Archive for activism

The Problem with Social Media Activism

Posted in current events, opinion, pop culture with tags , , , , , on November 19, 2013 by Kyle Fleming

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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KONY 2012: Why Emotional Appeals are Bad for Activism

Posted in current events, opinion with tags , , , , , , on March 9, 2012 by Kyle Fleming

In case you’ve been living under a rock, or happened to give up social networking for Lent, you’ve probably seen this video making the rounds:

This video, created by the foundation Invisible Children, was meant to raise awareness about Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), known for abducting children and using them as soldiers and sex slaves. It really is a terrible, terrible thing happening in Uganda. Invisible Children hopes the video will raise awareness about his crimes and hope to bring him to justice.

To be fair, when you read some of the stuff that Kony has done over the years, it really is terrible. However, I have a sinking feeling that this is just another one of those awareness campaigns where nothing happens (and we all know how I feel about those).

Kony needs to be brought to justice, no doubt. But how is sharing a YouTube video going to help? It’s cool that Ugandan tragedies are in vogue now, but most people will go no further than hitting that share button on Facebook. And those that do go further will probably take the easiest route they can find, which in this case, is giving money to Invisible Children. I mean, come on, they made the movie, they must have connections to help out. And they seem like a reputable charity. Financial assistance leads to real assistance, right?

Except that may be doing more harm than good. Let’s take a look at Invisible Children’s financial statement from 2010 through June 2011. Invisible Children received over $8.2 million in revenue in this time period, which is a lot of money to potentially be working with. Theoretically, it’s a lot of money that could be going to help Ugandans.

How much of that money went to direct services to help those Ugandans. Just over $2.8 million. Sounds impressive, until you do the math, and realize that it’s less than 35% of it’s revenue going toward direct services. How does that compare to other charities? The American Red Cross gives around 92% of its revenue to direct services. UNICEF gives around 90% toward direct services.

Also, what many people might not know is that, while the original goal of Invisible Children was to try and prevent the abduction of children. However, this that didn’t work so well, they’re now fighting fire with fire. Meaning the money that goes to Invisible Children gets forwarded to the Ugandan military, buying weapons so they can fight Kony and the LRA.

Yes. The LRA. Donating to Invisible Children is donating to the Ugandan military to fight and kill the children that you’re trying to save. And it doesn’t help that the Ugandan military is just as corrupt as Kony himself. (Follow the links in this post for more information on that.)

But what I think bothers me the most about this KONY 2012 movement is that I’m really afraid that nothing will happen. Invisible Children set a goal to get rid of Kony by April 20. But what happens when that doesn’t work? Will people still care about Ugandan children in a month? Or maybe a better question is: will people still have the fire to do something after April 20?

I can almost guarantee that most people sharing the video were sucked in by the horrible images and emotional appeals, but can’t find Uganda on a map.

Maybe I’m cynical, but emotional appeals will not work if you want me on your side of justice. I prefer facts. I prefer knowing what you plan to do to solve the problem. Ousting a dictator isn’t as easy as finding him and saying, “Hey, you. You’re being kind of mean. You should probably knock it off.” If you don’t have any answers for me, then I’m sorry, I can’t feel comfortable joining your cause.

To close, I leave you with a statement from Don Cheadle’s Twitter feed. He posted a series of tweets on Wednesday (that I’ve combined and edited to close) that made a lot of points that I fully support:

Still cycling through the information. Firsthand: I’ve been to the night commuters camps, world vision and the like. No question Kony is a bad guy. But divergent perspectives I find informative and the truth often lies betwixt and between what’s proffered. You must use your critical minds and innate instincts to decide for yourselves while leaving open the possibility to understand more as more is understood…. Kony’s on the [International Criminal Court]’s list for a reason and his deeds are well documented. I believe in Ugandans solving Ugandans’ problems. [It’s a] tricky situation.

Keep Your Opinions To Yourself

Posted in current events, opinion with tags , , , on January 30, 2012 by Kyle Fleming

On a bus trip back from Des Moines this weekend, I decided to grab a Jimmy John’s sandwich to eat. As I was eating my sandwich, one of my bus mates saw me eating (along with some like-minded people), and said, “By buying Jimmy John’s, you support the murder of elephants.”

I then had to sit through two hours of the people behind me talking about that statement and the merits of changing your shopping habits.

While it may be true that the owner of Jimmy John’s started big game hunting after making a lot of money from his business, I don’t feel I should be marginalized as inhumane because I wanted a sandwich.

While the pair behind me did make some excellent points–namely that, while it’s important to know where your money goes, you should also take social aspects such as current need, franchise owners, and local community into consideration–I really feel that they missed the bigger picture of the exchange. Which is simply: my bus mate’s flippant statement was uncalled for, unnecessary, and, frankly, pretty rude.

I appreciate people having opinions; it means they’re thinking about the world around them and forming ideas. What I don’t appreciate is when people spout those opinions to people who don’t want it.

If you want to raise awareness, fine. Hold a rally. Stage a protest. Provide the public with information in a non-confrontational way. But as I’ve pointed out before, being aware of things only goes so far. And I’ll even amend my previous statements by saying that there is certainly good awareness and bad awareness.

Good awareness makes people rethink how they do things and could lead to a change in behavior.

Bad awareness is condescensing statements about elephant murder that almost makes me want to give money directly to big game hunters.

To be perfectly honest, I don’t mind the fact that Jimmy John is a hunter. I’ve grown up in a small town in Minnesota, where people often hunted or fished for sport. Jimmy John had always been a sport hunter, hunting for elk, deer, geese, whatever happened to be in season. And now that he has the money, he’s able to expand his hunting horizons and find greater thrills in nature. And why should I hate him for that? If I made a bunch of money from starting a successful restaurant chain, I would definitely use my money for things I’m interested it. I’d probably buy studio time, I’d definitely travel, and I may purchase a bunch of music, or sporting event tickets.

I wouldn’t go big game hunting, not because I’m a die-hard animal activist, but rather because I have absolutely no interest in hunting. It doesn’t excite me like it does other people. I’m a pretty boring person and stay within my comfort zone most of the time.

For all facets of life–religion, politics, social causes–while it’s good to have opinions, keep them too yourself until there’s an appropriate time to share them. There is a very thin line between outspoken and overspoken.

Raising Awareness of Being Aware

Posted in opinion with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 1, 2010 by Kyle Fleming

Today begins National Problem Gambling Awareness Week. Did you know that a gambling addiction is just as detrimental as a drug addiction? It goes through all of the same steps: preoccupation, tolerance, withdrawal, escape, chasing, lying, loss of control, illegal acts, risked significant relationship, and bailout? Be responsible, and if you think you have a problem, call 1-800-BETS-OFF.

Last week was Eating Disorders Awareness Week on the Wartburg College campus. Did you know that each year, more than 8 million Americans are affected by serious and often life-threatening eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa, binge-eating, bulimia nervosa, compulsive eating, obesity and pica? It’s terrible!

Two weeks ago was Sexual Responsibility Week. Did you know that there are many risks to being sexually active, beyond STDs and pregnancy? Get tested, inform your partners, be safe!

Somewhere in between that was To Write Love On Her Arms Day, where people write the word “love” on their arm to raise awareness for depression and self-harm. It happens a couple of times a year, but it’s a great cause to show people just how much you care.

The only problem with these sorts of awareness days/weeks/months is that, as far as I know, nothing comes from them. I know I largely ignored the Sexual Responsibility Week, and I’m avidly against TWLOHAD, simply because I don’t see how writing on yourself is useful. And I largely ignored the Eating Disorders Awareness Week, mostly because I’m fasting (which, technically, could be considered a religious eating disorder), but also because I know that raising awareness is one thing, but doing something about it is another thing entirely.

There is an awareness day or week or month or whatever for nearly everything at this point, and yet what is really being done about it? Americans are all about wanting to help out in any way they can without really doing much effort. It’s why we throw money at victims of natural disasters, but rarely do we get up and help out. It would be inconvenient to get up and sacrifice some of your job hours to assist in a humanitarian effort.

Personally, all awareness periods do for me is make me more aware of why I’m not helping out with that particular cause. Mostly this is because I’m a firm believer in “people choose their own destiny.” I can help out until I’ve sacrificed everything, keel over, and die, but bottom line is, if the group I’m helping out isn’t willing to do their part, too, then it is all for naught.

Take, for example, sexaul responsibility. I can preach abstinence, safe sex, STDs, pregnancy, condoms, diaphragms, birth control pills, morning after pills, babies, doctors, and the entire reproductive system until I’m blue in the face, but there are still people who will not take personal responsibility for their sexual activities. What good have I done? I’ve made them aware of the repercussions, but unless I go out with them and watch over their shoulder, reminding them to be sexually responsible, it doesn’t mean anything if they don’t take it to heart.

Same thing goes with writing “love” on my arm. I’ll gladly write “love” all over my entire body if it would actually do something.  But I prefer to be an activist in the way of depression and self-harm assistance by actually going out, talking with those I’m concerned about, and personally being a listening ear, a gentle embrace, and a shoulder to cry on.

I’m very aware of how self-centered and self-serving this makes me sound, and in all honesty, I’m okay with it. I actively see to make a difference in the world, and I would gladly drop everything I’m doing to rush off to Haiti and help them rebuild. But the Hatian community has specifically said that they only want monetary assistance, leaving myself, a poor college student, with nothing to do. Any “extra cash” I happen to have needs to go toward tuition, books, food, supplies, etc.  Don’t get me wrong, if I had a lot of extra income and nothing to do with it, it will go toward charitable causes. But in my current position, there is nothing I can do.

And recent events has shown that awareness is a two-way street. The recent earthquake in Chile was far worse than the earthquake in Haiti in terms of magnitude (8.8 magnitude compared to Haiti’s 7.0). But no one is aware of that, because Chile is a well-developed nation that didn’t suffer as much structural or human damage as Haiti did. Which is why there are still commercials to help out Haiti, while Chile is being largely ignored. The Chilean people need help, too, but pictures from Chile aren’t as heartwrenching enough to warrant international coverage, unlike Haiti.

I guess the point I’m trying to make is that there is a difference between being aware of something and doing something. I’m aware of the people around me that are hurting or are in need. I see them every day, in person, on television, in magazines. But when I can, I do something about it. I’ll lend people money, I’ll drive people places, I’ll sit down and talk with someone if I have to. But I’m doing something more than just being aware, which, really, is the whole point in life.

Be aware, but also be active. You can throw all the statistics and money you want at a problem, but until you do something about it, nothing will change.