Millennial activism and social media

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With the ongoing perils of climate change, a fragile economy, a weak job market, and high student debt, among other problems, our generation is truly disgruntled. Millennials are eager to see the “status quo” change. And, with the advent of modern technology and social media, it is easier than…

With the ongoing perils of climate change, a fragile economy, a weak job market, and high student debt, among other problems, our generation is truly disgruntled. Millennials are eager to see the “status quo” change. And, with the advent of modern technology and social media, it is easier than ever to be socially and politically mindful and to act on this disenfranchisement.

Look at the use of social media platforms such as Twitter and its role in the Arab spring when there were government-imposed media blackouts in Tunisia, Egypt and Syria. A more contemporary example would be the composition of current US presidential candidate Bernie Sanders’ supporters. According to the Bloomberg View, Sanders, who is a self-declared democratic socialist and has put forth a radically ambitious campaign platform is favoured by 50 per cent of all Democratic voters aged 18-34 while his opponent, Hillary Clinton, only has a 35 per cent favourability rating with the same group. Also, Sanders’ campaign is financed almost completely by private individual donations and is driven by millennial support via social media (I know many of you with more politically-inclined friends probably see innumerable pro-Bernie Sanders posts on your Facebook feed every day).

Millennial activism is even apparent on a smaller and more local scale. Brock University itself is rife with such activism. The recent protest against Brock University for its handling of sexual harassment and assault is indicative of this activism, as it was composed predominantly of students and organized via social media (Facebook in this case). The Fed-Up campaign that aimed to lower on-campus food prices is also reflective of this contemporary style of activism as well. When it seems that existent social or political institutions are not addressing important issues, this generation is always poised, and powerfully equipped (via technology) to organize and launch a campaign to address the purported problem at hand.

However, the ease with which one can get involved also has its downsides as well. In our fast-paced culture, time and attention are in high demand and, generally speaking, must be budgeted amongst a myriad of different responsibilities and demands. Whether social, academic, career or merely entertainment-based, we have innumerable day-to-day demands and cannot always dedicate as much time to them as we’d like. With social media, it becomes all too easy to be a passive or “part-time” activist. Though our generation critiques contemporary politicians for acting like mere recording devices that repeat the same rhetorical quips over and over again, we tend to make similar mistakes.

When one sees a post on Facebook that claims to identify with a movement or position we identify with, it is easy to quickly like said-post and move on without looking more into it. Did you read the whole post, did you register as to who made the post and why, etc.? Though the post may proclaim itself to be feminist in the first few lines, as you read on you might find that the understanding of feminism implicit there is not remotely similar to your own. There is no clear-cut or static conception of what is implied by the various descriptors of social movements. This connects with another important issue: the identity of a “movement”.

Who is composing these groups and why are they doing so? I don’t wish to sound like a conspiracy theorist, but there are people who choose to be, or at least pretend to be, socially active for ulterior motives. For example, I have been told by someone that they had liked and joined several Facebook-based feminist groups in an attempt to seem more open minded in order to attract women. It is of the utmost importance in the era of millennial activism to not only research a social movement before joining but also follow the trajectory of the movement’s composition.

A social movement can retain its name but be fundamentally different from its origins or what its name or description implies. This is a danger for all forms of decentralized social activism, as people who don’t share the same vision of the overwhelmingly majority of a group can still join it and “murky” up the group’s original message and image. For instance, I was told by a friend on her way to class that she was heckled by a few protesters during the “Stop the Silencing Protest” for not joining in. They told her that if she didn’t show solidarity she must be complicit with Brock’s mishandling of events. Of course, people like these hecklers are only on the periphery of the group, but they still have an effect. And the periphery of social movements have come to occupy the center before. One must always be aware of not only the original goals of a movement but also who composes the group and how it may be or already has been changed – and at what point one should leave or attempt to rectify the perceived problem.

The point is that, while it is so easy and enticing to be a passive activist, one should take a little more time to think before jumping headlong into activism. Being socially active feels good: you get to pat yourself on the back and reflect on what a great person you are, which is incredible for a generation riddled with neuroses and an overwhelming faculty of self-consciousness. Even so, I implore everyone to take their time in making a decision before taking social or political action or identifying with a movement. Also, abstaining from taking action if you truly do not feel you are informed enough is no crime – in many cases it is the moral thing to do. Economist Thomas Sowell gave just this advice to people voting in the 2016 U.S. presidential election:

“I advise that people who really haven’t had a chance to study these things and know much about it … their most patriotic act would be to stay home on election day, rather than vote on the basis of their whims or their emotions, which is really playing Russian roulette with the history of the country.”
The simple mantra is to “take your time.” Next time you have a chance to be socially active, for instance, sign a petition to lower some student costs (e.g. food costs, parking, printing, etc.), take your time to reflect. Think out fully how this goal is to be achieved, and what will be the potential costs of achieving it.
When joining a protest, make sure you know all of the specific details before hopping on board.

Moreover, while protesting, don’t get lost in chanting, but look to see how the other protesters are acting and if you agree with their conduct and attitude. Deciding as to when one is sufficiently informed is, of course, up to the individual in question. There is no way to quantify “sufficient informed-ness,” but, for the most part, I think people intuitively know as to when they have done proper background research and when they are just passively hopping on the social activism train with no knowledge of the train’s actual cargo and final destination.

Robert Smith


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