The Problem with Social Media Activism

I’d like to think that I’m the type of guy who walks the walk. If I say something should be done or approached a certain way, then I should be able to approach it the certain way. I don’t mind awareness campaigns, as long as you follow up your awareness with something tangible and substantial.

So when I see something on Facebook or Tumblr that is activist in nature, but doesn’t appear to have any substance, I immediately become suspicious. Over the weekend, it was something a Facebook friend had posted about the devastation caused by Typhoon Haiyan. It was a huge post supposedly written by someone living in the Philippines, giving a detailed account of the first six days after the typhoon, and the awful, horrible conditions that people are living in in the aftermath.

But the very first line of the post infuriated me so much that I couldn’t read the rest of the post. The very first words of what will surely become Facebook spam are: “I don’t watch TV news, so I have only heard a little about the bad situation in the Philipeans. [sic]”

I went on brief but strongly worded rant about this on Twitter, but the basic point, which I will expand on in this post, is simple: In your effort to show that you are above corporate media, you have exposed your ignorance to the world, and it will definitely come back to bite you.

It’s amazing how many assumptions can be made about this person by one sentence alone. To paraphrase the sentence, it says, “I don’t watch TV news, so I didn’t know about the destruction in the Philippines.”

Now, I’m as against commercial media as anyone else. If your primary news source is only one cable news channel, you’re being subjected to a certain agenda, and news stories will have a certain slant, whether you realize it or not. Fox News has the conservative slant, MSNBC has the liberal slant. Even an institution as supposedly neutral as CNN occasionally slants stories in a certain direction to fit a narrative. Any time corporate interests are at stake, organizations will happily bend toward those interests in order to keep up the cash flow.

But in today’s information age, where literally anything you could ever want to know is a quick Google search away, saying “I don’t watch TV news” is no longer an excuse. You don’t watch cable news, but you’ve obviously heard about the typhoon that ripped through the Philippines. How did you hear about it?

The other day I was pointed to a story in the USA Today about how a Colorado judge has allowed a man accused of sexual assault to blame his identical twin brother for the attacks, as they share DNA, and really, who knows, right? How did I hear about this story? A friend of mine texted me. “You won’t believe what this judge in Colorado did,” she said. “Look it up.” A lot of breaking news stories I learn about come from Twitter, which often include links to several different news sites to verify the story’s authenticity.

There are endless news sources to refer to for more information about breaking news. The internet alone gives you access to blogs, newspaper websites (like the New York Times), corporate news websites (like CNN), and news-centric websites (like Slate or Salon), among others. Outside of the internet and television, there are newspapers! Your local area has a newspaper that costs less than a dollar to buy. There’s also the radio! I get most of my news from National Public Radio, which isn’t corporate-controlled, but rather listener-controlled, but even commercial radio has news breaks every hour that gives you information.

The question that keeps running through my mind is this: if this person is a Redditor (as they mention in the very next sentence), and presumably is getting their news from Reddit, why the hell didn’t they just open a new tab and look up more information about the typhoon and educate themselves?

And that’s my real problem with Social Media Activism: we take an ethos-centric Facebook or Tumblr post, and we instantly make a judgement based on virtually nothing at all, and then that becomes an opinion set in stone. And when competing evidence is shown to us that may suggest that our opinion about an issue is wrong — or even that the issue itself is very complicated when viewed in context — we hold firm to our beliefs and tear down the opposing viewpoint. It’s a legitimate psychological phenomenon, and absolutely explains the polarization of American politics today.

There was a post I saw on Tumblr a while ago that illustrates this confirmation bias beautifully. The initial post was a picture of a joke from a joke book. The joke was very simple:

What do you call the useless flap of skin at the end of the penis?
A man.

Tumblr feminists cackled gleefully at this joke, because apparently they’ve never heard a joke that was disparaging toward men before. Screw boys, am I right?

But then, brilliantly, someone made a comment on the post that was so brilliantly simple. All this user did was change two words in the joke, and reposted it:

What do you call the useless flap of skin at the end of the vagina?
A woman.

Suddenly the tables have turned, and Tumblr feminists would have none of it. “What sort of mysoginistic crap is this?” they cried. “It’s this sort of oppression against women that is the problem! I hope you’re happy!”

And that’s the point. Social Media Activism is all knee-jerk, college hyper-liberalism. There’s no thought. There’s no substance. There’s no critical thinking. Watch the video, share the post, get back to Reddit.

This sort of activism, however, is fleeting. There will come a time, once you’re away from the safety of the college campus, where you’re going to casually mention that you don’t pay attention to commercial media, so you don’t know very much about this particular major news story, and someone is going to reply with, “What are you, stupid?”

And suddenly you’re That Guy, the ignorant one in the office, who can’t be bothered to know about the world around him. And that’s a lonely road to walk.

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