4 minute read

#NotWorking

Real social change does not end with a smartphone.

Text, Artwork and Layout by Mathilde Requier

A gradient pastel-colored infographic will not end the racist murders of Asian Americans in the United States. A hashtag will not remedy the disastrous effects of climate change.

Social media advocacy has drastically grown in popularity over the years with the rise of social justice movements such as the Black Lives Matter movement, the #MeToo movement and the #StopAsianHate movement. These social media posts, groups, hashtags, etc., can raise awareness on social, political and economic issues, but they often fail to create direct change. While it would be a mistake to put down all forms of social media advocacy, the activity encountered on social media platforms is often lazy and ineffective and may even invalidate real efforts to institute change.

It is one thing to show support for a cause and to try to bring awareness through allyship and advocacy. But in order to institute real change, these actions must work hand-in-hand with activism.

And that’s where social media advocacy fails, as it offers no real incentive for change and becomes merely performative, or being done just for show. Maybe you’re reposting an image to create awareness about a cause, but ask yourself this: Did you donate to that cause? Did you think about the changes you can make in your life to make a difference? Did you send a letter to your local representative about this issue? Did you volunteer at an organization that supports this cause?

Subconsciously, when you choose not to take action for a cause, and you instead just repost something to show your support, you are simply posting to make yourself look moralistic. It becomes more about broadcasting your identity and your ethics than about benefiting a cause.

Maybe you aren’t simply doing it for yourself; maybe you just want to go along with what others are doing on your page. Or maybe you genuinely care about the cause and want to show your alliance with it. Whatever it is, this banalization of posting on social media with no action behind it, in a mindless manner, is dangerous. It produces a feeling of satisfaction, while doing almost nothing to help a cause, and does not incentivize the user to do more. This widespread posting then further desensitizes those affected by the issue at hand.

In addition, content with the sole purpose of increasing awareness or advocating for a particular issue is dangerous, as it can be a breeding ground for misinformation. News stories recreated on social media often do not tell the full story. This can be caused by the character limits on the social media platform, or by bias in the articles themselves. Creators of this content often want to push the idea that the social issue they are writing about is urgent, which makes sense, but it can also create a one-sided story that is then mistaken for real news information.

These kinds of social media posts are also often transmitted through random users, with limited sources or none at all, and sometimes no way to trace the information back to its original author. This is worrying, especially given the speed at which these posts can be passed around on social media without anyone taking the time to check the facts. This kind of misinformation can be disguised more easily too, because it indicates support for a cause; if a reader supports that cause, they might be more likely to accept the mistruth because it aligns with their own values and beliefs.

Generally speaking, the goal of advocacy is to persuade individuals to care about a specific issue. However, social media advocacy simply appeals to people who care about the issue already, which then alienates individuals who are not on board, and can even end up alienating them further. 

So how can you use social media to have a truly positive effect on an issue you care about? Next time you post, try to think about the role real activism can play in addressing this issue. In other words, try to think of direct change. This can be accomplished by organizing and posting about upcoming marches, protests and petitions, as well as fundraisers or organizations to support. 

If you would like to advocate for a cause, try to support specific activists, or to do so in a manner that offers a fresh take on the issue or is backed by an initiative to act. Productive advocacy posts include voicing personal stories relating to the social cause, such as how the voices of the #MeToo movement shared their experiences with sexual harassment and violence, or recommending specific movies, books and news articles to people who might be interested in learning more. If you are simply reposting an advocacy post, think about whether or not that post simply preaches to the choir, or could persuade someone who disagrees. 

All in all, however, if you truly care about an issue, remember that the most productive work often happens offline and without an audience, by donating money, volunteering your time, protesting and more. Advocacy on the internet will not change the world — only your actions and efforts in real life will do so.