Be an activitist, not a clicktivist

By Pearl Benjamin | Aug 29, 2019

Modern activism comes in many forms. Some activists host marches and protests, some meet with their legislators and help to draft bills. Some take to the streets and volunteer within communities, and others knock on doors for their favorite candidates. Some activists do everything all at once. But what makes these activists effective?

Recently I’ve been hearing a lot of complaints about “social media activists” – people whose main claim to working for the greater good is posting on Instagram or Facebook. I’ve made complaints about these people myself – I hate it when my peers republish Instagram stories about the Amazon burning or the latest mass shooting and then neglect to show up to rallies, donate to conservation foundations or contact their legislators. It seems like they want to feel righteous and progressive, but don’t want to put in any work. It’s hard to tell whether these people actually care about the issues or simply like the feeling of being on the right side. But after consulting some of my peers and fellow social media users, I’ve come to believe that most “internet activists” do actually care about current issues – they simply aren’t sure what action to take.

We can’t blame our friends and family members for blasting their opinions all over the internet. For one thing, it usually doesn’t do any harm. Spreading awareness about an issue is an important part of activism. When the information being shared is accurate, social media can be an incredibly powerful tool for advocacy. We also can’t blame these Snapchat saviors because it’s unlikely that they’ve been given an alternative action to posting on social media.

We can’t expect everyone to know how to make the biggest impact on a serious issue. It is up to experts, educators and experienced advocates to provide our posting protesters with real, concrete actions to take. And finally, we can’t blame the internet activists if we are doing the very same thing on our own social media pages. I take to my instagram story almost every week to broadcast my opinions on current issues, and I’ve been called out for it, too. We all have the right to let the world know that we care, so why shouldn’t we? Using social media to vent our frustrations and anguish with the state of our world can feel good, but if we want it to actually do good, those rants need to be paired with solid action.

Before posting about a current issue that you’re passionate about on instagram or Facebook, try to go through a checklist to make sure you’re having the right kind of impact. First, make sure that the information you’re about to post is accurate. Spreading awareness doesn’t do much good if you’re spreading false information, so make sure to check your sources first – especially if you’re reposting something with a piece of information you weren’t aware of until seeing that viral post.

A few months ago there was a meme that my friends were posting all over the place that began with the sentence: “As some of you may know, if we don’t stop pollution, then in about 12 years, the human race will come to an end.” I was outraged not only by the fact that this alarmingly false piece of information existed, but that it was spreading around the internet like wildfire. I was angry and upset at my friends for reposting it, but then I realized that, sadly, what I knew to be true about the climate change catastrophe wasn’t exactly common knowledge.

So I explained to some of my friends and followers that, no, the human race is not going to end in 12 years and it will likely outlive the impacts of climate change, albeit miserably. I explained to them that the 12-year mark’s significance came from the IPCC’s report, which stated that we have approximately 12 years to halve worldwide carbon emissions before we face irreversible consequences. My knowledge was received well, and since then I have always been sure not only to provide my own input gracefully, but also to be open to others’ corrections on my own interpretations as well. I’ve faced criticism for my online opinions, and I can now accept and learn from it.

After you’re sure that the information you’re posting is accurate, make sure it’s relevant. Will your followers be learning something new from viewing this post? Will they be gaining perspective? Will they be pushed to take further action? Sometimes I’ll see reposts on Instagram that claim “for every republish on this post, we’ll feed one hungry child in Sudan,” or, “for every republish on this post, we’ll plant 1,000 trees!” First of all, no they won’t. If the people behind those Instagram accounts could afford to feed all those children or plant all those trees, they would have done it already without asking for social media attention. These kinds of posts are designed to make people feel like they’re making a real difference just by clicking a button. They’re promoting lazy advocacy and clicktivism without spreading any valuable information at all. They’re alluring, but false. Making a difference takes much more work than reposting a graphic. And no major crisis was ever solved by simply clicking a button.

If what you’re about to post is both accurate and relevant, make sure that you have already taken a concrete action to better the issue before you broadcast opinions about it. This is the most important part of internet activism – you have to walk the walk before you post the post. Before you post that article about the Amazon burning, have you donated to the Rainforest Action Network, Rainforest Trust, or the Amazon Conservation Team? Before you post a meme about gun violence prevention, have you emailed your local legislators who voted against 10 gun control bills recently? Before you rant about the crisis in Sudan or the ICE raids at the southern border, did you volunteer your time to help Maine’s newest residents at the Portland Expo Center this summer? Have you signed up to host immigrant families as they settle into their new country? If not, remember: the more work you put into your activism, the more impact it will have.

Staying active and involved in our current political climate is tough, and sometimes it feels like we have to put activism on the back burner until we’re done filling out our college applications or lining up our summer jobs. But we must remember that most of us are privileged not to be affected by these issues, and that there are millions of people who have no choice but to be activists every moment of their lives.

We can’t be indifferent, we can’t be numb, and we can’t accept minimal-effort activism. Our country and our planet are facing some big problems right now. It’s completely natural to be angry and anxious. It’s natural to want to rant about it all. But here’s the thing: if we want the things we rant about to change, we have to be willing to do far more than just click. We have to be willing to work for what we believe in, and only then can we rant freely.

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Comments (2)
Posted by: Lucinda Lang | Aug 30, 2019 11:43

Thank you for this piece, Pearl Benjamin.   NOW how do we actually get people to actually get off of these addictive phones and computers and FB and Instagram ?   I agree that if a person is not part of a solution then they are part of the problem.

Posted by: Richard McKusic, Sr. | Aug 29, 2019 15:28

Pearl, You are absolutely right: Don't talk it unless you walk it.  

"If what you’re about to post is both accurate and relevant, make sure that you have already taken a concrete action to better the issue before you broadcast opinions about it. This is the most important part of internet activism – you have to walk the walk before you post the post."

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