Internet Debates

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.


#BringBackOurSanity Guide to Recent Internet Debates


White House Iftar. Tariq Ramadan. Dr. Jackson. Zionist sponsored trips to Israel. RIS. ISNA. Abu Eesa. The list goes on. Everyone has seen the debates, and everyone is posting about them all over social media. In this post I want to unpack what I find to be good about these debates, along with some personal observations about the barrage of arguments.

1. Apathy

People in the smallest of local masjids are frustrated about why their board acts without regards to their interest. For many places, the root cause of this is apathy. People may complain and raise issue, but few care enough to keep up any kind of sustained efforts. In the end, general apathy from the community at large is what kills any hope of change. People may continue to advise those in leadership, but they're still left to their own devices.

Public accountability is the only form of checks and balances that is viable for community work. This is for your local masjid as well as the largest of Islamic organizations. If people don't care enough to exercise their right to accountability, then they can't expect their needs to be served.

This is why all these recent debates actually make me optimistic. It means we finally care. It reminds me of this from Sh. Hamza Yusuf:

To move forward, more people have to care. They have to feel a vested interest in community affairs. That's finally happening - and despite some bumps in the road, I strongly feel like we're on the right track. It wasn't too long ago we were criticizing everyone for being too caught up in entertainment and 'dunya' to care about the religion. Now that people care, let's cultivate it.

2. Sustained Empathy

Caring is good, but we have to keep ourselves from letting it get too erratic. There's a great article in Foreign Policy - Turn on, Retweet, Tune out - explains this concept in light of recent events like #BringBackOurGirls.


Simply put, people don't have the patience to sustain activism over a particular cause. The internet enables a rapid fire approach. Click here, click there, feel accomplished, then move on to the next task. To get more real about the issue, think of it this way. Remember the whole #FireAbuEesa controversy? How many of the people who so vociferously blasted him in public in the name of fair treatment, equality, marginalization of women, and so on, are still fighting for those causes? How many of the people who piped in with their "me too" support against him to show they stood on the side of women are still advocating for that cause?

There are two kinds of opportunism. There is opportunism in using an event to raise awareness and start a discussion. Then there is opportunism to convince people you care by jumping on a bandwagon, and then moving on and waiting for the next issue. The problem with this is that people care less about the cause, and more about making themselves look like people who care about causes.

This is not to say that everyone is insincere or posting just to get likes. What it does mean, as an intelligent consumer of information, you must be able to sift through the flood of status updates and try to figure out the context of why people are posting, or why they are advocating a certain cause. There is a world of difference between someone who unnecessarily manifests outrage at every opportunity, and someone genuinely affected by and posting about something like #FreePalestine.

On a personal level, we have to become okay with not speaking out about every cause. Just because everyone else is speaking about something doesn't necessarily mean I have to as well. Pick the causes that you care about, and be active about them within your sphere of influence. Your sincere care and concern will give you the sustained empathy needed for success.

[blockquote cite="Urban Dictionary" type="left, center, right"]Manufactured Outrage: A falsified righteous outrage at things that are basically unimportant and meaningless, frequently employed by politicians, political activists, or the media. Politicians and talking heads use it to garner support for their causes, to claim the moral high ground and to tar their opponents; the media often just uses it in a cynical bid to increase ratings.[/blockquote]

3. Breadcrumbs, Manners, and Double Standards

Everything you have ever posted is accessible for someone to find. Positions you previously held and statements you made years ago can and will be dug up.

It is easier now, more than ever, for people to hold you accountable for that which you advocate. This is of particular importance given the nature of Islamic debates on the internet. There are always two discussions going on-

  1. The actual debate over the issue
  2. The parallel debate over adab, personalities, and intentions

It's not enough to refute a position, we feel compelled to also refute the manner in which the position was presented. The more we do this, the more we create the expectation that we ourselves will be held to this same standard.

Be conscious of your own etiquette first and foremost. When things calm down, we never regret making a point. We don't usually regret speaking our mind. But we do often regret the manner in which we did. To see an example of raising an issue, and then writing a response with good adab see Tariq Ramadan's post, and Dr. Sherman Jackson's response.

There are obvious forms of bad adab (manners) such as foul language and ad hominem attacks. There is another one that's a little more under the radar that must be highlighted - double standards.

Take a look at this example of someone identifying what they perceive to be a double standard based on previous internet debates:

The problem with calls to adab (and this is something nearly everyone is guilty of) is that we want the scholars we respect, and the positions we take, to be treated with respect. When we hold an opinion, we want others to be tolerant of it. When someone criticizes a scholar we love, we want it to be done in a respectful manner. The problem is, many people apply these standards of respect *only* to their own scholars and positions without extending the same courtesy to people of different backgrounds or ideologies. Don't expect the benefit of the doubt if you can't extend it to others. Don't expect tolerance for your opinion by labeling the opposing positions as automatically intolerant.

Another extension of this issue is the debate over whether or not things should be criticized in public. We cannot assume that someone posts something in public without having privately discussed it first. We feel okay making that assumption about others, but get offended when given the same treatment. This is not fair. We also need to progress past this point of naive notions of naseehah. Yes, personal advice is meant to be given in private. Public issues, issues of concern to the community, are by definition - public. The discourse about them will be public, and it is necessary that they be made public as a means of accountability for leadership.

If my friend leads prayer, and mispronounces surah Fatihah, I will advise him privately. It is a private issue. If I post a note on Facebook about it and tag him, that is inappropriate behavior on my part. If someone posts a picture of themselves at the White House Iftar, then they should expect to be criticized. It is a public action, and it will warrant public discussion.

People will post a photo like that, and then hide behind statements like "I'm not making a political statement LOL, just got invited bro, had some good food" when criticized. This is disingenuous because by claiming to steer clear of the political issues, they actually are making a political statement.  It is a weak display of  trying to straddle the fence while hiding behind your own passive-aggressive behavior to avoid critique. One of the ironic things about passive-aggressive updates is that they often call into question a person's intentions. We know that it's terrible character to call to account someone's intentions, but we do it anyway to try and prove a point. This is ironic because questioning someone's motives actually weakens your own arguments.

Passive aggressive updates (or sub-tweeting) is quite possibly the worst offender in the category of bad adab. I've been told that young teenagers often post song lyric excerpts as a way to comment on a fight, their parents, or something like a recent break up to express their emotion without having to actually discuss the issue. We are becoming the same way. If we aren't ready to speak clearly on something, let's leave it aside.

The issues outlined here are the contextual issues surrounding the actual debate of issues - these are the issues that cause us to lose our sanity. Avoiding this (and avoiding shame grenades) go a long way in making the internet a happier place for all of us.

4. What's In It For Me?

Everything boils back to the basics of our religion. Foremost is intention. What is my intent in choosing to consume the debate in the first place? No one forced you to read everything about RIS. You chose to for a reason. I remember back in the early 2000's, Islamic message boards were en vogue. People spent their time arguing and refuting scholars. I personally know of a brother who within weeks of starting to pray 5 times a day immersed himself in these forums. A few months later, he no longer had any connection to the religion. These debates take a spiritual toll. Make sure you have a productive reason to follow it or partake in it. What value do you receive, and what value do you provide? If someone comes back and sees your feed 8 weeks later, what would their impression be?

Leave alone what doesn't concern you. This is a fundamental principle in the 40 Hadith on Social Media. It is difficult to leave alone issues everyone is talking about. Be as discerning as possible. Some of the issues are big, and they do require attention. Others, not so much. Some issues are worth the investment of time to educate yourself, and they are worth the time to use your personal platform to educate and share with others. Some issues will blow over, and you would have been better off doing something else.

Debate issues. Personalities will always change. Just because someone has a different ideology does not make it acceptable to transgress their rights as a human or your Muslim brother or sister.

Be active. Social media has empowered everyone. The fact that someone like me can reach someone like you is proof enough. Utilize the tool to its best benefit.

Make dua. I'm including this at the risk of sounding cliche. Whenever these issues flare up, sincerely ask Allah (swt) to guide you, guide our community, to help show the truth, and to enable us to be a means of benefit to those around us. Make dua that you and those who you disagree with are guided to the truth, and that despite disagreement He puts love in your hearts for one another.