Section: Opinion

Virtue signaling and the dangers of social media activism

Right now in America, political issues are piling up: police brutality, gun control, climate change, women’s rights. Yet it seems that many of us, while working ourselves into a frenzy of texting and tweeting and posting on Instagram, are fooling ourselves: All that tapping on screens is just cyber-distraction. It’s far too easy to slouch on the couch, pat ourselves on the back for our snappy little rants and shuffle off to sleep.

Slacktivism—understood in this context as a hollow show of support for a cause or issue—is no substitute for honest and substantive activism: the sort of face-to-face, roll-up-your-sleeves engagement this country’s progress has been built upon.

On Earth Day, instead of calling our representatives to make sure America stays in the Paris Climate Accord, many of us posted a collage of our most beautiful photos on Instagram, all captioned with pro-climate sentiment. Or, after the Parkland shooting, we took to Twitter, typing out #thoughtsandprayers instead of registering voters to elect a new class of representatives who will pass gun legislation that will let kids go to school feeling safe.

Even on the day of the Women’s March, we showed up, made signs and marched our hearts out—but how many of us were more focused on if our signs were Insta-ready rather than on the meaning behind them? These posts seem to be more motivated by making ourselves look good—or feel good—than actually driving change.

The danger of slacktivism—if it ends at the couch—is that it boils down to do-nothingism. It creates the facade of social progress.

Here at Kenyon, we can’t afford to stay glued to our couches. We’re sitting in the middle of a critical swing state—the Buckeye State has earned its reputation as the Presidential bellwether, voting for the winner of the past 14 presidential elections since 1964, the longest such streak of any state—and if you want your blue to bleed beyond our borders, we need to move beyond 43022. Knock on doors, do some listening and make convincing arguments. Too much is at stake in the next election, and the Ohio Democratic primary is a mere three months away.

I’ll admit texting may be a smart first step—a call to consciousness. Marching is better than just texting or tapping away on social media. You have to get off the couch, take to the streets and make your presence felt to show your movement has collective strength.

Look at Hong Kong, Paris and Chile, where marchers have had a big impact. However marching can’t be the final step; it demands—and, at best, inspires—follow-through. The Women’s March, for instance, contributed to an increased number of women running for Congress, and more women than ever were elected as representatives.

Another wrinkle in the current political landscape is that social media allows citizens to be surrounded by like-minded people, again creating a false sense of progress. In the 2016 presidential election, a significant factor in President Trump’s victory was this phenomenon, called “the Facebook Bubble.” Many liberals’ Facebook and Instagram feeds were flooded with the like-minded views of their Facebook friends. People would then be tricked into thinking everyone around them held the same views.

Nikki Layser, a media studies professor at The George Washington University (D.C.), calls it “mass self-communication,” and stated: “Not just the people you see in real life, but that girl from high school you never really got along with but who agrees with your opinions today.”

Social media has become an echo chamber, where much of Facebook and Twitter is bringing like-minded articles to your feed because that is how their algorithms work.

This polarization is a true problem with Kenyon students right now. Outside the Gambier bubble, there is a wide variety of opinions that are not represented by Kenyon students. Exploring a more diverse array of political ideologies could not only help lessen the polarization our country faces, but will also expose us to the actual progress being made on these issues, not just our own self-filtered view of what is happening.

Despite the spike in participation in marches in the last few years, voting participation among American youth is consistently very low, in 2016 only 46.1 percent of 18 to 29 year olds voted, meaning the push to change laws is lacking where it counts: in the voting booth.

Due to the current youth activism in America—activism that relies on social media and mass marches—a political echo chamber is forming, one that creates a facade of progress and fails to create substantial legislative change. If these youth activists aren’t able to drive the change that is needed in this society, the critical issues of climate change, removing protections for DACA recipients and police brutality will continue on with no end.

The problems facing our society—matters of justice and fairness, of life and death—are important and must be addressed. Activism cannot just be cathartic for the participant, but rather it must have the end goal of changing hearts and minds for the better. If you want a change to be made in 2020, don’t just post—get out there and vote.

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