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The social media crowd: political outrage, polarisation and shallow 'slacktivism'

I sometimes dread opening up my Facebook feed. What used to be a space of harmless self-glorification and shameless glimpse into people’s nights out, has now become an echo chamber of ideas, theories and anger being churned out the tech machine. Whether it’s someone damning me for still enjoying a cheeseburger, someone glamorising Trump’s successes, or someone sharing pro-life articles and why I should support anti-abortion laws, the fairground of shareable and aggressive content has never made logging onto social media so insufferable. And just like that, my social media feed gives me a clearer insight into people’s political views than it does about their, well, life.

As I scroll through the toxic vortex of political outrage (which I won’t deny, can at times provide a brilliant source of entertainment), I am greeted with raging anger and venom, as I just sit there wondering how on earth the pictures of drunken nights out turned into a representation of self-political righteousness. The reality too, is that the vegan-loving yogi wouldn’t dare tell me I’m a greedy animal slaughterer to my face, so why is it ok to shove it down my throat online? Debate is certainly important, but an unaggressive and diplomatic natter is my personal preference. As soon as it seems like someone grilling me to adopt their opinion, I’m eyeing up the exit route to rationality.

Amongst the virtual battleground of polarisation, the keyboard warriors take on the fight, latching onto the first inch of disagreement and stretching it out exponentially further. With their armour (their screen) to protect them from any sense of accountability, they invite hate as they share ignorant opinions and attempt to hold people (they barely even know anymore) into a headlock hoping to radically transform their views. Allowing the politically insensitive to hide behind the keyboard, the lack of self-awareness in the online world is mind blowing. The same way that I’d like someone’s Instagram post but wouldn’t actually go knocking on their door to tell them they looked nice last night, social media absolves any sense of social responsibility and causes people to act unlike they would ever do in person (with the exceptional few of course).

The same way that we rely on social media for some obscure sense of self-validation, I wonder if online political outrage is yet another avenue in the pursuit for an ego boost. For many, to share a controversial political post is not only a request for likes, shares and comments, but one where an individual can display a sense of morality and ethics which you wouldn’t be able to extract through a selfie. An added layer to the highlight reel (another we surely don’t need), depicting a certain moral image. It’s like someone pulling out an outfit from their fancy dress box deciding they’ll play a certain political identity that day. But often, I find the person who incessantly shares online, fails to bring them into their daily conversations.

Social media has become a platform mobilising herd instinct and mentality. The core strategy of sociability, traced back to the homo sapien era, has evolved and accelerated into unanticipated terrain. Naturally prone to herding, throughout history we have joined social groups, political parties, volunteering groups because we find comfort in finding a group of people who uphold our own values and spend the majority of our lives moving in and out of groups with a collective identity. Mass behaviour, which is the kind of behaviour we find online, is simply 1+1 of interaction between individuals, and it would be a stretch of the imagination for anyone to truly claim that they are sharing and liking posts that are simply the sum of our own mental gymnastics. The reality is that we expend a lot of our energies simply reacting to and regurgitating how others think, say and act. This challenges any sense of the western world’s philosophical standpoint of individualism which upholds we are autonomous and free-thinking beings. The reality is, we would choose to enter a crowded supermarket over an empty one because there’s nothing worse than feeling like an outsider.

Online political herd instinct is clearest in social media infographics which now flood our social media feeds. Recalling the November 2015 Paris terrorist attacks, everyone hopped on the bandwagon of placing a French flag filter over their Facebook photo, and last year’s Black Lives Matters protests saw many uploading the infamous black square in solidarity of racial injustice. There’s no doubt the one minute upload of a gesture helped raise awareness into an important societal issue. As Kalhan Rosenblatt wrote in an article for NBC, this digital summer protest gave particularly young people a voice against misogyny, racial injustice and traditional beauty standards. I’m just not convinced that social media and ‘clicktivism’ is the solution – it’s just another level of surface level advocacy wrapped in a bit of narcissism. The pressures to project a certain identity in compliance with everyone else is undeniably where much of many campaigns’ fuel comes from.

The easy work of what is often called ‘slacktivism’ is almost like a digital performance and social media is the core enabler. Shallow illustrations of action, such as reposting an article (which I have likely done), does little to nothing for the cause and simply nothing more than a vanity act that pushes forward someone’s social presence. I think that’s where my own personal reluctance lies to push out my own views or advocate online because if I’m not following it up in my actions, I shouldn’t be advocating it at all.

The proliferation of social media and activism has also publicised some of our most personal aspects. Born in 1960s feminist theory, ‘the personal is political’ is a concept which drove second-wave feminism and which underscored how women’s personal issues are so closely interconnected with the political structures which govern our behaviour, and therefore require political attention in order to drive forward change. When you think about it, that is really quite common-sense to see how your political views reflect your personal circumstances. Social media, however, has created a floodgate where the personal experience (i.e. the private experience) have become so inherently public.

Now, the personal, private, public and political all become tangled up into a web of digital mess that everything that is personal is not only political, but public facing and for everyone (including your old friend from primary school) to see.

It’s probably best if we all just channelled our political views in genuine action as opposed to shouting about something we’re likely not even doing ourselves anyway. That surely is the more effective route to progress and will make Facebook, a platform crowded with unfiltered disagreement, slightly more tolerable.


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