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Malinauskas: Social media activism is unproductive without a specific ‘call to action’

Arturas Malinauskas, Columnist

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Glamorous photos, cute pets, “dank memes” and updates from friends — those four categories compose about 80 percent of the content I see on Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter and Instagram. Occasionally, I encounter serious content with a purpose, and I appreciate the civically engaged individuals that bring attention to recent world crises or politicians’ misdeeds. However, the ability to discuss issues online en masse has led activists and humanitarian organizations to behave as though broad social media awareness will equate to change on an issue.

I have increasingly seen organizations turn to social media to gain public support for actions leaders are moving slowly on. Earlier this week, the United Nations held the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul. The goal of the conference was to address the major refugee crises the world is currently facing. More than 59 million people globally have been forcibly displaced due to conflict or natural disaster — the highest levels of displacement since World War II. Absent from the conference were President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin, greatly reducing its potential impact.

So what did the Humanitarian Summit suggest as a plan of action? People who want to be involved were told by the summit’s website to tweet at their leaders to support action on humanitarian aid. But the event didn’t even make it to Twitter’s Moments page, where top global stories of the day are compiled, nor did many people tweet at Obama to support action. It’s clear from the lack of response that general calls for support do not result in productive dialogue or change.

Even the White House has turned to Twitter to consolidate support for Obama’s actions. The White House created the account @SCOTUSnom to tweet support for
Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland, whose confirmation has stalled for over two months. No post by @SCOTUSnom has more than 10,000 likes. In comparison, Dillo performer ScHoolboy Q got more than 10,000 likes on a tweet promoting his last music video. Social media is mostly used by young people who are less likely to be consistently informed regarding global issues, often preferring to see neat facts and quick-hit jokes online. For this reason it’s ineffective to use social media as a platform to measure the population’s true support of an issue.

Generic messages that ask people to generate discussion about a topic or promote a certain viewpoint are ineffective. Without a trove of knowledge on issues like climate change or refugee crises, most social media users are unable to adequately communicate and discuss complex subjects, even if they want to address issues they find important. If human trafficking or world hunger were simple issues to talk about, they would also be easier to resolve.

This reality is not new, yet we have failed to learn from our failed attempts at arm-chair activism. Remember Kony 2012? The viral video was aimed at stopping the Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony who routinely abducted children and employed them as soldiers. However, foreign interventions in Africa are complicated diplomatic matters, which makes it difficult for the public to discuss it in an informed and constructive manner. To this day Kony is still at large. It is commendable that social media made many people aware of the harsh conditions some children are enduring. However, the awareness and controversy surrounding the campaign did not result in any successful action to address the situation.

Direct calls to action are necessary to successfully harness the power of social media. Take the ALS ice bucket challenge, a simple but direct challenge that asked people to post a video of themselves pouring ice water on themselves or donate money for ALS research. This concentrated message helped raise $115 million dollars in 2014. The simplicity of the message and the premise of donating money to fund treatment is easy to understand, allowing the campaign to thrive on social media. The internet is a powerful tool for organization and communication because it connects us to one another. We can have direct insight into the lives of those experiencing crises or institutional transgressions, but it takes a deliberate and specific call to action to utilize the internet for its full potential to improve the world.

Arturas Malinauskas is a McCormick freshman. He can be contacted at arturasmalinauskas2019@u.northwestern.edu. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.

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