Sam Rosenberg: What it means to be an online activist

Sunday, October 8, 2017 - 8:40pm

The best of times and the worst of times. This is the world we’re living in, one anxiety-inducing headline after the next.

As our society looks like it’s gradually on the brink of destruction, we look to social media to give us answers to the many uncertainties that lie ahead. Considering how much social media affects our everyday lives, how exactly do we show that we care about the very things that threaten our existence? What is the most productive and efficient way of expressing our support for social causes, especially when so many bad things are happening at the same time?

Last week was particularly hit with an unprecedented amount of harrowing news. A gunman in Las Vegas unleashed what is considered the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history. After an initial false report, Tom Petty, one of the best and most respected musicians in rock history, was pronounced dead from cardiac arrest. Puerto Rico was still without power due to the catastrophic impact of Hurricane Maria, leaving hundreds helpless and without sustainable water supplies. As if that weren’t enough, other menacing current events have been building up in the past few weeks — North Korea is threatening to nuke the U.S., there’s national outrage over football players kneeling in protest of systemic racism (not the American flag or the national anthem), pop culture pariah O.J. Simpson is out of prison and hateful acts of racism and white supremacy keep appearing on our campus.

With all this in mind, it’s important to recognize the limitations of ordinary citizens of the world in online social activism. Unless you already have a strong online presence and happen to be an expert in composing viral-level tweets, it’s difficult to break through the online community when you haven’t accrued that level of social currency. However, more recently, politicians and celebrities have become beacons of hope for online social activism, with Lin-Manuel Miranda being one such example.

A known impassioned advocate for minorities and immigration rights, the “Hamilton” creator has been a huge asset in helping with the Hurricane Maria relief effort, constantly posting a donation link on his Twitter feed. Miranda has also utilized social media to promote a new hurricane relief single he produced with other Latinx celebrities like Gina Rodriguez, Marc Anthony and Camila Cabello called “Almost Like Praying” — the song currently has over 1 million views on YouTube, 31K likes and 14K retweets on Twitter and is #1 on the iTunes charts. Other celebrities, such as Mark Ruffalo, Ava DuVernay, Sarah Silverman and Laverne Cox, also participate in online social activism and have garnered praise for using their platform for the greater good.

Of course, when political and social issues do come into the foray of online discourse, it becomes harder to enjoy the pleasure of what makes the Internet such an entertaining place for so many. The polarization of political online discourse and activism has become one huge obstacle in discussing the issues most dear to us. A December 2016 poll from The Hill showcased this disappointing trend of “unfriending,” with 28 percent of liberals and 8 percent of conservatives saying they removed someone from their social media circle because of the content they posted. How can we reach other people with our activism when some will literally break off from our online sphere because of it?

There’s another glaring problem that many, including myself, seem to struggle with when it comes to advocating social issues online: Is everyone obligated to commit to a social cause once they discuss it on social media?

Let’s say, for example, another innocent Black person were shot and killed by a police officer. Would we be complicit in passive white supremacy if we didn’t write a status about it and saying that Black Lives Matter? If we don’t post anything on social media about what’s happening in the world at all, will our friends think we don’t care? Is sharing a NowThis video or an article from The Atlantic enough?

Apathy and passively supporting a social cause are both dangerous and empty, but I fear that the extreme opposite may also lead to just as much backlash. For instance, someone who intensely advocates for social issues online is often labeled a “social justice warrior,” a complimentary-turned-pejorative term that describes individuals with steadfast progressive views. SJWs are criticized not only for their defiant standing on identity politics and multiculturalist views, but also for employing counterproductive behaviors in order to boost their own personal validation and credibility. In my mind, finding the balance between the apathetic and the overly compassionate is the hardest part of online social activism.

Given all these dilemmas, the way I look at it is we could do one of two things.

We could isolate ourselves, plug in our headphones, listen to the new album by The National on repeat and wallow in our sadness over how desensitized we’ve become to everyday tragedies.

Or we could filter out all the online bullshit by educating ourselves on important issues, keeping up with current trends, reading articles that challenge our inherent biases, donating to important causes and relief funds and engaging in dialogue with our friends and family.

There’s no law obligating us to do all those things, and it would be quite the remarkable achievement if we did. Our efforts may never be enough, and I may just be an idealist. But as long as we at least engage in some way, whether online or offline, then we will have lived our lives knowing that we at least did something.

In the wake of all the horrible events that occurred just last week, I attempted to write a Facebook status that captured the essence of how terrible I felt seeing these things happen. But I felt it was impossible to coherently interweave everything that had happened — Tom Petty’s death, the Las Vegas shooting, Puerto Rico’s power outage — without writing a lengthy paragraph that maybe only a few people would read in its entirety and several people would just click the “like” button. I decided not to post anything, fearing that it would just be swallowed in the stream of other similar Facebook statuses. Sometimes, composing a Facebook status, tweeting a tweet or creating an Instagram post isn’t enough, especially when the only people who will read it are people whose views most likely align with your own.

Social media can be a very important outlet to show we are social activists, but it’s not the only outlet. Seeing how pregnant reality stars seem to make more eye-grabbing news than hurricane relief efforts, we must take the time to understand the nuances that make up what matters most to us. It takes a certain level of patience and hard work to get people to care, and to show them that you care. It may not matter in the end, but being an online activist at least shows the necessity for making a difference in the world.