS research. Fair to say, that is a success. The difference here is the impact of the individual level of activism. A person could post a video doing the challenge while also donating $5. A few of their friends respond in kind and donate varying amounts from $5 to $100. In this manner, it can multiply and accumulate.
The problem with the success of this campaign is that we're constantly trying to replicate it. We ignore the vast majority of campaigns that didn't go viral - or did go viral but failed to do anything. We hang our hats on the one exception.
Measuring the impact of changing your profile picture is much harder to do than measuring dollars raised. This actually lends more credence to the argument that such acts are often more self-serving than anything else.
Stage 4: Shame
We want our cause to beat out the other causes. The human suffering attached to my cause outranks the human suffering attached to your cause. I have to make sure people's thoughts, prayers, and compassion are directed at my cause. If they go to your cause, none will be left for mine. My cause has to get all the clicks.
In this manner, we engage in 'moral point scoring' with our online activism. We win points by simultaneously promoting our cause, and tearing down the causes others support. Hence the rise of the online hot take.
Clicktivism and shame increase the pressure on a person to have an opinion on every issue. They're expected to chime in on every issue. Silence is taken as opposition to a cause. Whenever anyone speaks, we worry more about all the issues they neglect rather than paying attention to the human impact of what they're actually speaking on. This leads to Glenn Beck style witch hunts - as detailed by Southpark.
This entire cycle becomes mentally exhausting. The sheer magnitude of issues one could (or should) care about becomes overwhelming. So when the internet tries to make you care about everything, you end up caring about nothing.
Stage 5: Lack of Sustained Empathy
So we sit at our computers waiting to be told what to care about next. We become outrage junkies. Outraged and offended at some injustice, posting away to convince everyone we are correct, and then quickly jumping onto the next thing we find to be outraged at.
Big problems need big solutions. Reality eventually sets in. This online activism isn't going to fix the situation. When we realize that, we can no longer sustain empathy for the cause and look for a new and more intriguing story to get behind.
Have you ever wondered who gets to decide which causes we're supposed to get behind?
Why did France and Gay Rights get profile photo filters but not any other cause? Are we content to let a multi-billion dollar corporation (whose number 1 goal is making money) dictate to us which causes are important and which ones aren't?
“Mark Zuckerberg, a journalist was asking him a question about the news feed. And the journalist was asking him, “Why is this so important?” And Zuckerberg said, “A squirrel dying in your front yard may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa.” And I want to talk about what a Web based on that idea of relevance might look like.” -Eli Pariser.
Stage 6: Marginalization of Voices
So if this is the reality of social media activism, then what's the point in taking part? Because the momentum of the clicktivism and shame is so strong, it becomes nearly impossible to share anything contrarian or even nuanced without becoming ostracized. We fear making a political argument due to the potential fall-out. So we shift our discourse to safer topics. We shift to speaking in platitudes or only appealing to common ground items.
This forces debates to operate from a premise of moral agnosticism, and deeper dives which may uncover more points of view are co-opted.
Stage 7: Extremism
Social pressure has galvanized everyone to take part in the cause. The links, retweets, shares, and filtered Instagram photos are flying all over the internet. Opposing voices have been shamed into silence.
This leaves a huge echo chamber. Everyone is shouting - and all are shouting the same point of view. Of course part of this is due to the fact that people tend to follow those who agree with their worldview to begin with. In other words, when I process the latest in my Twitter feed I won't see posts by people I vehemently disagree with unless someone in my feed is quoting them facetiously.
In their minds, this gives their worldview that much more strength and credibility. Everyone is saying the same thing, therefore it must be correct. That means doubling down on belligerently promoting that view while caustically taking out everyone who opposes it.
Effective Social Media Activism
The real problem with social media activism is unrealistic expectations. People think that by tweeting to 20 people, or even getting a post in front of 100 Facebook friends is going to somehow completely counteract the effects of the politico-media complex. When it doesn't, it's a failure. Then we move on to the next thing and try again.
To understand effective social media activism it is important to distinguish between big social and small social. Most people are shooting for big social. They want their tweet to be seen by 10 million people and magically change their minds. They want their cool comment with the appropriate hashtag to somehow get picked up by the news ticker on Fox News and make their viewers see the light.
That's not going to happen.
What people can do, is affect their more personal networks. In this context, I would define small social as your immediate network. That's your close friends on Facebook - or at least your friends that are open to hearing what you have to say due to their personal relationship with you. It's the buddies you Snapchat with. It's the friends who follow your Finstagram [not a typo]. It's those few people you have group text messages with. It might even be the smaller, more intimate email groups.
These are safer settings to discuss issues. These are the people you can be vulnerable with - you don't need to put on a facade of activism. You can honestly speak about what you care about and ask regarding what you don't know about.
The ultimate irony here is that social media activism is focused on those people you already have a strong relationship with built over time - not the thousands of extended connections you're trying to reach at the speed of light.
Think grassroots instead of top-down.
These smaller social networks have deeper conversations and more attention. This makes them more conducive to a more open exchange of ideas. The exchanges are more meaningful because you cannot fake compassion when speaking to people you have a relationship with. And by the same token - your relationship with them makes your true compassion that much more impactful in their eyes because they see the true care behind it.
These more meaningful interactions can also multiply and start to affect larger change. You just have to care enough about it to stick with it before the next new shiny cause to advocate comes along.