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  • Arri Smith

How Social Media Can Hinder Social Change

When Daunte Wright was killed by Minnesota police officer Kim Potter on 11th April 2021, the news slowly encroached the Twittersphere. I saw the headline on the “news” section of Twitter right before I went to bed that night, and immediately felt tired. Even more tired than I already was. My brain felt heavy, my heart was hurt, my eyes felt like they were ready to melt out of my head, and my mouth felt quivery and dry.

This is how I feel every time news like this comes in. And then my heavy brain starts to prepare. It starts to prepare for what my social media is going to look like for the next week and a half. During times like these, people tweet variations of “this shouldn’t be happening” and “this is so sad” for what I estimate is usually just under two weeks before the flow of anger, grief, and fear begin to ebb and people go on with their business.

Two summers ago, being trapped indoors because a lethal disease was tearing through the population left people bored. Everyone, even the most politically apathetic person I knew was so bored that they decided to get involved with the George Floyd state-sanctioned murder. Getting involved during the summer of 2020 was easy, it meant that Instagram infographics and tweets that may or may not be from someone who actually knows what they are talking about were on trend even more than when Mike Brown or Eric Garner or Sandra Bland or Philando Castile were also murdered by the state.

"It felt like community."

When all of those murders happened, I was in secondary school. There was something for me about going online and reading eloquent thoughts from people of colour, mostly black people, that really resonated with me. It felt like community. People were sharing their anger and grief, and fear in ways that I couldn’t yet express for myself; I was too green, I was still growing up and trying to figure out what I, as a black girl, thought about the world. I know what the world thought about me, I internalised that from a young age. I know what the outside thought about the way I looked, what they thought I thought, how they felt about my culture, how they felt about the men in my family. But I was not at all sure what I thought about the world, my thoughts and opinions were like putty that I was often too afraid to touch.

Tweets from black women were like a lit path in a faction of my brain; what they wrote made me feel seen and it helped me start to mould my thoughts. I by no means took it as gospel, but it was enough.

The role of social media in social movements

But two summers ago, I realised that Tweets were not action. Of course, a part of me already knew this but when people started sharing links to petitions and GoFundMe pages and weekly action plans detailing protest and vigil sights, it flicked a switch in my brain.

Once, someone asked to match donation to a grassroots organisation and I did. That feeling stuck with me, it was almost like an antidote for doom-scrolling, which has been inevitable for anyone on the internet over the past two years. Three months later I watched a video of federal police tear gassing peaceful protesters in Portland. In response I quote tweeted the video and asked if anyone wanted to match the donation I had just made to Portland’s Black Resilience Fund. To my delight, quite a few friends matched my tweet, two more messaged me privately to tell me they had done the same.

This again broke that toxic pattern I had slipped back into of waking up, reading tweets and infographics, and feeling hopeless. It was around this time that I started to heavily consider how I was using social media in relation to the socio-political failures frequenting my timeline.

How social media can hinder tangible social change

By now, we are all aware of the good of social media. The ease with which we can connect with other people who share similar interests is probably the most beloved feature of Twitter, where we can live tweet when a new episode of our favourite television series airs. Or where someone can scroll through endless edits and fancams of their favourite celebrities. Clothes, food, and conversation are all just a tap away, under our control.

Both control and freedom play a big role in social media, we feel these concepts in a simultaneously passive and visceral way, blocking out what we do not like and interacting with what we do. But when the real world - more specifically social, political, or economic aspects of our everyday - spins out of control, we panic. To cope, we flood our respective timelines with tweets and infographics, reels and TikToks from Vice News and ShitYouShouldCareAbout. We use our virtual freedom to condemn the new status quo and mourn the real-life freedoms disintegrating before us. We consume and add to the doom scroll that envelopes us all, whether want it to or not.

"Doom scrolling and online virtue-signalling in large amounts add to nothing"

Doom scrolling is what I would describe as the impulse to parse through our social media feeds to unsuccessfully satiate the anxiety we feel about a negative news cycle. While this is a psychological phenomenon that can be solved with self-soothing coping mechanisms, I also think it can help to counter it with action.

Doom scrolling and online virtue signalling in large amounts add to nothing. While it is great to tweet and retweet about holding space for your feelings during difficult times, I started to wonder how much of that space becomes vapid hot air when we do nothing with it. The common mentality on social media feels like “1 retweet = 1 Care ❤” on anything sad or concerning. When I donated to grassroots organisations, it did not feel like I was rejecting social media activism, but instead doing something parallel to it.

This action made me introspective; in the new year, I stepped away from social media for a bit to reconfigure ways to use it productively for the political frenzies that are guaranteed to keep hitting women, people of colour, queer people, and the working class.

How I learned to stop worrying (or at least worry a little less)

The first thing I realised is that our politicians are not superheroes. As much as I like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her work as a congresswoman in the Bronx and Queens, I had to understand that as inspiring as she is, that she cannot solely fix our country.

Looking at historical examples only makes this become clearer. Martin Luther King Jr. is often held up as the figurehead of the civil rights movement. However, I think the iconisation and idolisation of Dr. King has done more harm than good, as his words are generally seen as less of a call to action than they are simply inspiring messages conservatives and liberals alike can wield against each other on Twitter when it is convenient.

"When society holds a political figure to deistic standards...nothing is accomplished"

In the article, ‘Claiming Martin Luther King, Jr. for the right: The Martin Luther King Day holiday in the Reagan era’, Francesca Polletta and Alex Maresca discuss how the American Republican party spent most of Dr. King’s life denouncing him and how they now use his quotes and rhetoric to bolster their talking points and rely on a collective, romanticised memory of a political figure who was in reality extremely polarising for the entirety of his life and career (they also point out how Dr. King did the same thing to Abraham Lincoln in his own speeches).

The example of Dr King’s legacy in this context shows how when society holds a political figure to deistic standards, picking apart their words when convenient, nothing is accomplished. It seems that we are quick to forget that King’s ultimate goal and the heart of his “I have a dream speech” was to end systemic racism and classism, which has not been accomplished.

What I learned from this is that political figures are advocates who are indeed actively working to change the society they live in, however they cannot do this alone. When Alexandria Ociasio-Cortez or Ilhan Omar or any other politician give speeches or go live on social media to chat with their constituents, they are often creating space for inspiration that is intended to turn into some kind of action. For example, Ocasio-Cortez went live on Instagram to give an elaborate list of action items that Americans could tend to after Roe v. Wade was overturned by the United States Supreme Court.

One part of this live video that I found particularly poignant, was that the now over-used sentiment to “go vote” is essentially useless in certain contexts. As the last six years have proven, sometimes elections are proved to be a moot point, which is a sad but true reality that must be acknowledged. This is something that would leave anyone feeling hopeless. But, as stated before, there are numerous ways to incite both short term and long term consistent change, locally and nationally.

How we can create long term, consistent change

Find the method(s) to take action that you have the physical, emotional, and mental bandwidth to carry out. There are three things you can do to help contribute to the societal change you would like to see:

1. Time

There are a few ways you can donate your time to help a cause you care about. There may be a phone calling campaign that someone has organised, which involves calling the office of an elected official and asking them to effect the change that you want to see. For example, if you know a congressional vote is coming up, you might call your local congressperson, explain that you are one of their constituents, and ask them to vote a certain way and why. This is an example of direct participation, or a method of activism and political participation that connects a person with the leaders of their community. By directly engaging with an elected official, you can make your voice heard and in the long term, gauge whether they are listening to the people who put them in power.

Another way to donate time is by directly engaging with those who are most affected by harmful political actions. For example, you might provide shelter to a homeless person or political refugee. This is an example of direct action, or action that seeks to achieve an end directly and by the most immediately effective means. While this kind of action is most likely not possible for a lot of people, it is one that goes a long way by helping the people who are the most affected by an oppressive policy or system.

2. Money

Another essential component to creating change is having the funds necessary to do so. If there is a grassroots organisation with a cause that resonates with you, you might consider setting up an annual donation. This may be monthly, like a Netflix subscription, or at any other interval of time that you choose. I explained earlier how this was the most effective version of activism for me but what I did not mention was the letter I received from the bail fund, thanking me for my donation and explaining how my funds were allocated to help protesters post bail.

Donations to grassroots organisations are essential because the organisers of the funds have direct ties to their communities and to the causes they are advocating on behalf of. This means they have an intimate knowledge of how to allocate funds. It also means that they are not tied to corporate entities, but instead to the people who need their help the most. There is a specific emphasis on grassroots organisations here because larger non-profit companies’ spending habits have recently been called into question. Donating money to the right places does not require a lot of time or energy but can make a huge difference for those who are spending their time and energy to effect on the ground.

If there is not a grassroots organisation that you feel affects the change you want to see, you might consider shopping at local businesses. This means instead of creating a budget for Starbucks or eating out at fast food chains, consider giving that money to a local coffee shop or diner. This is a means of locally supporting your community directly. Just as well, large chains may be giving their profits to political causes that work against your interests which means that even when you are voting and donating to certain causes, other components of your budget may be used by corporations to further perpetuate the harm you are looking to change.

The way people spend their money is not always seen as a political act but spending locally and supporting grassroots organisations is an example of how a person can have more control over the political decisions that affect them and their community on a day to day basis.

3. Action

The last way to create change is by physically showing up in spaces to express dissent against the status quo. This means going out to organised protests, marches, vigils, and sit ins. While the efficacy of protesting has been debated over time, it has proved to be a great way to further build community with other people who have similar political interests. It is a way to connect with your community offline.

I think this kind of communication is underestimated. When I decide to go to protests or any other kind of community-led, in-person events, I am reminded that I am not alone neither in the frustration nor anger I feel, but also in the hope and faith I have that making difference is possible.

I have attached some guides here and here regarding protest safety.

To recap

In the end, getting involved is more than reading a Twitter thread about feminism from an unauthorised source or reposting info-graphics to your story. To create change, to minimise the doom-scrolling, you have to interact with the world outside of the screen.

Depending on activists and political figures to do it for you without giving them any offline support is also not a viable option in the struggle for change. Being the change you want to see in the world goes beyond posting that misattributed Ghandi quote to your bio on Facebook. It means getting involved in a way that is both mentally and emotionally convenient to yourself and helpful to the community around you.

For more resources and articles on this topic, head to our dedicated Media section.

Edited by Abbie Harby and Rinakshie Rams

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