Online discussion of social issues should be accompanied by offscreen advocacy

Ryland Piche

When it comes to societal change, mass media is an important site for representation and advocacy, but it still has limitations. While talking about social issues online is important, these discussions should be accompanied by tangible action.

It’s normal for people to gravitate toward the problems we can see. Because we spend so much of our time consuming mass media, the issues we are aware of are largely determined by social media, television, and movies—if they aren’t already part of our lives.

The past year has seen a rise in both genuine online activism as well as performative gestures toward advocacy. Instagram infographics offering accessible explanations of current issues have become increasingly widespread.

While spreading information is an important part of promoting change, social media is a problematic forum. Social movements do take root online, but so do conspiracy theories and less aggressive forms of misinformation. Most infographics don’t include sources, so it’s difficult to verify the information presented. Even if the intention is good and the overall message is true, it should be common practice for people to double-check what they learn through social media.

Furthermore, although some infographics might refer you toward trustworthy sources of more information or actions you can take, others might be entirely performative. Sharing a pastel slideshow covering the main points of a hot-topic issue might signal your support, but just appearing to be socially conscious online doesn’t materially contribute. Learning about an issue and raising awareness should be accompanied by seeking out tangible change.

Online discussions can also turn toward critiques of mainstream depictions of eating disorders, gender identity, sexuality, disability, and any number of other topics poorly represented by mass media.

Onscreen representation matters and should be pushed for, but it’s easier to realize that mass media is propagating harmful stereotypes about homelessness, for example, and to be outspoken about the need for better representation than it is to research how to help prevent homelessness and advocate for the homeless community in your area. Both are necessary.

Online advocacy and direct action are by no means mutually exclusive, nor is demanding better virtual representation oppositional to off-screen issues. It’s all worthy, but looking further than screen-deep is much harder.  

Limiting our advocacy to what we can see and share online disconnects us from real efforts. Change builds, not because people aren’t using social media, but because they are actively researching and doing the work in their own communities, too.

Ryland Piché is a second-year English student and one of The Journal’s Copy Editors.

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