Online activism isn’t all about the reach
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 criminal 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 is 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.