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ON THE FRONT LINES: Social media activism often misses purpose

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We live in restless times. As we approach another presidential election, it seems as if no one is happy. 

Some segments of the American public are more than eager for the sitting President Donald J. Trump to leave office (whether by vote or by impeachment), and others feel his term has been sabotaged from the beginning. 

The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. We are working longer hours for less pay, and the fever we have caused the Earth threatens to boil us alive more seriously every day.

No matter who we are, we are anxious for change. Approximately 4 million people participated in protests around the world last month, coordinated by massive social media campaigns demanding scientifically-backed action regarding climate change, according to the BBC

It was ahead of a United Nations (UN) summit, a meeting of the greatest powers in the world with protesters in New York nearly knocking on the doors of the meeting rooms. But no landmark legislation was passed. Despite nearly constant pressure by activists for years at this point, action regarding climate change is still far from what it needs to be. 

One of many victims of police brutality, Eric Garner, was killed in 2014 by New York City Police Department officer Daniel Pantaleo, while gasping “I can’t breathe” in his final moments. The incident was caught clearly on video and shared around social media and the medical examiner ruled his death a homicide

Yet it took five years of thousands of protesters chanting his last words, his family sitting through multiple court cases and subsequent police violence incidents across the country for the Department of Justice to decide that it would not bring criminal charges against Pantaleo. 

The Women’s March has become an annual event that has brought together millions in total to protest for women’s rights. It has become an all-encapsulating event that was further emboldened by the online "Me Too" movement, and has inspired participation from countless celebrities, many corporations and has included people of all ages from all backgrounds, in a showing of solidarity and a demand for equal treatment of women. 

And yet this year, multiple states passed bills mandating stricter limits or outright bans on abortion.

I could go on listing examples in which people came together for change only to receive nothing in return. “Taking to the streets” used to mean something, and it actually used to do something too. 

The storied civil rights movement coordinated millions across the country who marched took to the streets and boycotted the Montgomery, Alabama, transit system for more than a year, all without a single Facebook event created nor Twitter thread retweeted.

This article is not arguing that social media is a detriment to all civic engagement. Quite the opposite, actually, as there are likely thousands of people who would have never gotten out of the house and protested for a better tomorrow, if they had not gotten invited to it on Facebook or seen a particularly compelling plea on Twitter. 

But this is where our activism ends. We will change our profile pictures or send out a hashtag showing our solidarity, yet we will feel at a loss to do more, or perhaps unwilling. Speak at a school board meeting? No, I can not do that. It is too much. 

How many would have attended the climate march if it involved more than a brisk walk and an opportunity to flex on Instagram?

Malcolm Gladwell has a great piece on social media and activism that explores in more detail why so many modern movements have fallen short of meaningful change and action from leaders. The short summarization is that real activism is hard, and often dangerous. 

During the Mississippi Freedom Summer Project of 1964, “three volunteers … were kidnapped and killed, and, during the rest of the summer, 37 Black churches were set on fire and dozens of safe houses were bombed. Volunteers were beaten, shot at, arrested and trailed by pickup trucks full of armed men.” 

They were not taking pictures for Instagram, and they did not get convinced to embark on this mission by a Facebook invite or a Twitter thread.

This is the part where the article falls short. I cannot sit here and think, let alone tell you, that everyone should go out and start firebombing the nearest petroleum plant in protest of climate change, or put a gun to the head of their Congressperson to demand equal rights for women. 

In fact, as I sit in my comfy chair at home and type out this article, that I will feel very self-righteous about tomorrow, I am committing the same crime that this article condemns. 

That irony is not lost on me. I only ask you this: The next time you exercise your right to civic engagement, think deeply about your convictions. 

Have you done the work for this cause that you feel is justified for its importance? Not every cause can command every second of your attention for every day and the number of Instagram posts you make will not determine your impact on the cause. 

The activists that orchestrated the greatest social movements of our time were not remembered for, and will never be measured by who saw them there or how many friends they brought, yet solely and most importantly by the strength of their convictions.

Dustin Niles is a School of Arts and Sciences senior majoring in journalism and media studies. He is the photo editor at The Daily Targum.

*Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff.

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