By Kudrat Wadhwa Dec. 15, 2019
Social media activism is not the only kind of activism we can practice today. As students from Jamia and other universities raise their voices against the Citizenship Act, we need to show up at demonstrations and ensure that our dissent is heard. The current political scenario demands it.
My mornings normally begin with a cup of coffee, but of late, that has changed. The caffeine rush has been replaced by extensive reading about the National Register of Citizens (NRC), and the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB), which recently passed in Parliament to become a law. And, the state of events in the country have shocked and horrified me.As I clicked through tab after tab, the CAB and NRC weren’t the only issues vying for my attention. At one point, my Twitter feed contained funny one-liners about capitalism, updates from the frontlines of the Hong Kong protests, and birthday wishes for Sharad Pawar, among other things. Before actively reading about them, I had a slight idea that the NRC and CAB were bad, because I had read tweets by journalists saying just that, but did not know exactly what was bad about them. The vast and diverse amount of information I am bombarded with every time I check Twitter had prevented me from truly engaging with these policies and understanding their significance.
How is one supposed to stay focused, while drowning in a sea of random and unrelated information? Why are we so distracted, and does that distraction curb our ability to take effective action?
In her book, “How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy”, Jenny Odell describes her strikingly similar Twitter feed, with news and short tweets about a variety of topics, as lacking grounding in a specific place and space, as we consume content from around the world at all times of the day. Twitter, even with its increased limit of 280 characters, is inhospitable for an informed discussion.
She writes that in the “attention economy”, our attention is divided into “bits” that corporate platforms buy and sell. Odell says social media has a “financial incentive to keep us in a profitable state of anxiety, envy, and distraction.” By inundating us with new and more information, these corporations ensure that we spend more time on their platforms, thus increasing their engagement and potential for profit.
The problem arises when social media activism becomes the only kind of activism we practice.
How does this affect people like me, who want to voice their opposition to measures like the CAB? If social media is keeping us constantly distracted, unable to engage with a single topic for a sustained amount of time, that’s a grave problem. It means that instead of taking meaningful long-term political action, we sometimes ignore serious injustice by watching, say, a funny cat video instead. Or, we do the bare minimum by retweeting or sharing an article. Once in a while, if we’re feeling really passionate, we change our profile photo to show solidarity with a cause. Then, we move on.
Admittedly, I am guilty of that as well.
But I fall in the category of people who are not completely cynical about social media activism, or, as the haters call it, “armchair activism”. Last year, when my friends changed their profile pictures to blue, I became curious and researched about the Sudan crisis. I often share news articles on my feed and changed my profile photos to show solidarity. In August this year, it was red after the government abrogated Article 370 and imposed a communication blockade in Kashmir. But should we stop at that?
I think that social media is helpful in creating basic awareness about a cause and has some effective tools that can be used to draw attention to activism efforts. However, the problem arises when social media activism becomes the only kind of activism we practice. Evidently, rage-tweeting will not bring justice to anyone and will not affect the system significantly. Most of our posts and tweets merely perform the function of joining the growing archive of history owned by Facebook and Twitter.
Instead, as Odell argues, we need to do more, much more. We need to resist the attention economy that wants us to be distracted, and actively educate ourselves. We need to make change by having conversations with real people around us, not just Facebook algorithms of our friends and Twitter trolls. We have to show up to protests and demonstrations and ensure that our dissent is heard, because the current political scenario demands it.
On my part, I am trying to talk, in person, to friends and family about causes I feel passionately about. These conversations are difficult and painful and people rarely change their opinions after a single chat. But, it’s important to remember that real change, unlike posting on Facebook or Twitter, isn’t immediate or instantaneous. Think about the Indian Independence Movement, for example. From the Rebellion in 1857 to Indian Independence in 1947, the movement took a total of 90 years to come to fruition. Clearly, there’s a long road ahead.
I will be showing up to the upcoming protests against the CAA, because I feel passionately about it. I will speak out, both on social media and more importantly, in real life. I will make sure that I resist the attention economy and don’t get distracted, because being an active part of a democracy is much more rewarding than watching any funny cat video.
Kudrat is a 'cusp' in many ways - both Millennial and Gen Z, Aries and Taurus, Indian and NRI, and is learning to love these contradictions about herself. She enjoys letting her phone battery die every now and then but thinking about her mother's many missed calls gives her anxiety. Find her on Twitter (@kudrat62) or Instagram (@desi_girl_cooks).