Political Activism and Social Media: Friends or Foes?

By: Mohit Mann

November 28, 2019

At the annual summit for the Obama Foundation this year, former President Barack Obama addressed issues regarding civic engagement in the United States. Not long after Obama’s comments were made, some predominant news outlets focused their attention on his statements concerning the relationship between political activism and social media. While political activism has certainly changed with the advent of social media, Americans have always been keen on being politically active. Since the foundations of the United States’ political apparatus were laid, Americans’ engagement with and perception of public affairs has played an integral role in shaping the relations between the citizenry and the government.

Flag waving at the DNC on Thursday night. Credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/number7cloud/28015080104. Author: Lorie Shaull. Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Nonetheless, conventional forms of political engagement face competition, to the extent that domestic audiences now rely on modern technological methods of keeping up to date with politics. As such, ‘woke culture’, ‘call-out culture’, and ‘cancel culture’ have gained newfound popularity, especially amongst social media users, as methods of holding politicians accountable for their actions.

Former President Barack Obama. “obama-356133” by Vormingplus.foto is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Shared Alike  CC0 1.0 Universal (CC0 1.0) Public Domain Dedication.

 This culture of condemning individuals for actions and behaviours that are deemed reprehensible, primarily serves to discredit controversial positions on matters concerning racial or social discrimination.  In some instances, public censure in the form of cancelling, which seeks to severely limit what is perceived to be the reprehensible behaviour of these personalities, even leads to the removal of these individuals from social or professional circles. These novel methods are thus considered important by those who use them because they prevent the political establishment from overlooking their concerns. Yet, former President Barack Obama has been highly critical of these new forms of public condemnation, especially through the use of social media, which he believes are inauthentic forms of political activism.

Obama poses a direct challenge to the idea of purity tests, which call-out culture seeks to uphold through the public shaming of individuals. He argues that “people who do really good stuff have flaws” and sees a trend, particularly among young people on college campuses, whereby individuals seek change by being “as judgmental as possible”. However, he does not believe this call-out culture is a genuine form of activism that brings about change in society. Yet, Obama’s assertions continued with his remarks on the ills of social media, whereby he maintained his position that technology causes greater inequality and makes the public more divided as it becomes increasingly central to modern life.

The point Obama is trying to make is that politics, and especially the complex nature of American politics, is not a black or white picture. Nobody is perfect. Yet, politicians face an increasingly hostile political and social environment which is beginning to look a lot like a finger-pointing battlefield rather than a domain for healthy political deliberation. The question, then, is what exactly is the best way of holding politicians accountable such that it is conducive to individuals becoming truly politically active rather than seeking change by being “as judgmental as possible”? After all, one of the primary markers of a healthy democracy is the ability of the citizenry to hold elected officials accountable.

The most obvious method of becoming politically active is voting. However, the young people that Obama sees as seeking change through ‘call-out culture’ are a part of the group of voters that have dismal voter turnout levels. Although many young voters appear to be politically motivated on social media platforms, they often fail to turn out at the polls. Only 43 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds eligible to cast ballots, voted in the 2016 federal election. Nevertheless, voting is just one avenue for actively participating in politics in the United States. Social media now acts as an important instrument in providing unprecedented organizational opportunities for political activism to unfurl.

Civil Rights Protestors Marching to Washington. “Civil Rights March on Washington” by Archives Foundation is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Shared Alike Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) Some Rights Reserved.

Social media now lies at the heart of political protests in the United States. These platforms have altered the nature of political protests in that they provide an unprecedented expediency for political movements to consolidate. Political protests no longer take “weeks of planning, newspaper ads, phone trees” and charismatic figures such as Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to advance their causes in order to become successfully organized movements that pose considerable challenges to their adversaries. However, social media protests do not come without problems. Campaigns that spend greater time and resources forging in-person connections may last longer than online movements that lack such ties. In addition, a great number of Americans feel that “social media makes people believe they’re making a difference when they really aren’t” and that such platforms “distract people from issues that are truly important.”

Yet, social media remains an important instrument for political communication in the United States. For instance, Obama himself used the power of social media to aid his campaign in securing the presidency. Furthermore, President Trump’s incessant use of social media makes it quite difficult to avoid the role that social media plays in conveying political messages to the masses in contemporary American politics. However, social media also plays a considerable role in relaying inaccurate information to audiences and often reinforces their predispositions. Examples of the latter include being selective about the information to which citizens choose to expose themselves as well as interpreting information through ideologically motivated considerations. The significance of social media algorithms must not be understated here. For example, social networking sites such as Facebook show users similar content to what they previously interacted with, further reinforcing their biases.

Nevertheless, the essence of staying ‘woke’ remains important in contemporary American society. It is a reminder to remain vigilant and care about the people around you; it is a form of social awareness that calls for creating a better society by paying attention to the society itself. However, being ‘woke’ and politically active are not one and the same. Hence, publicly assigning fault to individuals based on purity tests leads otherwise politically active citizens to not only think that whatever they are doing is always right, but also that partaking in such activities is a genuine form of political activism. This is at the core of Obama’s message. Social media leads many individuals to equate the two together. Thus, it is ultimately the responsibility of citizens to bridge the gap between social awareness and political activism.

Political awareness and political activism must go beyond the realm of social media. Although holding judgmental views about politicians with controversial beliefs bodes well for ensuring the legitimacy of political awareness in contemporary American politics, censuring these politicians solely through the use of social media may have undesirable effects. In light of the 2020 presidential nomination race, Obama unsurprisingly fears that the Democrats will “have such a small party and will not be able to win” if assessments of candidates are based on such purity tests.