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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Sunday, February 25, 2024

My silence does not mean I don’t ‘care’: The perils of social media activism

The societal expectation that people must voice opinions about global tragedies online is polarizing and distracts from the nuances of complex crises.

In the wake of the Oct. 7 Hamas attack, followed by incessant Israeli counterstrikes, a recurring frustration — triggered by phrases such as “your silence is showing” — has surfaced within me. Whether this sounds all too familiar, or completely novel, the point is that there is often a sentiment that as individuals, we are obliged to immediately post an online statement opining on a global tragedy. Whether it be the murder of George Floyd in 2020, Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021 or Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022, there is one common thread: The failure to voice an opinion or repost relevant content to a public forum seems to be at odds with the prevailing norms of social media, creating the impression that your silence makes you a perpetrator in a crisis you might have no personal stakes in.

While I am not the most fond of mindless reposting, it is worth acknowledging that there is always that one-in-a-hundred social media user who genuinely has a learning mindset and clicks on a post to learn more, making the post a valuable contribution. What I think is problematic, though, is when people use coercive language to trigger a response from others during times of tragedy. This response can make people feel that it is an absolute duty to articulate an opinion in the public sphere and that somehow an expression of outrage will improve the situation.

A prime example of this issue surfaced not long ago when I encountered an Instagram post blatantly labeling all those who have not publicly asserted their pro-Palestinian view as supporting Israeli occupation of Palestine. In that vein, I have also seen others characterize all who haven’t expressed a public display of solidarity for Jews as “antisemitic.” Generalizations like these tend to overlook a crucial point: the fact that not all who are silent are consciously avoiding the issue at hand; they may simply be unaware. The overarching institutionalized status quo should not lead to — and certainly is not a pretext for — the broader assumption that those who are not vociferously challenging this status quo in the public arena are automatically conforming to them. Many are quick to denounce these people using phrases such as “your privilege is showing,” pointing to how people are perpetrators of selective activism and only advocate for issues that are “convenient to them.” Although it is indisputably important to acknowledge the inherent privilege one holds for not having direct ties to a tragedy, it must also be emphasized that it is nonetheless insensitive to immediately equate silence to indifference. As detached individuals, the least we could do is understand the situation to the fullest extent and foster sympathy for all victims in the crisis, but mindlessly reposting a story and condemning feelings of sincerity achieves neither.

When we indiscriminately censure silence, we are not giving people the time they need to gain an exhaustive understanding of a nuanced situation and formulate their own moral calculus on the matter at hand. We overlook the importance of critical contemplation and acknowledgment of uncertainties when engaging with issues of tremendous gravity and sensitivity. It sends off the message that posting a commentary one does not actually mean — nor even understand — in order to adhere to a veneer of political correctness is more important than taking the time to understand a situation by its full picture. Would an additional opinion, driven by the desire to glean immediate validation from an audience of strangers, hold any meaningful significance within the larger framework of progress? Would it add any value to our collective effort to educate more people about the geopolitical complexities and historical legacies intertwined with such a crisis? Instead of hastily sharing halfhearted responses that lack depth, insight and sometimes even truthfulness, wouldn’t it be more beneficial to abstain from posting altogether, given how multifaceted and complicated the issue already is?

This type of accusation often leads to an “us against them” mentality; it is counterproductive at best, and divisive, polarizing and alienating at worst. Social media activism diverts from the actual issue at hand and shifts to a peripheral discourse on the correct form of advocacy. To truly use social media as a means to educate and inform more people, we should focus more on bringing nuanced perspectives to these difficult situations in order to foster more authentic and well-informed dialogues about the situation, as opposed to dividing more people into a simple binary that just doesn’t describe any global crisis.