MR Round Table: The Complicated World of Social Media Activism

How do we navigate it and participate with authenticity?

08.19.16
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Today’s guests include Yassamin Ansari, ‎Consultant at the United Nations and Mission 2020, and Ariel Azoff, Head of Social Impact Outreach at Medium.

Leandra Medine: We talk about activism in the age of social media internally at Man Repeller a lot — unfortunately and particularly because of the onslaught of atrocities happening domestically and internationally. Sometimes we feel helpless, other times we feel damned. We wonder out loud what social activism is supposed to look like; how one can rally to support or bring light to a cause without it feeling…”trendy.” What does it mean when you speak to one major issue but not another? Are you really an activist by simple virtue of changing your Facebook profile picture? Is it enough? If so, why? If not, when is it enough? To start, I’d love to talk through your perspectives on social activism and discuss how you choose to participate.

Ariel Azoff, Head of Social Impact Outreach at Medium: I’ve gone through many different evolutions of personal social activism. I was very politically active in college — I worked on a bunch of political campaigns, I went to rallies, I went to D.C. — a whole bunch of stuff like that. Then I worked for a human rights organization in the Middle East for a year after college. I joined Twitter while I was over there — it was during the Arab Spring and I was kind of in the eye of the storm. I was working inside Israel in Haifa for an Arab organization there and I was watching everything going on around me, and before that I was living in Egypt, so I was very connected to everything that was going on. I joined Twitter as a way to stay connected to what was happening and help spread the word about that on a daily basis in the Twitter-sphere. I also did a lot of blogging and writing and on-the-ground activism around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict during that time. That was probably my most active in the classic sense. Since then, I’ve taken more of a step back. I still certainly engage with issues I care about on social media, but I’m not quite as in the weeds as I was.

Leandra: Why do you think that is?

Ariel: I think a lot of it has to do with the work I am doing at any given time. At Upworthy, it was helping nonprofit organizations get their stories out, so I helped them do that through my day job and didn’t do it as much in my personal life. I certainly still follow everyone and have conversations, but I wasn’t kind of the classic angry activist anymore.

Now, in general, I think my level of activism on social media really depends on what I’m doing as my day job, whether or not that’s already furthering something, and I don’t necessarily take to social media. I’ll take to social media if I think that something is really outrageous or not widely known or if I’m just in a social media phase — which happens.

Leandra: There’s definitely something to that: feeling like the work you are doing is toward the greater good and can help to make you feel less helpless. In a position like ours, as a women’s lifestyle brand — one that we still believe is about the betterment of a woman’s life — that isn’t necessarily moving the needle so literally from political perspective, using the voice we’ve cultivated on social media tends to be the easiest way to feel a little less helpless.

Yassamin Ansari, ‎Consultant at the United Nations and Mission 2020: I don’t like commenting on things that I don’t know much about, even if I agree. It’s my biggest pet peeve when I’m having political conversations with people and someone comes on strongly about issues they don’t know anything about. I like accepting that I don’t know and saying, “I’m actually pretty ignorant about this issue. I don’t want to comment on it because I don’t have an opinion.”

But then on the contrasting side, there are some issues that I am super, super passionate about. Like the Syria refugee crisis and climate change; these are two categories that I feel like I can actually contribute to meaningfully. So, I mean, while I’m very active on social media, I pick specific things that I can comment on and still feel like I can defend it if someone were to call me out on it.

Ariel: I completely agree with that.

Amelia Diamond: I never thought to post anything politically-minded or even close to it on my Instagram or Facebook or Twitter. I always kept it very compartmentalized: time and place for everything and this is not the place where I speak my mind.

Even for a while, Man Repeller didn’t seem like that place — not when it came to politics or global tragedies or serious issues like shootings. I think the conversation was that Man Repeller was a place for people to come to escape, and I still largely feel that way. But we’re bigger now and because of that, we have a responsibility to take stances on issues and/or open the floor for discussion on them.

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Where I get worried about posting personally is taking a stance on certain issues but not on many others. There’s an overwhelming feeling to touch upon everything…but if you don’t, what’s the alternative? Nothing at all?

I’ll tell you what did shift my point of view: I used to say, “I don’t like to bring politics to my Instagram.” Then a friend said, “In the case of police brutality, that’s not politics. That’s violence. That’s murder.” Which reframed my thinking, at least about that issueHuman rights is life. Not politics.

And I will say this: Because we now speak about these things on Man Repeller, I’m uniquely lucky in that I have a platform where I get to share my point of views that is not my Instagram or Twitter or Facebook.

Ariel: There’s a difference between expressing solidarity and making a commentary or adding something to a conversation. I think changing your profile picture to be a picture of the French flag after the Paris attacks, for example, is expressing solidarity. You don’t have to… you’re not taking a really serious stance on something. I think that’s great. There’s a lot of criticism around situations — and I address it in my article about “Slacktivism” — where you’re not really doing anything, but in situations like a terrorist attack, it’s really, really powerful.

Leandra: That’s the thing with Man Repeller. We’re creating an environment where women should feel comfortable expressing their opinions, and those opinions aren’t binary. One of the things we talk about in regards to the upcoming election is: how do we have this conversation in a way that makes people who aren’t necessarily politically-charged feel comfortable to share their opinions because they’re not going to be scrutinized or reprimanded for thinking what they think and asking the questions that they do.

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Amelia: Ariel, what I thought was interesting about your article was that when it comes to “slacktivism,” people wonder if the hashtags and the changing of profile pictures and posting articles actually do any good. Your article showed proof that the more people interact with these kinds of things and see them on their Facebook, Instagram, etc., the more likely they are to actually act. Right?

Ariel: So yeah, the term “slacktivism” has become a dirty word meaning, “You’re just liking it on Facebook; you’re not really doing anything; you’re being lazy.” That they’re not actually real activists. I take issue with that because real activists are already doing things to further their cause. What social media has done is open up a space for a lot of people to do different levels of activism and different levels of engaging. In my Medium, I cite stats about studies on this that show that when someone likes or shares or comments on social media, and then that same person is later asked to donate or sign a petition or volunteer their time, they’re more likely to do it because they have already put their personal stamp on this and said, “This is something that I believe in.”

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And not everyone does. It’s a funnel, right? So the people who are tweeting and liking articles and statuses on Facebook are a huge group. Fewer of them are going to take each larger action down the funnel, but the more people at the top of the funnel means more people at the bottom.

Leandra: When does social activism get on your nerves?

Yassamin: I don’t get bothered when people show solidarity. I get bothered by the lack of empathy or the unawareness of all of the other things going on. Everyone posted about the Paris attacks, but what about the attacks in Syria? I get bothered when it feels cursory.

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Ariel: I go back and forth because I usually have the same reaction. But to your point, I also think that if what they are doing is really just re-tweeting or using a hashtag or something as a quick show of solidarity, it’s probably not really hurting anyone. When it does hurt is when someone uses it as an excuse not to engage further, as an excuse not be included and not actually change circumstances.

But on the flip-side, you need people from outside of marginalized groups to advocate for marginalized groups.

Yassamin: I’m always pleasantly surprised when I see someone post something, even if it’s very basic, if it’s someone I wouldn’t expect. I’m like, “You’re now reaching a whole new group that maybe didn’t know about this issue or think about it.”

Amelia: After the death of Alton Sterling, I wrote an article about why the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag is important. Because saying black lives matter focuses on a very serious problem at hand — it doesn’t mean all lives do not matter — and the hashtag gets the word around and keeps the conversation going. Because in this case, neutrality helps no one. BUT. There were comments that addressed two very real things: 1) We don’t yet have women of color writers on full time staff, and 2) That there is more to do beyond the hashtag. That you can donate.

So we added in the links to those actions. And we are focused on diversifying Man Repeller. We also know that no one wants to hear, “We’re working on it!” No one wants excuses. They want to see it, read it. Show, don’t just tell.

Leandra: Right. One of the pieces of this generation that I find so compelling is that we are presenting so many new intolerances and looking at former versions of what has been normal or accepted and saying, “No, that it is not normal. Societally speaking that should not have been appropriate then and we are not going to stand for it now.” That’s really special and unique.

But the brunt of that is where opinions get scrubbed of their scruff, and that scruff is still quite important, specifically from a creative perspective and for the point of healthy and respectful debate. We recently ran a story that I wrote about body shaming. I wrote this story about having love for my belly rolls, and a lot of the comments were like, “You’re a size 2; this is tone deaf.” And superficially speaking, they’re completely right; I appreciate those comments when they come from a respectful place because we can have a conversation, and my opinion plus their opinions equals emerging different opinion, equals new idea, equals a new way to think forward. And a lot of that can relate to social activism in the conversation that’s happening around it. I am just not sure where the productive conversations are happening. Which is perhaps my own ignorance.

Ariel: There is a lot of polarizing and a lot of people yelling their own opinions on social media. Productive conversation happens on a lot of different platforms, but it’s often drowned out by very unproductive conversations.

Leandra: Yeah, brain dead megaphone.

There’s also a difference between well-intentioned activism and just doing it for accolades. Before coming here we read an article called, “How to Tell the Difference Between Real Solidarity and Ally Theater.” Black Girl Dangerous columnist and editor Princess Harmony Rodriguez came up with that term. It refers to people who call themselves allies and “perform” their “allyship” on social media for the sake of others patting them on the back.

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It almost reminded me of moral licensing — Malcolm Gladwell references it a lot, which where once you have supported some version of a minority, you give yourself the freedom to then act more racist against that minority.

Ariel: I have a question about all of this, and I’m not sure what I think about it: is the… change-your-Facebook-profile thing a lesser evil? Like, “Okay, we can give that to someone as a way for them to feel good and they’ve expressed solidarity. That’s pretty harmless.”

Amelia: I’m not sure if this is what you were asking, so sorry if it’s a deviation, but changing your status to support a country that was attacked feels different from Ally Theater. That shows solidarity… even if you did it because everyone else did, I guess. The difference with Ally Theater is that when there’s a marginalized group saying, “I have the microphone right now; it’s my turn to talk because I have a bunch of stuff to say,” it’s everyone else’s turn — especially from anyone from a place of privilege — to listen, not chime in or takeover the conversation.

Something that social media does is force people to feel like they have to jump in and say, “I’m super sorry!” “I heard that!” “I saw that, too!” “Whoa!” Because otherwise you’re apathetic. It makes you feel like you need to jump in.

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Leandra: Louis C.K. has a theory about the evolution of the internet and the human relationship to the internet and how we’re just now graduating from the elementary school phase of the life-on-web. We were in elementary school like, “Oh cool! What’s going on over there? What are you talking about? I wanna listen to that! I know nothing about Game of Thrones, but let’s talk about it because that’s so cool!” But now, he says we’re sort of entering high school and groups are starting to form at different tables and they don’t care about what happens beyond their cliques. I think part of what you’re talking about is that shift from being in elementary school internet to being in high school internet.

Ariel: It’s sort of like activist FOMO.

Leandra: Totally! Activist FOMO! You get really overwhelmed.

Ariel: I’m with Yassamin: I don’t tend to engage unless I feel like I can speak with some authority on something. I’ll do a like if it’s relevant in some way to me or to something in the world I care about. But I don’t really engage unless I know that I’m going to add material to this conversation.

Amelia: Your ability to feel comfortable not speaking and saying, “Actually, I don’t know,” is rare. Do you ever get slack about not participating?

Yassamin: No. If you go on my Facebook, there are tons articles on a select few topics. I just often sense that if I go to over the top on things that aren’t necessarily part of that cause-bubble I’m just like, I’m not really contributing anything.

Amelia: To know that you don’t know is more than a lot of people know. Which, I think is often the problem. Ignorance.

Yassamin: Recognizing your own ignorance on certain things is fine. Every single person can’t be an expert or a passionate advocate for every cause. There’s just not enough hours in the day for that.

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Leandra: I want to make sure that this conversation provides some version of a service for our community, and facilitates their feeling like they can chime in about their own experiences with and thoughts on social media. What are good actions to take when it comes to activism on social media?

Ariel: I mean it depends on what it is, right? There are templates available online that you can fill out and use to contact a representative. You’ve tweeted about it, now take the next step.

A story is the most powerful vehicle to get someone to care about an issue. And further, if that story has been shown to them because someone they know — their friend or family member shared it with them — there’s an even higher chance that they’re going to read it with an open mind with an open heart than if they just saw it on the news. In my work, I do a lot of thinking about how to connect people at the point that they experience the media story and so that they do take action. We’re getting closer and closer to figuring it out.

Yassamin: I recently had this friend who won a grant to visit refugee camps in Europe. She did such an amazing job posting Facebook posts — very detailed logs of who she spoke with, what country that person was from, what happened to him or her. And she would include actions: “Here’s what you can do. Check out these organizations.”

When people see that they’re like, “Okay, this is a person who’s actually doing something; I trust her guidance on which organization I can help.”

Leandra: It also sounds like some basic education is required. If we’re going to go the distance to change our profile pictures or post something on Instagram, it’s not too much more effort to, like, read a couple of sentences about why you’re posting.

Yassamin: I think that’s at the root of it: we get annoyed when we see other people posting about issues they know nothing about. But, if you show an interest and research, I respect that; that’s great. I’m happy someone new has like joined the conversation and cares.

Leandra: Yeah, absolutely, I agree with that.

Ariel: I tend to be more optimistic about this sort of thing than pessimistic. I don’t want to discount very valid criticisms like the ones brought up in the Ally Theater article, but I think on the optimistic side, it’s a good thing that we are able to have this conversation. That there are enough people saying they care on social media that we’re critiquing different ways to do it. That’s an amazing state of the world.

Upworthy’s editorial director, Amy O’Leary, talks about schema theory a lot, which is a psychology theory about brain frameworks. Every story we experience builds a new framework in our brain for how we view the world. One example is that ten years ago, there was no schema for a child to think that the president of the United States could be black. Now, because of Barack Obama, a child see a black adult and think, “Oh, that could be the president.” That’s schema. We need frameworks to process the possibilities of the world. So in this context, seeing those who we follow on social media take a stance or share an article or share their personal story — its expanding our horizons. In many cases in a less authentic way and in many cases it’s in a very authentic way. But I think a lot of good is happening.

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Follow Ariel Azoff on Twitter; Follow Yassamin Ansari on Twitter and Instagram. Visit her Huffington Post author page here.

Feature collage by Lily Ross; quote slides designed by Emily Zirimis. 

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  • Allie Fasanella

    i love and really appreciate this conversation. you guys are always so thoughtful. i like how you guys touched on the fact that as you’ve grown you feel that it feels necessary for you to address bigger things that are happening in the world. like a few years ago, maybe not so much, but now that MR has this huge diverse audience and touches on topics outside of just fashion and women’s interests, i agree that that comes with a bit of a responsibility. anyway, i rly don’t like to speak my mind on things that i’m not properly educated on because I know that i can be ignorant, but some things are pretty straight forward, like amelia said, shooting someone is murder. i usually don’t post anything ‘political’ per say on my instagram but after the alton sterling shooting i saw this on instagram and felt compelled to repost it. it wasn’t really about standing in solidarity, it was more about, ‘wow, this is insane and i’m mad about this. i’m mad that people are being killed. whether they’re of my race or not. and i want to express that anger and sadness for our country.’ idk that’s just me. talking about anything with politics and race these days kinda makes me so on edge because I never want to say the wrong thing or offend anyone.

  • Aydan

    I think an amazing thing about human nature also is that things can shock you, make you angry, etc. etc. but to truly experience something that hits close to home can make you feel all types of ways — AND THIS IS OKAY. I really struggle with this because of course I’m frustrated and angry at all the terrorist bombings/shooting/etc that are going on around the world, but when the Ataturk Airport bombing happened, I literally panicked. I read about it at work and was frantically calling my mom to ask where my dad was (he had been in that terminal two days prior and my mom just two weeks before). Looking back its kind of incredible how intense my reaction was to that because it was so close to home. This is not making light of ANY of the other bombings or severe events that have happened over the past year or so, but its also interesting how our own human nature plays into this. And my point to that, is it’s okay for some things to “affect” you less than others. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. It doesn’t mean you don’t care.

  • Sam

    Love this! I think another big point that ought to be made is knowing when and when not to add your two cents. A big part of activism is amplifying the voices of people who aren’t normally heard, and sometimes you don’t need to do more than retweet with the ? emoji or whatever, especially if the issue that spurred a hash tag didn’t affect you in a tangible way.

  • BK

    I like the solidarity that is on display when people change their Facebook photos. When something huge hits the world news cycle, it frightens people, because it confirms their own mortality and displays how succinctly powerless they are to stop horrible things from happening, or even helping right things after after the wrong occurs due to laws of proximity. So, that’s nice. I know people think they’re pretty naff these days but it’s a symbol to give people hope in times of darkness, and before you roll your eyes at those treacly words, just know that I’m paraphrasing Commissioner Gordon’s description of Batman.

    Getting people interested in social/political to begin with is an entirely different matter, however. Recently, when I was having coffee with friends two days after the recent terrorist attack in Nice, I brought up how frightening it must have been for tourists far away from home (well, for everyone, really), and how sad it was that these atrocities in he West were horrifying but not really surprising anymore – and they hasn’t even heard about it. Like at all. They hadn’t read it in the newspaper, seen it on the telly at night, heard it on the radio in the car to work, read it on the 5 hours a day the spend staring at Facebook. They were exposed to the information repeatedly through various forms of media, yet didn’t absorb even a little bit of it. How do you reach those people? Is it even worth it?

  • Molly D

    Oftentimes I think the eagerness with which people like something, comment, change a picture, etc. on Facebook doesn’t necessarily reflect a “quick show of solidarity” with the event or issue but rather a more general solidarity with other humans. People want to feel included – in anything.

    I am skeptical of this type solidarity on Facebook because I doubt the authenticity of people’s motivations. Is changing your profile picture in response to a tragedy a personal stamp of “this is something I believe in” or “this is something I can do to kill time because the train is running late” or “I want that French guy I hooked up with to know I care about his family” or “that picture of me looking pensive and well-rested on the sailboat this weekend will look nice with a tri-color haze over it” ?

    But who am I to judge? Good thing Facebook doesn’t care!

  • vc

    I enjoyed reading through this. It is a wonderful conversational piece that activates the need for constant self re-evaluation. While social media such as facebook is nice, employing it appropriately is nice. I also saw something like this on http://uneekstyles.blogspot.com/

  • I was having a discussion with my family this weekend about “women’s rights.” My father expressed how women are ‘too much these days.’ I think the reason why I talk about gender inequality so much is because I do see the underlying issues and as someone who feels minut on such a large scale, contributing with words is my own contribution. I think writing, posting, talking about pressing issues more openly will domino effect into change. The more people hear about something, the more awareness it brings about.