See No Evil: How social media hinders physical activism

3 minutes to read

“By giving people the power to share, we’re making the world more transparent.” – Mark Zuckerberg.

When yet another rocket that will vaporise anything in its immediate impact zone is launched, the impact is devastating. People a little further away will be killed by the repercussions of the attack. And that’s just the first few seconds; it won’t be the only deaths is causes. The relatives and loved ones of all the innocents who fell under that rocket’s red glare will take up arms against the people who fired it, and the cycle of killing will continue.

Ten thousand kilometres away, somebody will see a fragment of all this pain and suffering, tweet a horrified response under #PrayForAleppo, and go to bed.

Expressing solidarity with causes on social media has become an expectation. People can check in at Standing Rock, add a rainbow or the Tricolore to their profile pictures, and Pray For Aleppo/Paris, Berlin. We do these things for a number of reasons; to assuage our consciences, parse an issue we find difficult to understand, or out of a genuine desire to raise awareness and express our thoughts on the matter. But this habit is unhelpful at best and reductive at worst.

A memorial for the victims of the Pulse Nightclub shooting, an incident that became the object of wide-spread social media activism. Source.

A study by the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business has found that people who are more vocal in their support of an issue on social media are less likely to contribute to solving the problem in any material sense –  i.e. charitable donations or volunteer work.

“If charities run public token campaigns under the belief that they lead to meaningful support, they may be sacrificing their precious resources in vain,” said PhD student Kirk Kristofferson, co-author of the paper.  “If the goal is to generate real support, public facing social media campaigns may be a mistake.”

Worse than simply being unhelpful is the potential for social media ‘activism’ to become reductive of the people it’s supposed to support. An issue can be wrested away from the group it effects – many of the thought pieces and posts penned following a tragedy aren’t about the victims, but how the author feels.

When you tweet but don’t do anything else. Source.

When we post, we feel like we’ve done something; ‘raised awareness’ or contributed to the discussion, whatever that is. But if we really want to help people caught in horrible situations, we need to do more than talk and add rainbows to our profile pictures. Make donations, volunteer in aid efforts, and learn about the root cause of the issues we’re busy posting about.

Mark Zuckerberg, in attempting to outline Facebook’s business model, once told a group of investors that, ‘a squirrel dying in front of your house may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa.’

Some critics of the company found this idea uncomfortable; after all, we might never focus on anything but the squirrel. But the issue turned out to be that we would see suffering –  on an unprecedented scale – and do nothing about it.