social media activism

Most of today’s college and high school students can identify as Millenials or members of Generation Z. We are known, among other things, for our supposed affinity for technology and dependence on social media and other digital forms of communication. I don’t contest these generalizations, nor do I think that they carry a negative connotation. The world is changing and Millenials and Generation Z-ers are changing with it. Technology can and should be used as a valuable tool to improve people’s lives and, most of the time, we use it as such. Older generations often criticize us because our love for digital communication forms has supposedly affected our ability to communicate on a personal level, especially face-to-face. Again, this may be true, but communication itself is becoming less and less personal/face-to-face and we are adapting to the hand we are dealt. That being said, one thing us tech-savvy young people need to learn is when social media IS a valuable tool and when it isn’t.

I’ve noticed a trend on my Facebook timeline that is a perfect example of what social media isn’t supposed to be. Throughout the years, I’ve seen many iterations of this: we find a story or issue that we are “passionate” about fixing and then we begin a viral campaign to fix it on social media. Sounds good, right? Why is wanting to fix issues that we see a bad thing? It’s not. The problem is how we go about it.

First of all, most of these campaigns are perpetuated by people who don’t know all the facts behind whatever cause they are championing. To use a silly example, but one that proves my point well, my college was recently ranked the number one party school in the country by the Princeton Review. Right after this ranking, the property owners of a popular party spot on campus sent an email to the residents announcing that parties in this location would no longer be tolerated. Students of my school went crazy at this “oppression” and took to the Internet to create a movement to bring back the party spot. The YouTube sensation “I’m Shmacked” even made a over-dramatized video challenging the property owners’ decision and, here’s where the problem lies, blaming and berating my school’s new chancellor for the decision. However, the new chancellor took office in April of last year. The email to residents clearly stated that the property owners, a group independent of the university, were responding to complaints filed in September of 2013, months before the chancellor even set foot on campus.

Second, most of these campaigns don’t lead to any real action to fix the issue. To use a more well-known example, “Kony 2012” was a video produced by an organization called Invisible Children that focused on an African warlord, Joseph Kony, who committed heinous crimes. The video received almost 100 million views in a year. My generation was outraged. They shared this video; they wrote incensed statuses about it; some even organized Facebook events to paper our school with Kony-awareness flyers. Here’s the problem: raising awareness about his horrible crimes wasn’t going to help Kony get captured. Several governments were already searching for Kony long before the video went viral. High school students putting up what were essentially wanted posters on a completely different continent was not going to make it easier for these governments to catch him.

Finally, these campaigns are short-lived. They die out quickly, as if they are pop culture trends and not important issues that need to be addressed. Even the most incensed people stop posting about each issue eventually. This summer, the “Ice Bucket Challenge to Strike Out ALS” went viral. It was supposed to raise awareness about ALS and it actually did succeed in the sense that it raised a lot of money for ALS research. The problem is– it died after about 3 months. People were probably less and less likely to be willing to dump ice on their heads as the weather got colder, but ALS is still a disease for which we have yet to find a cure. What’s worse is that 20 years from now people are going to remember the Ice Bucket Challenge, however it is unlikely that they will remember that it was to raise awareness about ALS.

The Internet can be a powerful tool for social activism, but we must use it properly for this goal. First of all, before we post anything on our Facebook, especially a post advocating for a cause, we NEED to research that issue or fact. Through the Internet, we have access to a wealth of information. We should use that information to become more informed individuals. Second, when using the Internet for social activism, we need to use it only as publicizing mechanism for a particular issue and not try to use it as anything else. Finally, we need to prolong our “passion” for these issues. I use passion in quotes because if we were really passionate about these issues our posts wouldn’t die out after a few weeks.

Claire Moran

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