I am an active user of several different social media platforms. Across all platforms, it is common to witness disastrous oversharing (I do NOT need to know the texture of your one month old’s fecal matter), pointless chain letters, and self-promotion. While I keep the deeply personal parts of my life off of social media, I do write or share a significant amount of political or social justice related pieces. People who share their opinions on these matters are often criticized for being “slacktivists” or “keyboard warriors.”
“All you’re doing is sitting behind a computer. What are you actually doing to help?”
While I do not deny that some people mishandle the way they dialogue on social media, I wanted to bring up some positive aspects of social media activism and how it has helped me become a more well-rounded, engaged global citizen. Let me present to you three points:
1. Precision of Language
If there’s anything that Twitter has taught me, it is that people like things to be short and sweet. I may link an article with a detailed analysis of a terrorist group but the majority of people are going to just read my reaction to the article. If they get as far as clicking the link, they will most likely just skim. This is why I have become a more precise communicator on and off social media. Up until very recently, I barely used my Twitter. “But HOW can I share what I think in 140 characters or less?” It is possible, and this is coming from a chronic rambler. Get rid of the fluff. Efforts to be more concise require one to prioritize their thoughts and select the most important points.
TL;DR: Precise writing is a good skill to have that will benefit you in situations outside of social media as well.
Social media lends an enormous amount of power to people who may otherwise feel voiceless or powerless in other areas of their lives, such as their workplace or family. Now, this can obviously be used in good and bad ways. I am not saying you should bottle your emotions in your daily life and word vomit on Facebook or lash out towards strangers. That is a destructive usage of your voice, and can have serious consequences such as the loss of a job. But your control over your social media platforms should empower you to use your voice.
In our daily lives, we may have to be meek and submissive due to our age, education level, job position, or myriad other reasons. Social media is an equalizer. People you know personally will still have preconceived notions about you as a person, and a stranger can still creep on your profile to try and gather details about your socioeconomic status, sexuality, or otherwise. But if you are engaging with acquaintances or strangers on the internet, it is more likely you will be judged on the strength of your arguments.
I tend to be a non-confrontational person and I do not respond well to aggression. If a discussion gets heated in real life, it can quickly devolve into people just making personal attacks. Through social media, I am able to take time and formulate a response after my emotions have settled. I cannot control how others respond to me, but often times it is easier for me to respond in a balanced, rational manner online whereas in real life, I may not be able to hide my emotional reaction. I get to choose when to respond, or not to respond at all.
On the problem of trolls: social media also gives you agency in that manner. You cannot block or unfriend someone in real life. You do have that power online. We should not solely interact with people that agree with us (see next point) but if someone is harassing you and refuses to engage in a constructive discussion, you have the ability to ignore them or block them.
TL;DR: Social media gives us agency that we may not have at our jobs, schools, in our family, etc.
We ARE keyboard warriors, hear us roar.
3. The Empathy Muscle
Now I will respond to the people who think social media activism means people will engage their communities less in real life.
First, social media activism and civic engagement are not mutually exclusive. I would actually argue that the two can bolster each other. For example, people can make appeals to action on social media. They can also create and organize events through their platforms. On the flip side, businesses or non-profit organizations can engage with the people they serve through a public page.
Second, I believe social media can bring awareness to its users. Without said awareness, people may not have even known about certain opportunities to be active in their local communities. The most recent example I can think of is after the Orlando nightclub shooting, people were posting a number of crowdfunding opportunities to help out the victims. I also saw many people encouraging locals to donate blood to help the cause.
Third, social media’s reach allows us to interact with people around the world that we may not have met otherwise. Many prejudices and biases that people have are due to “in-group, out-group” lines of thinking. When we are able to humanize people we have previously viewed as “the other,” we are better able to empathize with them. I firmly believe empathy is a muscle that can be strengthened. The more we are able to put ourselves in other people’s shoes, the less judgmental we become. Some people may live in communities that lack diversity. By interacting with others through social media, they are able to gain empathy for a more diverse body of people.
TL;DR: We can use social media to encourage civic engagement, and it allows us to “meet” people we wouldn’t have otherwise = we can gain empathy for more people.
Of course, there are a number of downsides to being an activist on social media as well. I figured they are brought up a lot more than ways that social media activism can be positive. For myself, I think discussing politics and justice on social media challenges me to be more aware of the world around me and encourages me to be more active on a grassroots level. I am not saying that “slacktivism” does not exist. But hopefully by sharing some positives of using social media as an avenue for activism, I can encourage others to use their platforms as a catalyst – not a deterrent – to action.