As self-isolation in the Bay Area begins its sixth month, our community has adjusted to this new reality. Leaving the house armed with masks and sanitizer, spending your day glued to a computer screen for work, only to FaceTime your friends, watch TV, and scroll through social media for a while before bed; this has quickly become our new normal. By now, it feels as though each of us is living in our own tiny world, talking to the same few people, leaving the house to go to the same few places. It’s easy to retreat into your bubble, as Berkeley has proved time and time again, but now more than ever, it is extremely important for everyone, especially young people, to be using this time to broaden their perspectives and stay engaged with the outside world. This could mean making an intentional effort to read the news, learning about national and international events, and/or supporting movements beyond social media.
The combination of this isolation and simultaneous extreme exposure to social media has made surface level engagement (as well as the spread of false information) all too common. Twitter threads, Instagram infographics, and Tik Toks about current events and politics have all grown exponentially in popularity. While these can be significantly more accessible than long news articles or books on political theory, treating sources like these as be-all and end-all on a particular topic can be potentially more damaging than not reading them at all. Political engagement is more than just watching a 15 second video on a political idea or reading a Twitter thread about a particular candidate. In order to be truly well informed, we must be conscious of the type and the extent of the information we’re consuming.
As videos of the Beirut explosion spread quickly throughout social media, people across the world reacted, posting messages of support and links to hundreds of different donation opportunities and petitions, many of which led directly to organizations unqualified or unable to help. In some cases, information was simply false or misleading. It is true that without social media, this widespread outpouring of compassion and desire to help would have been significantly diminished. Unfortunately, without proper research or willingness to engage with the topic of Beirut for longer than it takes to write a tweet, the actual problems go unsolved. In reality, these petitions do very little towards solving the actual long term conflicts, at least when made on a global level as opposed to a local one. Often they only truly serve towards making privileged Americans feel as though they are helping to solve these problems, encouraging white savior complexes. Especially in regards to issues in the Middle East or in the Global South, the reality is that these disasters or famines are not isolated events the way social media often leads us to believe; they are the direct results of Western imperialism and capitalism. Petitions and short informational threads completely ignore these realities; serving as only a bandaid over a bullet wound.
Another major disadvantage of surface-level social media engagement is that it centers the person posting, not the issue. This is not only damaging to the movement, but it has major effects on mental health. People become obsessed with their image as an activist, worrying about posting the right things at the right times, and not coming off as inauthentic. By reading news from sources centered around the issue, not the person, the activism becomes less individual-centric, and therefore less mentally stressing. Undoubtedly, social media activism in this time has dramatically shifted our generations political lens and engagement. Without such easily accessible media surrounding us, ‘Gen Z’ would never have been able to pioneer racial, social, and environmental justice movements in the same way we have recently. However, our generation must also remember that social media does not hold all the answers. Although it may be a challenge as a generation coming of age during a pandemic, if we truly want our movements to succeed, we must engage in real life community building and conversations with one another. Similarly, in order to be truly educated on the topics these movements are engaging in, in-depth political education is necessary, not just surface level social media briefs.