Author: Andrea Tuemmler
During the week after Nov. 12, online activism took Facebook and other social media platforms by storm. Red, white and blue filters covered profile pictures in response to the ISIS attack in Paris, and thousands of students across the nation posted statuses in solidarity with the students of the University of Missouri. Within a few days, Occidental students organized protests and debated each other on Facebook. The events of the past few weeks have highlighted how social media enables a lazy form of activism, requiring nothing more than pressing “share.” However, they have also shown how social media is integral to how information is spread and how it has the power to combat disengaged “slacktivism” by shaping a platform for dialogue in which anyone can participate.
The occupation of the Arthur G. Coons Administrative Building (AGC) is an example of how social media allowed so-called “passive” Facebook activism to have real world impacts. When hundreds of students changed their statuses in support of the Mizzou movement, they were criticized by many for making a relatively empty statement that, while heartening, could be made with no commitment, and failed to oblige anyone to take action.
Yet students also used Facebook to channel this momentum on campus. They communicated and organized events, sharing information about walk-outs, sit-ins and news articles covering the AGC occupation. Even those not actively participating in the protests were unable to avoid being confronted by information and active debate.
While this process was at times uncomfortable when friends and classmates disagreed, and by no means did it force participation, it encouraged people on both sides to examine and better articulate their beliefs or change their minds. Some students, whether on their own pages or via anonymous platforms like Oxy Confessions, expressed doubts and concerns. These posts provided an opportunity to both have questions answered and views questioned, which was necessary for the movement to change to incorporate different ideas and experiences. Social media was not just a forum for posting empty calls to action, but rather a platform for organizing, discussing and being challenged.
That same week, news of another terrorist attack that left 147 dead at a university in Kenya went viral over social media posts meant to shame the media’s focus on Western tragedies. However, the attack actually occurred in April. Irony aside, the rapid spread of this article shows how powerful and virulent information spread on social media can be. The terrorist attacks in Kenya are now widely known, and they were brought to attention not by traditional news outlets, who had reported the attacks when they first occurred, but by the power of social media.
Facebook, Twitter and other platforms have enormous power over what media gets consumed and which issues get attention, but social media is just a reflection (and magnification) of our collective consciousness. Rather than blaming Facebook for allowing “lazy” activism, it is important to realize that readers bear the burden of responsibility for what they share and advocate. This responsibility is significant, since “trends” on Facebook shape how people interact with their world and what issues they care about.
Without social media, the plight of the 147 victims in Kenya would remain relatively unknown. That information should have been known sooner, but it was only because of Facebook that it did, eventually, become part of the public discourse on the global threat of terrorism. So, too, did Facebook filters help alert the world that other countries such as Iraq and Lebanon, not just France, had been wounded by ISIS attacks Nov. 13. The spread of information influences how people think, vote and act and this spread is not immune from the power of a viral Facebook post.
Changing a status or a profile picture may seem like a powerless, even cowardly, act in the face of very real threats like terrorism or racism. However, social media gives that small act power to shape the way in which we view and interact with the world.
Andrea Tuemmler is a junior Diplomacy and World Affairs major. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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