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When the Paris terror attacks occurred this past winter, my newsfeed was littered with blue, white and red overlaid profile pictures, posts about how horrific the attacks were and stories reminiscing about time spent in Paris. Something about this heartfelt gesture of support to the victims of this event made me avoid social media for the next few days. What was it about the virtual support that made me so bitter?
To begin, I was doubtful of how genuine these posts really were. It seemed to me that people were posting these things because we want in on the sympathy when tragedy strikes. It’s normal to feel for a country — or anyone — in grief, but do we really need to make it all about ourselves and our summers abroad in Paris? It’s a selfish exploitation of disaster.
But upon further reflection, I concluded that my frustration was rooted in the notion that attempts to bring an issue into public attention were really causing ignorance. This Facebook feature, the French flags, was all we saw the whole week — and so that’s all we saw. No one cared that other attacks occurred around the world the day before, or almost every single day before that. The year 2015 saw countless deadly attacks, and yet we were all fixated on just this one. Have we given up on caring about death in Africa or the Middle East? But, of course, since people have done their part to fight terrorism by saying something about it on Facebook, there’s no need to worry about it anymore…
This is what armchair activism is — voicing support over the internet but actually doing nothing in support of the cause.
I’ll contend that the internet is a fantastic starting point for activism, as it raises awareness about serious issues we may not be exposed to on our own. Generating passion and an urge to act is the first step to making a difference. But it shouldn’t stop there. Activism is a two-step process: Step one can occur from the comfort of your armchair, but step two must involve action (and not just the tippity-tapping of those phalanges).
The most successful political movements in the internet age have used that two-step process. Social media was one factor in facilitating political conversations and brought people to act during the Arab Spring in 2011. Blogs and social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, kept citizens connected and distributed information that the media couldn’t keep up with or wouldn’t share. It was where people could connect over distance and become a unified community to bring about social and political change.
In 2014, students in Taiwan stormed the legislature to protest liberal trade agreements with China that would threaten the autonomy of Taiwanese economic and political culture. More than half a million Taiwanese citizens were drawn to the streets to support the movement that would later be known as the Sunflower Movement. This level of engagement would not have been possible without social media facilitation. The students who occupied the legislature sent out calls to action and press releases over Twitter, Facebook and Reddit. They demonstrated tremendous organization and took advantage of the rapid transmission of information to gather awareness of their cause and, above all, organize protest. Since the three-week occupation, Taiwan’s political engagement has shifted, and citizens are more unwilling than ever to let the government hurt Taiwanese sovereignty and integrity.
These are all cases where social media was used to support direct action — it wasn’t used as the form of activism. Citizens didn’t just voice their opinion or share a post then stretch back, brush off their palms and called it a day. They did more. It’s almost offensive to believe that a person’s social media share or like or blog post has the same impact as being physically present, heard and seen in action.
But I can sympathize with the modern condition where we feel overwhelmed and bombarded with new and tragic causes to support. You cannot scroll more than a few inches without being hit with guilt over some inequality or political cause that you know is worthy but you don’t know how to tackle. There is something alienating about all the dismal news in the world. If it isn’t directly impacting us, we have a hard time feeling passion for it because we’re separated from it by a screen. We are desensitized from horror and tragedy because it has become a casual conversation starter. There is so much going on that it really is easier to distance and forget. So I suppose that’s why we share these causes. Because although we may not know how to be of service in times of crisis, we are hoping that maybe someone else might.
When we stop thinking about helping the cause (whatever it may be) and start thinking about how the cause can help our reputation, we’re abusing it. Activism is a two-step process, and when we forget the second, the first becomes useless.