Is Social Media the force for good that it presents itself as?

Social media was not a platform designed for the dissemination of political information. Something which is at the root of social media is a sort of popularity competition. There is a pang of hurt when one person’s post about their life gets two hundred reacts and one’s own gets five. However, it’s a pang that people daren’t recognise or articulate, because when they do so they realise how petty it sounds. But this doesn’t stop people from feeling it instinctively. Social media is predicated on shaping how our peers see us and constructing an online identity. These two things are not so far removed from the quest for recognition and approval. This means that, unless one is being absolutely honest with oneself about one’s intentions, social media activism becomes a hollow transaction which harms rather than helps.

“It’s a shameful thing to admit, but I think I posted it out of a fear of seeming unsympathetic.”

The desire to construct others’ perception of ourselves, the desire to be liked as much as others, is often conflated with the spreading of awareness about causes remote from our own on social media. The problem is that all too often the symbol can be mistaken for the action; it seems that merely pointing at the thing and showing that it’s bad somehow becomes an inherent good. But pointing to something is worthy only as a preparatory step to further action, or even as an outgrowth of natural sympathy with the cause, which would naturally manifest itself in things other than said pointing. There is a world of difference between feeling real empathy with a cause and simply feeling that one ought to be seen as feeling empathy with a cause. The problem with social media is that, far too often, the latter impulse is found instead of the former.

But such a problem can’t be put down to social media alone. We live in an age of information, and so we are glutted with riots, atrocities and political outrages from across the world, with which we often have no immediate connection. As a consequence, we can become as anaesthetised to it as to any fiction. This can lead to a disingenuous exchange in which neither the sharer of the post nor those reading it genuinely care about the issue at hand. All these problems and miseries become one blur of experience which has as much reality to us as a television show.

However, the nature of social media merely encourages such a disingenuous transaction, but in no way necessitates it. It is possible to engage with activism online, as long as it’s something which concerns one deeply. It needs to mean more than the vague sense of doing good through the click of a button. The same goes for sharing posts as well. It’s one’s responsibility to be aware of why one is posting something. To inspect one’s own feelings and motivations is highly important with any activism, but especially with something online, where a feeling of doing good in the world can be produced at the click of a button. Let me give you an example.

“The problem is that all too often the symbol can be mistaken for the action.”

I remember that during the Black Lives Matter protests, it seemed that every single person on social media was openly supporting the movement. There were some posts saying that silence on the issue was itself complicity, and others saying that White people shouldn’t weigh in on the issue, but rather that it was the time to educate oneself and to listen. I felt guilty and shameful for not doing anything, and so I posted support as well. But I felt that, as I was typing it, I was very carefully mediating between a language of sympathy, outrage and apology which had already been expressed by the posts of others. What I said wasn’t disingenuous inasmuch as the feelings I expressed were true. But of course, I had nothing to add. My language was constructed to fit that of preceding posts and comments out of a fear of offending or of stepping out of line. It’s a shameful thing to admit, but I think I posted it out of a fear of seeming unsympathetic. With so many others speaking out on an issue, I felt that I had to say something too. Now, there’s a great difference between that and posting something out of sympathy. This isn’t to say that I wasn’t sympathetic with the movement or that I didn’t agree with many of the posts about it I saw. But my original impulse, which was that I had nothing of worth to add to the discourse, was correct. I only spoke because so many others did, and so I felt I had to. This is no reason to speak about any topic.


Mountain View

Social media: to give up or give in?

It seems the dynamics of indirect peer pressure can push a person to repost something as much as genuine sympathy with that post. That isn’t a healthy position. When activism is born in a matrix of social pressure and competition rather than genuine outrage and sympathy, it is rendered hollow. It becomes a mere symbol in a social game. The true danger of this hollow, popular internet activism is that it allows apathy to stagnate behind supposed zeal. It presents an image of things moving whilst they stand rigidly still.

In short, be vigilant. Be wary. Online activism is a potentially powerful tool, but like all tools with a great power for good, there is an equal capacity the opposite way. Be honest with yourself about your motives. Activism springing from a hollow heart may reverberate louder in a social media forum, but those reverberations won’t aid the movement. They can only weaken it.