How Social Media Can Bridge the Gap Between Political Awareness and Action


We live in an age of seeming paradox — we’ve never been more connected to or aware of what’s happening in the world around us, and yet we’ve never felt more powerless to effect change in that world. In the past, governments have gotten away with reprehensible actions because those actions were concealed from the public — in the 1950s and 1960s, for instance, the CIA was doing all sorts of terrible things, but the general public could at least say in retrospect that they had no idea what was going on. Today, in the age of Wikileaks and social media, ignorance isn’t really a defense, which isn’t to say that it doesn’t predominate regardless (as ever, The Onion has the best take on that particular topic). But oversaturation is its own form of psychological repression.

If you’re of an open-minded and/or enquiring bent, it often feels like there’s too much information out there — too many reports of terrible things happening, too many awful people, too much bad news. In this respect, being hyper-aware of the news only serves to remind you of how impotent you are to change it. My country, Australia, has abused people seeking shelter on its shores so appallingly that two-thirds of the population housed in an offshore concentration camp processing center recently published an open letter requesting assisted suicide. On this side of the Pacific, we have a legitimate candidate for the Republican Presidential nomination openly advocating policies that are, if you’ll excuse the transgression of Godwin’s law, flat-out fascist.

What can be done about either of those things, or the innumerable other atrocities going on in the world right now that are equally appalling? As far as Australia goes, I feel like I don’t have any words left — the fact that people are begging for help to die rather than endure what is being done to them in the name of political expediency and sociopathic policy is so far beyond my power to describe that it makes me question what the point of any of this is. I can vote there, at least, although if you’re registered in a safe seat for either major party, then your vote is largely meaningless. I can write. I can go to protests or donate from afar to organizations fighting this reprehensible shit. And I can be aware, every day, that this is happening. And beyond that? It feels like the gap between awareness and ability to effect change has never been greater.

I suspect there are plenty of people on this side of the Pacific who feel the same way. Ignorance is bliss, they say, but in this day and age it’s also indefensible — all this information is there at your fingertips, right now. (I mean, god only knows what’s going on that we don’t know about, but to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, of all people, we have to focus on the “known unknowns.”) To isolate yourself from the terrible things being done in our name is to turn the blindest of eyes, but to immerse yourself in them, if you have no power to effect change, only serves to undermine your own mental health. You start to become numb, so much so that you might find yourself asking if humans really do have a finite quantity of empathy before their own mental self-defense mechanisms kick in.

I wrote here several weeks back about our tendency to point fingers at one another for our responses to tragedy, and how social media has an unfortunate tendency to become an echo chamber of guilt and blame. I’ve been thinking about this a lot since, and I suspect that this phenomenon emerges from the same place that despair does: a feeling of impotence. If you can’t do anything about the events that are shaping the world you live in, you tend to lash out in any way you can — at someone who’s posted something obnoxious, at someone who doesn’t get it, at a friend of a friend whose pro-Trump post somehow cropped up in your feed because Facebook’s algorithm sometimes seems deliberately mischievous.

But I also thought about how this can work in reverse. I have something like 800 friends on Facebook, and 1500 Twitter followers (relatively pissant numbers compared to some of my writing peers, but networking’s never been my strong suit). There’s clearly also some overlap between the two numbers, but still, if you imagine them all standing in a room, that’s a decent number of people. It’d have to be a big room.

Maybe you have that many followers. Maybe you have more! The point is that pretty much all of us have readymade audiences that are unprecedented in size compared to what we might have had, say, a generation ago. In 1980, unless you wrote for a major publication or had access to some other platform to disseminate your ideas, your reach was limited to your circle of friends, family, and coworkers. In 2015, it’s your Facebook friends, your Twitter followers, the people who still follow you on Tumblr, and so on.

People like to ridicule “slacktivism,” the idea of just hitting “share” on a social media post as a substitute for “real” activism. But this rather underestimates the power of social media. Take this, for instance, which appeared in my Facebook feed yesterday. It’s a post by one Sofia Ali-Khan, a person I’ve never met, and it discusses what “non-Muslim allies” can do to combat the rising tide of hatred against Muslims in America. It’s a beautifully written post, and you should read it. And then you should share it.

As I’m looking at it now, it’s been shared 52,920 times. Let’s say that for every time it was shared, four people saw it in their feed and read it. That means Ali-Khan’s message has reached some 200,000 people. Most of them, I’m sure, already share her views — one of the problems of social media activism is that it largely comprises preaching to the converted.

But if even, say, 5% of the people who read that post found something in it they’d never thought about before, something that maybe made them step back and think for a moment — either about how their views might not be as valid as they thought, or just about how sitting next to a lady in a hijab on the subway and smiling at her might be a nice thing to do — then that’s 10,000 people to whom this post has made an actual difference. That’s something, right?

If Sofia Ali-Khan can do this, so can you. So can I. And, I’d argue, we have an obligation to do so. It’s easy to ridicule Donald Trump, but the time for that is past; if we have platforms of any sort, we have a moral imperative to use them to combat hatred and intolerance.

It might feel like you can’t change anything. It might feel hopeless. And alone, you’re right, you can’t change anything. But that doesn’t mean anything you do is useless. So do what you can.