By Ramona Mukherji
Much of internet discourse this year has centered around the eternal question: to post or not to post? For better or worse, it seems like most of us are active on social media. As students, it’s hard to escape politically-active feeds, filled with infographics and resources for the next big crisis in the world. But as the internet demands us to post more, to prove how much we care, it opens up a debate about the purpose of posting and who it’s actually benefiting. We’ve heard the argument that social media activism without real action is a hollow gesture. The reverse might not be true; there is some merit to not posting at all.
But I’m not here to add to the list of catchy “Slacktivism” articles. Social media has undoubtedly been one of the most effective and accessible forms of sharing resources, especially during a pandemic. Obviously, this comes with the dangers of misinformation, but I have learned more about the Black, LGBTQ+, and Autistic community by simply listening to what they have to say. One of the most attractive parts of social media, however, is the prospect of having a far-reaching platform. As we stand on our soapboxes, it’s easy to believe that even reaching a few hundred people has the power to incite change. If thousands of users post about voting or climate change or police brutality, then it’s bound to have some effect. Itworks sometimes – the allure of cancel culture comes from the power that social media users have to “ruin” people, companies, and more. While posting on social media does not directly equate to actionorreform,it’sjusteffective enough so that we’re pressured into doing it.
Given the benefits of social media, it seems like there isn’t a good reason to stay silent. Posting on social media, however, takes up valuable energy that often renders people “slacktivists”, as they are called by more full-time champions of human rights. The average user isn’t a celebrity or an influencer with the capacity to reach thousands of people. While posting an infographic probably only takes ten seconds, social media as a whole can take a toll on our emotional capacity to care about these issues. With the endless doomsday cycle of suffering that graces our feeds, there comes a point where it’s better to stop scrolling. It sounds dramatic, but there’s a term for it – compassion fatigue. As defined by psychologist Charles Figley, compassion fatigue can present itself as numbness or “a decreased sense of purpose”. The term was first coined by writer Carla Joinson in relation to feelings of burnout and helplessness experienced by nurses and other caregiver professions. By constantly empathizing with their patients every day, they were left exhausted and unable to function. The same logic can be applied to social media; after seeing enough horrifying news, the anger begins to turn to cynicism, guilt, or paralysis. After being asked to care about every issue in the world, eventually the deaths and the explosions become too much to handle or easy to switch off. The easiest way to combat this guilt is to post on your story, a momentary relief that you’ve at least done something helpful. Real activism is much harder and messier, and it deserves more energy than a lot of us have to give.
It is a privilege to be able to shut off your phone for a minute and not have to worry about your rights being taken away. However, one of the solutions found by the nurses that suffered from compassion fatigue was to maintain emotional distance from their patients. Likewise, switching off your social media is one way to remain compassionate in an age of desensitization and performative activism. It sounds counterintuitive, but it’s not helpful to care about everything and not being able to do much because of it. Staying silent on social media has become difficult now since there’s an assumption that silence means inaction. But if we constantly ask people to care more, we run the risk of having them not care at all. Social media can never be a space free from the negativity associated with news and politics. And it doesn’t do us any good to stick our heads in the sand and pretend thateverything is fine. Social media has the capacity to be a powerful tool in small doses. So, it’s okay to take a step back from posting for a moment. You might find that you’ll have the extra time and energy to take meaningful action in real life.