Extra but Not Enough: snippets of social media activism

By Zé Fernández Guerrero

How often do you scroll through your Facebook feed and find trendy news on 30-second to 2-minute videos? If you’re part of liberal circles, these kinds of videos are commonly produced by BuzzFeed News, NowThis, AJ+ and even the Dodo. Except for the environmentalist and animal rights oriented vids that the Dodo puts forth, the others usually talk about social and political issues. Popular topics for this past semester’s videos have been the California Representative Maxine Waters’s “Reclaiming My Time,” government responses to natural disasters, and Trump’s responses to basically everything. (Turns out Puerto Rico is an island. Surrounded by water. Big water. Ocean water.) These small videos have become one of the most informative bits of news that we are exposed to. The question is: NowWhat?

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Art by Elise Cording

For some, these videos provide a summarized argument to share with more conservative or distant relatives and friends. For others, sharing these videos is how they believe they are showing ‘solidarity’ for a specific cause or group. But at best those with a tangible and monetary impact are the videos’ producers. That’s it. The subjects of these videos do not feel the impact of our Facebook share button. Thus, I argue, these videos are simply not enough. How many of us have seen an AJ+ video while we were distracted in class? Probably all of us. But how many of us have been inspired to search for more information, to take action, to vote, or to donate?

Admittedly, we are busy people with limited budgets, so we cannot do and donate everything. Nonetheless, I see a trend among fellow social media users whose performative activism plays a rather passive role in addressing the issues. We do not touch the subject again, unless there is a follow-up video. Logistically, these videos have a limited time frame to get the most viewers while presenting reductive information. This pragmatic decision on behalf of producers is not an excuse for us to stay uninformed. If we have social media, we have Google (or Bing or Yahoo). It is within our capacity to find more information and engage in action for a purpose that truly moves us. I encourage myself and others to take action rather than satiate our desire to make a “post a day” and not get further informed.

I do not blame our Internet generation for the trendiness of these videos. Their aesthetic even matches our latest minimalist fashion trends. It incorporates bold, white font wherein important words are in alternate colors, like yellow or blue. Subtitles in Arial or the like are common (which I appreciate because they’re inclusive of people who are hard of hearing or those who struggle with some varieties of English). The videos often follow a soundtrack. They are omnipresent on Facebook. You can even start finding these videos on different social media platforms, such as Snapchat and Instagram. But if you look up their mottos, you see another trend. NowThis’s slogan is “stories that move.” AJ+ starts its website with “Experience. Empower. Engage.” So, do these news sites operate alone, or do they want us to move on and engage toward something? Do WE want to move on and engage in the issues they highlight?

Given the civil rights orientation of some of these videos, their most logical intentions would be to galvanize us. But what are we as consumers doing? Just sharing. We share these videos to spread the knowledge of the event within a specific political and social stance, creating a constellation of informative videos, leisure photographs, and birthday wishes on our Facebook feeds. Certainly, this constellation is as extra as we are. Our experiences, backgrounds, and interests are diverse and reflected in these feeds. But now, what happens after we press that share or like button? (Or any of the new react buttons with their concomitant emoticons?)

Art by Anna Lee

I reiterate: we cannot be experts in every possible issue in the world today. For that, I applaud Vox’s extended videos because they do seem to be experts sometimes of the most random things. But with these smaller videos on social media, we cannot continue pretending like our job is done when we share them. Who is benefited? The answer is even more contentious. Let’s take for example the first scenario. When we share these videos to inform our conservative relatives and friends (if they decide to watch), the most positive of possibilities is that they change their minds, because these videos compelled them to. In reality, it probably takes more than one video and a lot of interpersonal communication to make them care. In any case, the person who was most benefited here was the person who became “enlightened” in regards to the issue in the video. But they are not the people whom the video is about, even if they are the target audience. In other words, we fail to advocate for the groups discussed in these videos since the benefit is not circular. It stops with our conservative friend changing their mind.

Who is usually featured in these videos? It is either marginalized groups who need help or abusive people in positions of power we need to confront. Going back to the example of Representative Maxine Waters, she is one of twelve women in the U.S. Congress where there are 535 voting members. The video that famously featured her “reclaiming my time” phrase against the Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin* put her on the radar for many of us millennials as a symbol of criticism towards the current administration. But this video—and its catchphrase—became a sensation. Its sensational quality, rather, did not highlight issues of government corruption, sexism or racism. Its theme was reinterpreted as being fed up. Take Trump’s interactions with Puerto Rico when he congratulated locals on having less deaths than the mainland U.S. had after Katrina. Or when he threw paper rolls into a crowd. We cringed and wished he was not in charge, but that was it!

Soon, Facebook friends would joke in the comments of pictures with a “reclaiming my time” or have a rant-like status about Trump. I give them the benefit of the doubt: they are now vocal and critical of the current political climate, but it makes me wonder if that was all that the videos accomplished when they were shared. The voices of the marginalized in these videos—who were finally given a revolutionary, modern platform to be listened to—have not been heard. They have not benefited. Needless to say, those who needed to be brought to justice were not. Steven Mnuchin is still incumbent. The shared videos like “Reclaiming My Time” are now a post of the past.

So, I wrote this piece to put our actions into perspective, whether they take place on social media or not. Do we share these videos to create a social activist persona? Does that persona make it outside of that platform? Who is the focus of these videos? Are we benefiting them or essentializing them? I am not against sharing these videos because at the end of the day they are informative. However, actions that involve political and social issues must not be done routinely and blindly. Go have those conversations with acquaintances who have different points of view. Express your frustration with an issue. But if you make social media your political platform, I expect your praxis to not be limited to the click of a button and a react emoticon.

*Curious fact: Steven Mnuchin is an executive producer of various blockbuster films, such as Wonder Woman, Mad Max: Fury Road, American Sniper, and Suicide Squad. I too wish I had known that sooner.

Art by Anna Lee

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