Three Big Problems With Facebook Activism

“Slacktivism” online is exactly as deep as the paper-thin knowledge and commitment that fuels it. 

BY REBECCA TEICH (guest blogger) 


Many of us have fallen victim to it: changing our profile picture to those white equals signs atop a red background because someone said that it meant you support marriage equality, sharing the now-infamous #Kony2012 video that no one ever watched in full, or reposting the Huffington Post article only because the title was too witty and relevant not to.

From warring perspectives on the conflict in Gaza to the now strangely dated hashtag #bringbackourgirls, the viral social issue of the hour floods Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook with content that looks, on the outside, like deeply felt social activism. But for all the pathos running rampant over news feeds and blogging sites, there is little depth to speak of, and virtually no change afoot in the real world. “Slacktivism” online is exactly as deep as the paper-thin knowledge and commitment that fuels it. 

Social Gain vs. Social Change

Social media might be said to revolutionize political activism, connecting us to like-minded peers in previously inconceivable ways. The hive is easier to stir than ever before. But these technologies have a much darker side. Facebook activism amplifies harmful underpinnings of capitalism. It drastically alters how we conceive of ourselves. And ironically, Facebook does harm to the social causes offline that we champion online. Why? Social media platforms transform social issues into cultural capital: issues become labels of political alignment and lend an appearance of social awareness attached to a digitally curated self. They become a means to the end of social gain, rather than of social change. 

Through social media, we engage in personal branding. We cultivate a name and image that we can manipulate for social gain: “likes,” retweets, comments, and shares—rather than real change on the ground—become our primary goal. We choose how we desire to be seen by others and then manipulate that artificial “self” in accord with our known, or desired, audience.

No self-presentation through social media can be fully genuine. The prospect of social rewards always taints that decision-making process. Individuals cultivate their amplified selves on such platforms by sharing a given set of signifiers to attach to their “profile” through the sharing of news articles, the act of ‘liking’ pages, or re-posting other people’s writings. There is a hyper-awareness of our image in the eyes of others; whether consciously or not, our profiles become a self-promoting narrative. 

The Perils of "Slacktivism"

And the end-goal of this online “activism” is typically limited to raising awareness. As valuable as it is to widen people’s understanding of the world, no tangible change flows from awareness alone. In addition, many online activist campaigns reveal their true colors when they raise awareness of convenient untruths. 

                           

Last year we saw massive numbers of our Facebook friends change their profile pictures to a red equals sign to support marriage equality, which inadvertently served as mass-advertising for the organization that uses the emblem as its logo (with a few color changes from time to time). What these Facebook users might not care to know is that the Human Rights Committee (HRC), the organization behind the logo, has been subject to devastating criticism from the LGBTQ+ community. The HRC, Derrick Clifton writes, represents a “well-off, able-bodied, gender conforming, non-immigrant and white” audience that ignores problems of racial injustice in the LGBTQ+ community and has “a long history of throwing trans people under the bus.” Few users adopting the logo as their own profile picture had any idea they were promoting not only a political position but also a specific (an deeply flawed) organization. 

Most people jumping at the chance to use the hashtag #bringbackourgirls had little to no knowledge of the history and politics of the country in which they obliquely advocated foreign intervention. And they no clue that many Nigerians not residing in America are opposed to US intervention due to a history of the negative effects of US foreign aid and meddling there. 

These examples of “slacktivist” rebellion from current events are prevalent within social media, especially (but not exclusively) among the liberal class who claim to advocate for social justice. The irony lies in the fact that when the labels of “rebel” enters popular culture and “trendiness,” it becomes conformity. The idea of rebellion becomes another commodified modifier to one’s online self. “Rebellion” acts as a signifier to denote a sense of global awareness and a self-directed, educated position within the subject matter. Despite the appearance of rebellion in this public display of a seemingly more radical opinion, the individual is doing just the opposite. We are always keenly aware of our audience; often that audience is one of similar opinion, as that audience is comprised of “friends” or “followers.” 

Individuals craft their public selves and accompanying opinions to obtain social reward from a positive response from their followship. Social issues and critique become buzzwords or clickbait. They function as modifiers for that online public self, and lose their rebellious force. Those issues become objects used to accumulate cultural capital in exchange for social reward. In this process it becomes apparent that both the public self and the social issues become commodified to achieve an end reward that’s external to the function and existence of the commodity.

This isn’t to say that all that happens on these platforms is negative. With this new form of media and communication, there are many liberating and redeeming qualities that arise from these platforms, including the newfound ability to bridge conversational gaps and the opportunity for a larger number of people to engage in a conversation and disseminate knowledge and opinions relatively freely. Social media is fast, easy, cheap and, in one sense, democratic. 

Money Troubles

But there is the corrupting matter of money. Facebook shareholders’ bottom line is not how much social change the site inspires. No, social media sites are profit-maximizing corporations, as all those ads and “sponsored” content in our newsfeeds remind us. Social media sites, and even some social movements, should not be misunderstood as fully public. There is censorship involved, either by internal community policing or external policing from the platform to ensure a profit, making sure that voices are in line with an ideology that benefits themselves. In addition, it requires a critical eye both in terms of what we consume and what we put out because anything displayed on social media platforms is going to be mass-consumed. We must be aware of the way we, consciously or subconsciously, manipulate how we are portrayed such that it does not serve to hinder and devalue issues that require selflessness. 

We must also foster awareness for the way these platforms we engage with have profit-based agendas of their own. A blind progression into social media activism is extremely harmful. This new medium is greatly influenced by hegemonic structures that surround it and ought to be the target of critique rather than the foundation of dissemination. 

This is not a call to block off social media as an outlet for exchange. Instead, this newfound presence of hijacking the pressing issues of our time for our own personal gain requires of us to reevaluate how we get involved and participate in this new form of interaction. It’s a call to think more critically about the way information is exchanged and portrayed and to redirect activism in a direction that remains truer to its cause. 

Rebecca Teich is a recent graduate of Bard High School Early College where she received both an Associate of Arts degree from Bard College and a New York High School Regents Diploma. She will be attending Columbia University in the fall where she intends to pursue studies in English and Philosophy. 

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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    Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

    "I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

    Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

    Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

    The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?


    Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

    In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

    It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

    Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

    Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

    The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

    It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

    In their findings the authors state:

    "The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
    upholding First Amendment ideals.

    Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

    With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

    Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

    As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

    • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
    • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
    • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
    • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
    • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
    • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
    • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
      Patriotic.

    Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

    It's interesting to note the authors found that:

    "Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

    You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

    Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

    • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
    • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
    • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
    • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
    • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
    • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

    Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

    Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

    • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
    • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
    • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
    • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
    • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
    • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

    Civic discourse in the divisive age

    Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

    There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

    "In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
    dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
    the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
    These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
    putting our democracy in peril.


    Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
    immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
    become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
    Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
    The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
    re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
    building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

    We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

    This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.