The term activism can encompass a wide range of interpretations as we can attest by the varied discussions that were shared this past week in our EC&I 831 small group discussions. Wikipedia starts its description of activism in the following way:
Activism consists of efforts to promote, impede, direct, or intervene in social, political, economic, or environmental reform with the desire to make changes in society.
As social media has taken an ever-increasing priority in the daily lives of an swelling segment of the population, it’s only natural that the idea of activism has established itself into it. Human nature leads us toward wanting a better world that better reflects our personal values and our personal situations. As the internet has become almost ubiquitous in all corners of the world, the panoply of values and opinions ranges all walks of life. From human rights to religious beliefs, from art to culture, the internet and social media provides a medium that allows society to debate and thus continually evolve the social contract.
When it comes to the idea of social justice in the online world, an uncountable amount of initiatives are continuously fighting for our attention. By the difficult to understand voodoo of social media and viral campaigns, certain initiatives gain notoriety and affix themselves in the psyche of popular culture. Here are a few examples of initiative that have certainly crossed your social media feed just to name a few:
- The Ice Bucket Challenge
- Idle No More
- Black Lives Matter
- Kony 2012
- The Arab Spring
- The Hong Kong Protests
- Occupy Wallstreet
As these online initiatives fight for your attention, others important initiatives fall through the cracks and never gain your attention. This reality in an unfortunate part of social media in that with the current structure provided by the big social media frameworks, media and information is being tailored for audiences thus providing a certain filter that can easily blind individuals to the true depth and complexity that makes up many social justice issues. As Zeynet Tufekci from Scientific American elaborates in his article: YouTube’s Recommendation Algorithm Has a Dark Side, the algorithm that recommends content from YouTube is structure in a way to lead users in very deep rabbit holes of content and often leads towards content that promote extreme views that are often unbalanced and heavily biased, thus inculcating erroneous information in the minds of its users. On a personal note, I had this experience when, out of pure curiosity, I clicked on a video denying that humans had landed on the moon. As a science teacher, I wanted to see first-hand, the arguments put forward by the creator of the video so as to gain an insight in this large piece of online subculture. In the following days, I had difficulty avoiding these types of videos in my Youtube Recommendation feed as the algorithm was constantly trying the recommend videos of the same type and genre. Had I not been strong in my convictions and knowledge about the issue, I can see how undecided minds could easily be influenced towards one side of an issue, regardless of which side is right or wrong.
Another more nuanced example of the same situation is the influence social media had in deciding the 2016 American General Election. Although there is much analysis that remains to be done to determine the real effect social media had on the decision the American electorate made, Hunt and Gentzkow in their article entitled: Social Media and Fake News in the 2016 Election, explain that social media is a growing source for news. With questionable sources of said news and the speed at which this information travels, one cannot deny that social media’s influence on society will continue to grow. The many nuances and the many biases that are present in many sources of information on the internet make evaluating social justice issues a true minefield that can be very unforgiving.
Social activism on social media is without a doubt very present in our daily feeds, but how effective can it be? In my option, activism requires concrete actions and changes in behavior. It’s easy to comment on a social media post, it is easy to change your profile picture and it is easy to retweet an article related to a social justice issue. It is much harder to have a conversation with political figures that have actual influence on the issue, it is much harder to write a letter to entice a company to change a behavior and it is much harder to get out of the house and act on what you believe is right. In my own situation, my conviction towards the use of sustainable renewable clean energy has led me to invest my own money in a solar power system for my house. This is real action as opposed to continually tweeting about the advantages of solar power. The inertia that often keeps people from real social activism is often referred to as Slacktivism. As Wikipedia explains it:
Slacktivism is a pejorative term for “feel-good” measures in support of an issue or social cause. Slacktivism is showing support for a cause with the main purpose of boosting the egos of participants in the movement. The action may have little effect other than to make the person doing it feel satisfied that they have contributed.
This is not to undermine the value of sharing ideas, views and positions on social media. Awareness is without a doubt an important part of activism and cannot be underestimated. As a teacher, I feel conflicted in using my platform and my influence as an educator to promote any social justice initiative. Although certain initiatives can seem to be straight forward and obvious, other issues can be delicate and complicated. No issue more complicated that politics. In the last Canadian Federal Election, strong opinions and positions circulated in my school. I was often asked for my opinion by student. This was a trying time in that my convictions sometimes came into conflict with those of my students and, in many cases, their parents. I was very careful to not share my own views but would carefully guide the discussions towards the debate of broader ideas and the rationale behind such ideas. I encouraged my students to seek real and credible information to substantiate their positions and their arguments. To me, this habit of evaluating information, seeking it and basing one’s opinions on it is the basis of good citizenship. I cannot, in my own good conscience be a social justice warrior online or in my classroom without first guiding my students towards habits of healthy information processing.
Curtis questions in his blogpost about Activism: “Am I making a difference? Am I being complacent in taking the cause further? By posting on Social Media how can you participate in productive conversations online?” I tend to go through these same questions when confronting activism on social media. In most cases, I just don’t see the value in participating myself considering the potential risks as a semi-public figure in my school community. This might be a bias in my own mind since, as Catherine elaborates in her blogpost, there are many pros related to social media activism:
Social media activism can:
Spread a message to a large audience very quickly
Organize events easily (like the Women’s March)
Allow marginalized groups to express their views freely
As classroom teachers, we have a responsibility to present social justice issues to our students. If we chose not to participate, our silence indicates a clear message, that these are not issues we care to address and therefore, do not value (Source). If we choose to remain silent on these issues, we risk allowing our students to become passive citizens rather than justice- and action-oriented.
I feel the pressure of this responsibility and I feel like I must face it in my own way. In way that I will have true impact. These arguments by my classmates have pushed my beliefs to a point where, at the moment, I’m of the opinion that social justice and activism has an important place in the classroom. As much as I would like to take positions on certain issues as a teacher, I believe my job is to foster discussions and lead my students to making strong arguments based on good information. By promoting good social media practice and by teaching strong media literacy skills, I think that if I accomplish these goals, I will have done my part in promoting healthy activism and productive social justice activism.