Social Media Activism: A Real Thing, Or A Trick We Play On Ourselves?

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:

Let's dive in to the 7 stages of social media activism purgatory.

Stage 1: Peer Pressure.

fiqh of social media circular argument

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.

Single brothers volunteering at masjid events be like...

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-

If you have no shame do as you wish (7)

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.

Fiqh of Social Media Paper

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,

  1. 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).
  2. 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

Fiqh of Social Media Internet Outrage

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

Fiqh of Social Media Activism

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

Fiqh of Social Media Confession Bear

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

Fiqh of Social Media Activist

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.


The Unseen Shackles of Muslim Social Media Activism


Originally posted at Back in the late 90's and early 2000's, internet dawah really started to gain ground. People who were otherwise lacking in scholarly credentials created beautiful facades in the form of flashy (pun intended) websites. We were able to reach beyond our local imams and access recorded lectures of Islamic personalities across the Western world. I remember sitting at my computer one night on Napster (right around the year 2000) downloading music and then getting the brilliant idea to search for "Islamic" stuff and finding recitations of Qur'an and random mp3's by some guy named Siraj Wahhaj.

Websites started popping up and Islamic speakers I had never met were suddenly my biggest influences solely based on the availability of their talks online ( anyone?). Being in the minority of people actively seeking out to consume Islamic material in this medium led myself and many others to find congregational spaces online. These needs were met mostly by message boards, email lists, AOL Instant Messenger, and group MSN chats.

This medium introduced us to Islam in quite a perverted manner. People who did not know the fundamentals of the religion were suddenly debating and worrying about esoteric minutiae. I remember a group of (unmarried) friends having a spirited debate about a fatwa from a famous scholar forbidding women from shaving their body hair as it violated the hadith of the fitra. Issues like this would go en vogue for a few days or weeks, then by cycled out by something new like whether or not lines on the carpet at the masjid were bid'ah. These pressing issues would dominate the online discourse and permeate their way into real life conversation.

When people from across the globe were hanging out on a message board actively commenting on an issue, it seemed like the most important thing in the world at that moment in time. This was compounded by the fact that you would log into MSN and be bombarded with messages asking if you had seen the latest. Looking back now, it seems like almost a tabloid way to learn the religion. It was assumed that everyone was taking care of the bigger things (like reading Qur'an and making dua). The unfortunate reality was there was a huge spiritual void, and it simply could not be filled by focusing on the revolving issues of the day. But because everyone was so caught up in making their views known, tearing apart someone else's views, and winning imaginary internet points over these arguments, the lack of spirituality became the proverbial elephant in the room.

Fast forward to now. We're in the social media age, but in reality it's just a new iteration of this interconnected information age. MSN, AOL, Napster, and most of those message boards are now gone. They've been replaced by Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and WhatsApp groups. In another 10-15 years (if not sooner), we'll probably see another iteration of these tools being replaced by something else. What has not changed though, is the approach to the religion, particularly as it relates to the hot button issue of the day.

We get caught up in the back and forth, make our views known, put down the other arguments, and trump up our internet victory points. We do so at the cost of the bigger picture. We debated Unmosqued and #FireAbuEesa, but the cruel reality is - as I look down at my two young daughters - none of the 700 status updates, YouTube clips, and Facebook comments have done anything to allay any of my real concerns for them and their development as strong Muslim women. We talked about #Mipsterz and Pharrell, but it didn't do anything for my own spirituality, or my relationship with my Creator. Perhaps I missed the bigger picture of how these issues weave into a larger telling of the Muslim narrative and our place and acceptance in society, but if we're really honest with ourselves, aren't we assigning a bit too much importance to a simple YouTube video?

The unseen shackles of social media become apparent in these situations. Everyone must have an opinion. As much as I myself tried to stay silent on particular issues, people would message me asking me my thoughts. When did I become that important? For me to consider myself that important, or others to take me that seriously is probably the greater travesty here. Not only must we have an opinion, but we must amplify it, and then wait for the feedback to that opinion. We get glued to our phones, waiting and watching to see how many likes and retweets we get. We wait to see who disagrees so we can analyze the response and then formulate the best way to reply in less than 140 characters. We tag our teammates in activism so they can like and share our triumphant status updates. Then when the issue blows over, we forget all about those bigger dots we were trying to connect. We forget all about the bigger picture this small issue was a microcosm of. We float aimlessly in the wind waiting for the next major internet crisis to occur so we can show our outrage [do a Google search for 'outrage troll'], make our voice heard, and claim victory over the other guy leaving a comment on this article by getting 2 more likes than him. It's by this that we allow ourselves to quickly judge others based on one statement, or one status update. We will discard one personality because of something they said (no matter how good a person), and prop up another for one statement we agree with (no matter how evil a person).

Along with this attitude comes an aura of enlightened arrogance. We look at the opinions we hold today, and we chart our personal histories to assess how we arrived at them. By definition, whatever opinion we hold today is the most enlightened we've ever been in our lives (forget how we might feel 5 years from now). And because it seems that many people tend to become gradually liberal (particularly those from more conservative backgrounds), we feel that we're now more tolerant, open, welcoming, and academic or intelligent. The problem is that this tolerance only extends to like minded people. Let's go over an example to make it a bit more real. You think music is halal. In fact, you used to think it was haram, studied the issue extensively, and you've now concluded it's halal. Not only that, but you feel strongly that the people who told you it was haram are backwards, out of touch, never smile, and wake up every day trying to figure out how to eviscerate happiness from as many lives as possible. That's fine. What's not fine though, is projecting this onto everyone who holds that opinion. It's not fine to demand your viewpoint be given respect and tolerance and then not afford it to others. It's not okay to pretend your opinion is the only correct one - in fact, it's intellectually dishonest to not acknowledge that you hold and act upon a minority opinion. The issue is not that you hold it, but it's about projecting backwardness instead of tolerance on those who disagree with you while demanding unconditional acceptance in return.

So what's the real bigger picture here? For one, most people simply see this "discourse" as nothing more than just a bunch of arguing among Muslims. What's the real contribution? There's something deeper than that though, and it's something I see underlying many of the issues that have become lightning rods for debate. That is this attitude of trying to overtly show humility by not propagating my own point of view (because it might be wrong, and I don't have the credentials to back up what I say), and instead demanding that our scholars and institutions take our preferred position, and if they don't, then they are contributing to whatever greater evil is the topic of discussion that day. In giving myself a platform to voice my opinion, I now demand that others (in the name of the religion) also adopt my point of view. If they don't, then they're not opposing me, but opposing the greater ideals I stand for. In other words - it's a feeling of spiritual entitlement to having my desires served through means of the religion as opposed to subverting my desires for the sake of my religion. Ask not what your religion can do for you, but what you can do for your religion.

These are general issues. They've existed for a long time. Social media has simply magnified them exponentially. So where do we go from here?

1)  Somehow pin this hadith to your Facebook wall, or make it the lock screen on your phone. Make sure you don't fall into this warning when posting something.

There shall come upon people years of deceit in which the liar will be believed, the truthful one disbelieved, the treacherous will be trusted, the trustworthy one considered treacherous; and the Ruwaybidah shall speak out.’ It was said: Who are the Ruwaybidah? The Prophet, peace be upon him, said: ‘The lowly, contemptible one who will speak out about public affairs. (ibn Majah)’

2) Learn to just be quiet. I've personally had to force myself to go 24 and 48 hours without posting or retweeting anything. Surprisingly, the world seemed to move along just fine without my opinions. Recognize that there are times where being silent carries a greater benefit than speaking up.

The Prophet (saw) said, "There will be afflictions (in the near future) during which a sitting person will be better than a standing one, and the standing one will be better than the walking one, and the walking one will be better than the running one, and whoever will expose himself to these afflictions, they will destroy him. So whoever can find a place of protection or refuge from them, should take shelter in it (Bukhari)"

3) Tweet this post to as many famous Islamic personalities as possible and ask them what they think. Feel free to follow me on Twitter, and retweet me when I share it. Post it on Facebook and tag all your friends who might find it interesting.

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