With my first summer class out of the way, I thought I’d write a post about something that’s been bugging for a while. Specifically, social media and how we use it as a tool for activism.
Social media activism can be a force for good. I think it’s a great tool for bringing awareness and attention to people who aren’t aware of certain certain events or news sources. However, I’ve become increasingly disillusioned with the way I’ve seen people use their platforms in the wake of a number of movements.
The first one that comes to mind is the “Make Kony Famous” trend of 2012. Joseph Kony, a Ugandan war criminal, was the star of a viral video made by the organization Invisible Children. While the video was successful in its endeavor to inform people of the atrocities committed by Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army, it stopped short of its goal to have Kony arrested by the end of the year. Shortly thereafter, Invisible Children came under scrutiny for trivializing the actual conflict in Uganda and the mental health of its co-founder, Jason Russell. Much to everyone’s chagrin, the number of shares the video got didn’t translate to the end of a decades old ethnic genocide.
Yes, that was snarky. I said I was disillusioned because I wonder how many people bothered to look up the history of the Ugandan tragedy before sharing the video. How many people know the names of the tribes in conflict? How many people have heard of Idi Amin? (You really don’t have an excuse, there’s an Oscar winning movie about him and he’s played by Forrest Whitaker.) No, instead, they gobbled up an artfully arranged video that wholly ignored the complicated and fraught sociopolitical dimensions of a country whose history is marred by mass murder. I get it, the image of white saviors come to save poor Africans (who have no agency or individual identity) is much more digestible than addressing the humanity and cultural history of the Ugandans as a people and sovereign country. At its best, it’s naiveté, at its worst, it’s negligent and misleading.
Fast forward to 2014, when I got involved in a trending topic on Twitter. The #CancelColbert movement was well under way when I tweeted out to my 30 followers (mostly friends who rarely use Twitter) the following tweets in response to something I thought was really stupid:
Cue right-wing rage. I was not prepared for the attacks or even the praise from fellow liberals. I honestly didn’t believe it would get any attention at all because I was pretty inactive on Twitter. Yet, I stayed up until 5 in the morning watching as people re-tweeted and commented and liked. It was a great social experiment for me but also nerve-wracking and something I never want to experience again. Mainly because what good came of it? There was no way Colbert was going to be canceled and all it really did was make Suey Park famous. Still, tweets and articles and responses were shot around and the whole thing spread like wildfire. I doubt many people watched the actual Colbert sketch that caused\ outrage in the first place but people were so quick to jump up and declare their self-righteous indignation.
The idea of being a rooted cosmopolitan, soaking up culture and information while neutralizing space and time, is very sexy indeed. That’s why I’m on Facebook and joined Twitter. That’s why I Instagram and Snapchat. But what change are we really effecting by sharing or liking or commenting? How far does it go? Now, we’re faced with another humanitarian conflict, the escalation of violence between Israelis and Palestinians. I’m not going to espouse my beliefs here because that isn’t the purpose of the post, it’s just the catalyst. I’ve seen numerous statuses and tweets on the different perspectives which I think is good as far as cross-sharing of information. But I’ve seen just as many poorly written misinformed statuses which only serve to detract from the crisis. There are too many people who are misguided when it comes to how this information will be used. Most cases, it won’t. Yes, mainstream media in the U.S. is lacking in actual substance and unbiased reporting regarding the matter but, to be fair, U.S. media lacks substance and unbiased reporting on most events. I’m not arguing that you shouldn’t share, I’m arguing HOW and WHY you share.
We are a generation of consumers. We consume and pearl clutch and lament and then move on to the next hot topic. We consume but rarely produce and social media makes it so much easier because it gives us this false sense of action. But that’s not how activism really works. Activism works when it’s coupled with awareness and information sharing. It starts with that, really. And then you have to go a step further, and BE ABOUT IT. The suffragettes didn’t get the right to vote by just telegramming and morse-coding each other (or whatever outmoded method of communication they used). They met and shared ideas and handed out leaflets and protested and marched and were imprisoned and force-fed. Civil Rights leaders didn’t get the fucking Civil Rights Act passed by just dialing each other up on those rotary phones that just go round and round, they organized and protested and marched and got hoses turned on them and were imprisoned and threatened and lynched for that shit. Because it meant something.
So, what I’m saying is EDUCATE yourself, first. Consume as much as you can about whatever event is unfolding around you that makes you passionate. Familiarize yourself with the history, with key players, find out what the opposition is saying and why, and eat it all up. Educate yourself so you can educate others. Then ORGANIZE. Find people who are about doing things and are willing to share ideas (yes, this can be done online as well. The Egyptian Revolution was organized mainly online). But then MOBILIZE. For the love of all that is good in this world, MOVE. Get out from behind your computer and produce something. Protest, start a letter writing campaign, put your whole heart into it instead of just some words you post that’ll get lost in the ether. Donate and/or volunteer for organizations that are established and are already on the ground providing services to affected areas. Change doesn’t happen without some sacrifice. The world doesn’t progress without some pain. And it sure as hell doesn’t happen on Facebook.
Again, activism = EDUCATION. ORGANIZATION. MOBILIZATION. Repeat if necessary. And it’ll be necessary.