It’s become commonplace to frequently be confronted with a flurry of angry (and frequently ungrammatical) posts filled with buzzwords every time Trump posts something stupid (so, fairly often). In fact, it’s become so accepted that people appear to view posts on social media as a legitimate alternative to tangible contributions to the community, such as donating, volunteering, or acts of kindness to other people generally. The result has been the broadening of the term activism to include low-effort tasks like retweeting things you deem empowering. While I won’t go so far to condemn the intentions behind posting about causes you believe in, I think the rise in doing so has three distinct harms to the ways people view social movements, and to the choices they make to advance them.
1) Social media activism absolves people of the moral responsibility to take individual action.
When Ohio got a set of new abortion laws, I was greeted with some great female empowerment cartoons and art. To be clear, I identify as pro-choice and, truthfully, take no issue with people sharing their beliefs on social media. The problem I have with all of the feminist buzz is this: if everyone was so intent on improving reproductive rights, why didn’t we all donate some of our Starbucks money to Marie Stopes International, a not-for-profit organisation devoted to providing safe abortions and contraception for women globally? The reason for the lack of individual action isn’t that people don’t care about reproductive rights or feminism. It’s that once they’ve posted feminist stuff, they feel that their intangible act of “spreading awareness” has somehow made the world better and so they are no longer obliged to help anyone anymore.
I think the climate change movement among youth can be described similarly. Overall, it’s probably been a good thing, in so far as it can prompt some people to change behaviour, but the vast majority of youth who retweet or share climate change statistics or stories haven’t made changes in their individual behaviour, meaning the act of posting lacks net impact. Psychologically, it’s an interesting phenomenon that you can post things about how horrible climate change is and then go eat a beef burger or drive your car around.
2) Social media activism often turns moral issues into political ones.
More and more frequently, political polarization has extended into social media. Users of Instagram, Facebook, and Snapchat share posts related to a variety of causes in a way that clearly conveys which part of the political spectrum they fall into. This conflates moral issues (i.e. helping homeless people) with political issues (i.e. a universal basic income) in a way which is problematic because it alienates a whole group of people from your cause and diminishes support for tangible means of helping people. You’re now expected to defend a bunch of other social and political attitudes and opinions just to advance your singular cause. To avoid diluting support for a cause, it’s probably more effective to promote and act upon tangible means of helping people (i.e. recruiting people to volunteer at your local soup kitchen with you) that are considered pretty much universally good and helpful.
3) The focus of social media activism can be overly broad, overly specific, or just incorrect.
One issue I had with the outcry on social media after abortion restrictions were passed in the U.S. was the Western-centric assumptions inherent in this: everyone gets upset when abortions are banned in some U.S. states which will probably get overturned, but nobody seems to care about the fact that the majority of girls in Somalia will be subject to horrific genital mutilation practices. Or, if you’re going to condemn microaggressions against the LGBTQ community, why not deal with routine hangings of homosexual individuals in Iran? The reason why people focus on specific issues are twofold. Firstly, if the intentions behind posting is to garner positive social attention or validation from others, the focus of the post might be irrelevant, or placing focus on a stigmatized or controversial issue in a developing nation might alienate your friends. Secondly, you might not have the understanding and knowledge of the causes that you think you care about.
Another consequence of this is vastly oversimplified descriptions of social causes. When the feminist cause gets reduced to condemning all men on social media in shades of violent pink, it detracts from people’s willingness to understand complex issues like sexual violence or question their own attitudes towards sexual minorities.
In the end, I suspect the reason why social media activism is so prominent is because it’s significantly easier to click “share” on climate change posts than it is to start biking to work or to stop eating meat. Social media activism is only useful if it makes people buy into the logic that their behaviour can have a positive or negative impact on the world, and if it forces them to make difficult choices in order to help people. So while social media activism may or may not have marginal benefits, make no mistake: it is not a replacement to acting against injustice nor to helping humanity.