Political activism and social media: Friends or foes?

By Mohit Mann

November 28, 2019

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

At this year’s annual summit for the Obama Foundation, former U.S. President Barack Obama addressed issues regarding civic engagement in the United States. Major news outlets covering the summit focused in particular on his statements concerning the relationship between political activism and social media. With the advent of social media, conventional forms of political engagement have begun to face competition from new forms including “woke culture,” “call-out culture” and “cancel culture,” which have gained popularity among social media users as methods by which to hold politicians accountable.

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.

Engaging in call-out culture means condemning individuals for actions and behaviors deemed reprehensible, often on matters concerning racial or social discrimination. Public censure in the form of canceling seeks to remove an individual entirely from the conversation. Obama criticized these methods of public condemnation as inauthentic forms of political activism that shut down conversation and fail to drive change.

Obama argues that “people who do really good stuff have flaws” and sees a trend, particularly among young people on college campuses, where individuals seek change by being “as judgmental as possible.” He says politics, and especially American politics, are not black and white. Nobody is perfect. Yet politicians face an increasingly hostile political and social environment that looks more like a finger-pointing battlefield than a space for healthy political deliberation. So what is the alternative for Americans hoping to hold politicians accountable through political engagement? Ironically, people of the age group engaging so actively in call-out culture often fail to participate in the most fundamental political act: voting. Only 43% of 18- to 29-year-olds eligible to cast ballots voted in the 2016 federal election.

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 can be a productive political force. Obama himself used the power of social media on the campaign trail. It has become an integral part of political protest, allowing political movements to consolidate with unprecedented speed. Political protests no longer take “weeks of planning, newspaper ads, phone trees” and charismatic figures such as Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. to organize effectively. Notably, social media-organized protests may not last as long as campaigns that spend greater time and resources forging in-person connections.  

While protests organized online can bring people together, Obama has also argued that technology reinforces inequality and divides people. Social media algorithms can facilitate the spread of misinformation and the creation of echo chambers, reinforcing existing biases rather than opening conversation. Perhaps for this reason, many 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.”

Ultimately, Obama expressed concern about the impact of these new forms of political engagement on the 2020 election. If voters assess candidates based on the unforgiving purity tests that have emerged from call-out culture, he fears that the Democrats will be left with a small party that cannot win. As he has said, “If all you’re doing is casting stones, you’re probably not going to get that far.”

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