On­line ac­tivism isn’t all about the reach

The Compass - - Editorial - Rus­sell Wanger­sky Eastern Pas­sages Rus­sell Wanger­sky’s col­umn ap­pears in 39 SaltWire news­pa­pers and web­sites in Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at rwanger@thetele­gram. com — Twit­ter: @wanger­sky.

Years ago, it was The Anar­chist Cookbook. In the dark ages be­fore ab­so­lutely ev­ery­thing was avail­able on the in­ter­net, it was an oft-pho­to­copied vol­ume of home-built ex­plo­sives and other tools. It was a coun­ter­cul­ture prod­uct of op­po­si­tion to the Viet­nam War, and, as teens, we reg­u­larly heard how dangerous some of its con­coc­tions were, and that even pos­ses­sion of the thing was a sup­pos­edly crime act. So, of course, we had to have copies, found them through the fledg­ling Usenet, printed them on dot-ma­trix print­ers and even­tu­ally did stupid and dangerous things.

Now, I think it’s time for a so­cial me­dia ac­tivists’ cookbook.

So­cial me­dia has taken ac­tivism a big step for­ward be­cause (sorry to say it like this) in ad­di­tion to hav­ing great reach, it’s also much more ef­fort­less and can take far less time.

Or­ga­ni­za­tion isn’t as dif­fi­cult as a phone tree or putting up posters in the cold and snow: it can be sit­ting at a computer key­board.

Some are hugely suc­cess­ful: the women’s march after Don­ald Trump’s elec­tion is a good ex­am­ple of the sheer power of the in­ter­net as a way to demon­strate pub­lic sup­port.

But for ev­ery huge suc­cess, there are small fail­ures.

So­cial me­dia may be a pow­er­ful tool, but, just like when you use a router or a lathe, you have to watch your fin­gers.

As an out­side ob­server, here are what I be­lieve should be the eas­i­est ac­ci­dents to avoid.

Don’t re­act to ev­ery sin­gle thing that’s in your bat­ting range.

You may want to, but don’t. You are what you eat – well, you are what you post, any­way. It’s great to be first with a link to a top­i­cal piece on your favourite is­sue. But some­times be­ing first means hit­ting send be­fore you’ve even fully read or thought about what you’re putting up there. Grab ev­ery­thing that moves on your trade­mark topic – gov­ern­ment in­ac­tion, the in­equity of the jus­tice sys­tem, com­bat­ting the pa­tri­archy, or what­ever — and you run the risk of be­com­ing an echo, adding lit­tle to the de­bate.

And more: you’re not just post­ing links as you retweet and re­post: you’re also defin­ing your on­line per­son­al­ity, and that’s a copy­book that it’s easy to blot.

I’m paid to mon­i­tor the news, I start re­ally, re­ally early in the morn­ing, and it’s reached a point now where I can watch a story ap­pear in my feeds, and know in ad­vance not only who in my so­cial me­dia com­mu­nity will re­post it, but also what their posted re­ac­tion will be. When that re­ac­tion be­comes con­stant and al­most knee­jerk pre­dictable, I mute them: they’re not adding to the ar­gu­ment, they’re sim­ply re­broad­cast­ing. I need more than “Can you be­lieve this?” re­peated 20 or 30 times: valu­able com­mit­ted ac­tivists are be­com­ing trans­mis­sion tow­ers for some­one else’s sig­nal.

It’s marvelous to be the ac­tivist ca­nary in the coal mine. (Sorry, re­ally bad ex­am­ple there. The only time the ca­nary is suc­cess­ful at its job is when it, well, dies.) But it’s also dangerous to be an am­pli­fier in a feed­back loop, es­pe­cially if you ac­ci­den­tally am­plify some­thing wrong or out­right dangerous.

(There’s also the Chicken Lit­tle prob­lem: the longer you tell me the sky is fall­ing, the less likely I’ll be­lieve you, and the more out­ra­geous you’ll have to be to get my at­ten­tion back.)

Don’t get me wrong: so­cial me­dia does give peo­ple the tools to do good work, to do a type of ac­tivism that wasn’t pos­si­ble be­fore so­cial me­dia ar­rived.

But good work is hard work, too. Peo­ple only get out of it what you put in.

Too of­ten, too lit­tle ef­fort — and orig­i­nal thought — is go­ing in.

Wide reach and lit­tle thought? It’s a dangerous mix.

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