By Nadia Jo
At the height of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests in June 2020, I had an exchange with a close friend that I regretted later. My friend was a dedicated champion of women’s and LGBTQ+ rights. Like many young Americans who are passionate about social justice, she frequently posted infographics or news stories on social media related to these issues. But during the flood of social-justice-related content during BLM protests, I noticed that she didn’t post anything on Instagram. I wondered if her inaction meant she was uninterested in racial justice.
I sent her a text message “reminding” her that we “need to be active allies [even] for issues that don’t affect us directly.” Later, I found out that three other people messaged her similar things. One day later, her mother posted a reflection on Facebook on how their family was quietly reading many books about racial justice to educate themselves on this topic. “We are doing the work at home, and we’re contributing as a family in ways that feel right to us. But it’s not for public consumption,” she explained in the post. Her mother also described how my friend was refraining from posting things on social media because she — perhaps especially because she is a white person — didn’t feel qualified to take up air time on social media, when Black voices should be in the center of all conversations.
Even though I used gentle and non-confrontational language, I am still embarrassed after re-reading my paragraph-long text. I was so used to people on my social media broadcasting everything they hear and think about current events that it didn’t occur to me that people can engage in self-growth and learn about important issues without sharing that process publicly. A question from the Facebook post –– “When did posting on social media about something become the indicator of whether you feel deeply enough and care enough?” –– lingered in my mind.
This experience made me contemplate the rising stakes of our behavior on social media and how that relates to our reputations and perceived moral goodness. In my network of friends and acquaintances, which consists largely of people at institutions comparable to Stanford, I see a tendency of social media users to judge each other harshly if they do not post about social justice issues. Even outside of my personal circles, this tendency is clear in online communities like Twitter that are preoccupied with social justice.
Right now, I see many accusatory posts in the wake of violence towards Asian Americans. In particular, I have seen my acquaintances criticize Asian Americans who were silent during BLM but are speaking up now for an issue that directly impacts them. I also see individuals (many of them Asian American) criticize Black people who are “not standing up” for Asian Americans. For example, Laura Huang, an associate professor at Harvard Business School, wrote a tweet saying, “Those of you who were so vocal w BLM, where are you on the 1900% increase in Asian-directed hate crimes?”
I can understand both of these concerns even if I do not entirely agree with them. However, I feel that we are forgetting that people have lives outside social media. Yes, silence can contribute to normalizing racism and violence, but how can we be so sure that these “silent” people are doing nothing offline? Why are we assuming the worst in others? Why are we jumping to the most negative conclusions about our peers without first approaching with good faith?
To be clear, there are many moments when being inactive bystanders exacerbates racism. In March, a video of security guards deliberately ignoring a violent assault on a 65-year-old Asian woman generated outrage, rightfully so. Those security guards had a crucial opportunity to intervene physically, and they refused to help.
Certainly, social media has also been a valuable tool in organizing mass action. The Stanford Basic Needs Coalition, for example, stands out as an initiative on Instagram that raised large amounts of aid through fundraising, largely through social media engagement. Posts that encourage specific actions, such as donating to a mutual aid network, can amplify beneficial projects.
What I am addressing, however, is an eagerness to publicly call out others for perceived lack of action and perceived lack of morals. It’s reasonable to demand that public figures or people in positions of power use their leverage to advance social justice. But for the rest — ordinary social media users — it is unnecessary to demand that we be individual news outlets and activists.
Social media is turning into a place to announce, “I heard about this issue or event that is going on.” Many of us post an infographic on our story as a public check-in that we are “in the loop” and conscious of all the tragedies in the world. There’s nothing inherently bad about this trend, but it contributes to a culture of expecting that others will do the same. It also creates an atmosphere where posting an infographic feels like “enough” activism, since it accomplishes people’s main goal of signaling to others that they are aware of current events.
When there is an expectation to post almost non-stop about current events and issues, what we don’t post becomes, in the eyes of our peers, as loud a statement as what we do post. Within the current culture of broadcasting everything, not posting about something implies some issues are less important to us –– not as worthy of our time and attention. These subtle perceived messages can lead to significant and distressing outcomes.
An example of a distressing outcome is the awkward and hurtful moment of misunderstanding between myself and my friend. But there is a more important issue at stake.
Such disproportionate focus and emphasis on social media activism distracts from other ways of helping solve pressing issues. We can sign petitions, contact public officials, donate to organizations and initiatives, vote for ballot propositions and politicians, organize mutual aid funds and attend protests. Your peers may be doing these things, albeit offline. These tangible actions, rather than our social media feeds, should determine how civically engaged we are.
I am not trying to dictate what people should or should not post, nor am I interested in creating an extensive set of definitions that categorize social media posts as “good” and “bad.” Rather, I want to discourage people from determining the moral goodness of others based on what they post or do not post. I applaud those who promote initiatives like the Basic Needs Coalition. However, appreciating what they do does not necessitate criticizing people who do not post about such initiatives.
Before we criticize others — before we make a negative assumption — let’s pause for a moment. Rather than shaming each other for not speaking up on social media, let’s be less confrontational and instead initiate conversations about the different valuable ways in which we can engage in reflection and activism.
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