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.

https://twitter.com/flotus/status/464148654354628608

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.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kYNPtDbykp0

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.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SBzDqJL1ZAU

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.

bukowski

Stage 7: Extremism

w5sPesc

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.

RC3Ptvl

What I Learned About My Online Persona from An Indian Movie Tweet

This week marked 20 years since the release of Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (#20YearsOfDDLJ). If that doesn't make any sense, think of it like this - it's the desi equivalent of celebrating the 20th anniversary of Return of the Jedi. I posted the following on both Twitter and Facebook.

https://twitter.com/ibnabeeomar/status/656450986957893632

One reply to the tweet said - "lol. The one person I didn't expect this tweet from 😛"

On Facebook - "im very humored that you shared this haha." I also received a few other comments that degenerated into a video titled 'Punjabi Song by White Guy' being shared but that's a different story.

Ironically, had I posted the trailer to the new Star Wars movie, I don't think I would have gotten these replies. So it got me to thinking - what is it about a person's online persona that makes people expect certain types of posts instead of others?

It is of course no surprise that we carefully craft our online personas to convey a certain image. But where do we draw the limits? In this case, it prompted an internal debate about whether the way I represent myself online is authentic or not. Has it been crafted in such a way that even a tongue in cheek post about DDLJ confuses people?

The funny thing is my wife was confused about the post as well. This is a movie we have watched together so she shouldn't have been that surprised - but she said it just wasn't the kind of thing I normally post online.

DXiCnnl

What is the Gap Between Our Online and Offline Personas? 

When social media first started becoming prevalent some years back, there was a huge dichotomy between the two. This was due more to the fact that the two lives had not yet merged. People had their "real life" friends and their "online" friends. People rarely represented their real identities online. Everything was posted with screen names. No one ever had their real photo as an avatar.

Our online activities were disconnected with our real life activities. There was no overlap. In fact, it would sometimes be embarrassing if someone in real life uncovered your online identity. It was treated as two completely different spaces and we never wanted the two worlds to collide.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6w4K3Gt2SWk

Slowly, over time, the two began to merge. We opened Facebook accounts under our real names. We shifted to email addresses that contained our real names instead of pseudonyms like bhangradancer786@hotmail.com. In short, there was more harmonization between our "real life" and "online" activities.

That harmonization grew to such an extent that everything about our lives was documented and put up online. Consequentially, we learned that this started creating felings of envy in people because everyone's online persona now looked like a highlight reel.

But now it's not just about the highlight reel. Women's magazines have long been criticized for presenting photoshopped models as a false ideal of beauty everyone should aim to achieve. Carefully crafted online personas do the same.

There are 80 million photos posted in Instagram a day. Facebook has 1.49 billion active users per month. Twitter has 316 million active accounts; Tumblr 230 million. Pinterest has 47.66 million unique visitors from the US alone and is the fastest-growing independent site in history.

Increasingly, most of us are living two lives: one online, one off. ...

In 2013, scientists at two German universities monitored 584 Facebook users and found one out of three would feel worse after checking what their friends were up to — especially if those friends had just posted vacation photos.

Even smaller details had the same effect.

“Overall,” wrote the study’s authors, “shared content does not have to be ‘explicitly boastful’ for feelings of envy to emerge. In fact, a lonely user might envy numerous birthday wishes his more sociable peer receives on his Facebook wall. Equally, a friend’s change in the relationship status from ‘single’ to ‘in a relationship’ might cause emotional havoc for someone undergoing a breakup.”

A 2014 survey conducted by the Manhattan-based marketing agency Current found 61 percent of millennial moms were rattled by the pressures of social media.

“There is an anti-social media movement on the horizon,” Current executive Amy Colton told Adweek. “Moms, especially young moms, are feeling pressured to present a perfect life . . . and starting to feel overwhelmed and annoyed.”

“The idea came to me when my little sister, who was 16, wasn’t invited to a school dance,” Steers, 38, tells The Post. “She told me about logging on to Facebook the very next day and seeing all these pictures of her friends at the dance, and that actually made her feel worse than not being invited” (New York Post).

Now the pressure is on to craft your online persona to convey what you want it to convey. You can pick any persona and make your online postings fit it.

The article goes on to mention a new fad of having a rinstagram and a finstagram. The 'r'eal instagram is actually the manufactured one the public sees, while the 'f'ake instagram is the real and unfiltered one shown only to close friends.

The Prophet (s) said,

"One of the most evil of people is the two-faced person who shows one face to these people and another face to those people (Mālik)."

This story of a woman who admitted to running up credit card debt to maintain her online image sums it perfectly.

“I’m one of those girls with a pretty Instagram. It’s not technically my job ... but I pride myself on having an Instagram that is pretty to look at and shows the best parts of my life. I’ve managed to get almost 5,000 followers from beautiful pictures of my city (Miami)...

My “real” life is actually pretty boring. I work as an administrator in the performing arts, which sounds cool (and puts you near a lot of cool things), but in practice is just as boring as most administrative jobs. ... My Instagram is where I have followers I mostly don’t know, who think I live this beautiful, perfect life. And I share all the posts to Facebook where I have almost all people I actually know, and I admit that it gives me a little rush to see that they are seeing this life. My collections of beautiful patterned maxi dresses and bright flowers on my brunch tables make me feel successful, especially when I think about people from high school or whatever looking at them. This is absolutely insane, I know!

... I have come to love Miami, but it’s not my dream city. But I base my internet persona in many ways on being the quintessential Miami girl. I never had a tan really before I came here, now I have deep(ish) olive skin and my formerly-dirty blonde hair is now dark, long, and straight. I admit that I like this version of myself, with little gold bangles around my wrists and ankles, and slightly glowy moisturizer on my chest and shoulders.

This isn’t me, though. My real life is just like anyone else’s, doing the laundry and paying the bills and going grocery shopping. But I get caught up in it sometimes. ... I don’t know if I’m “that girl,” but I am addicted to trying to be her. I stop my friends before they can touch their brunch plates, and I take a million hotdog-leg pictures to make sure I have the perfectly right one. I have a side of my apartment that I photograph, and it’s perfect. The other side is always a mess.

And I buy a lot of things to maintain my image. I pay for meals out, new bikinis (I’ve never photographed the same one twice), beautiful printed dresses nearly once a week, fresh flowers religiously once a week, etc etc etc. I even consider it important to always have a fridge full of La Croix and coconut water for my pictures. Writing this makes me realize just how insane it all is, but the truth is that I already knew. I spend money to make my life look a certain way, and I get a rush from looking that way, but my credit cards do not share my enthusiasm.

Over the past year, I’ve started accumulating a little bit of credit card debt each month, and it gets worse bit bit bit. I reassure myself by saying that this is an investment in something that will come together from the following I’m gathering and the “very small” amount of free stuff/attention I’m getting. Right now I have about 3,400 that I cannot pay on my cards, and I’ve slipped into paying the minimum. And as I’m writing this, I’m eating the sushi I bought on my way home, photographed fifty times, posted, and got 231 likes on so far. I plan on telling my parents about this when I go home next weekend so they can yell at me and force me to stop, because I know they’ll absolutely freak out. I know exactly how stupid what I’m doing is, but I just need someone to tell me, I guess.

That’s my life.

This viral video shows the depths some people go to to project a certain image.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QxVZYiJKl1Y

The ultimate question here - as always - boils down to intention. Why do you want to be portrayed a certain way? Who are you hoping to show this version of yourself to? What do you get from doing this?

There are no easy answers to these questions. Oftentimes it also boils down to good ole peer pressure. The same way we were taught in elementary school to say no to the peer pressure of drugs, we have to be aware of the peer pressure put on us about the lives we live.

What Should Be Done? 

The gut reaction is to say we should stop posting all together, but that's not going to happen. Try deactivating all your social accounts and see how long before you reactivate them.

Be authentic. The difficulty here lies in posting something imperfect in a world where everyone else portrays perfection. To be authentic means to create your own safe space online. This might mean increasing the privacy levels on your accounts, or simply blocking people with reckless abandon. It also means that we need to stop taking ourselves and our opinions so seriously all the time.

Stop posting to attract a following. I've heard people say that it was easier to post on Twitter and Facebook when they only had a few followers. Once the numbers increased, so did the entitlement of their followers. Don't let the people following you dictate what you post (especially when they're anonymous strangers). Block them.

Incidentally, I believe this is one reason apps like Snapchat are gaining in popularity. Compared to other networks it is more closed off, and the content is not readily archived. It makes for a safer space to share moments - and without the expectation of perfection.

Lastly, when going through your social feeds, view everything with a personal filter. Realize that no one has a perfect life, and no one has a life as good as what they portray online. When you see it, all you can do is make dua for them.

may-your-life-some-day-actually-be-as-interesting-and-awesome-in-real-life-as-you-pretend-it-is-on-facebook--2b769