Social Media Activism Isn’t Enough If We Want Real Change

ON JANUARY 27TH, Bell Canada hosted their annual Bell Let’s Talk day, promising to donate 5 cents to mental health causes for every text, call, tweet, and share tagged #BellLetsTalk. There were a record-breaking 122,150,772 mentions, which resulted in a donation of more than $6 million. And that’s huge.

But just think, for a moment, what could have happened. What if, in addition to tweeting, retweeting, and texting, those who participated in #BellLetsTalk had also written to a government official, demanding changes to the mental health care system? How much more of an impact could this day have made?

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Photo credit: Sean MacEntee via Foter.com / CC BY

It would be no stretch of the imagination to say that this generation of young adults is especially passionate about social issues. Social media has offered anyone with WiFi and an opinion the ability to connect with millions of other people and talk about their beliefs, whether they gravitate towards affirmations, debates, or ALL CAPS typing wars. Accounts dedicated to social justice, feminism, LGBTQ+ rights, and mental health dominate certain corners of the internet, and — as with Bell Let’s Talk — these certain corners have made certain impacts on the issue they’ve turned into a hashtag.

The majority of 140-character messages, however, don’t make 5 cents worth of impact on the real world. In many ways, the passion for social issues — the passion that some say defines our generation — stays stuck in cyberspace. I was confronted by this reality when, in December, I decided to join the cyber activist community to connect with other like-minded people. The first few times I connected with someone who said told me they were a mental health advocate, I got excited.

What do you do? I would ask.

Had we been speaking in person, I would have been met with questioning stares. The answers were almost all the same — some variation of I blog on tumblr.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing wrong with online activism. But, if that’s where our activism stops, how much change can we make, really?

Reform

There are many ‘explanations’ as to why so many people post passionately about social issues online but then don’t act out these passions in the real world. Most are derisive, some inflammatory — everything from the words “slacktivist” and “social justice warrior” to explanations involving self-absorbed, snotty kids who want to feel good about themselves. I don’t think any of these are fair.

The truth is, the kind of activism that happens online is well suited for online conversations, and not very well suited for real-world action. Why? Because a lot of online activism focuses on combatting harmful ideas. The most talked-about problem in mental health online communities is stigma. A huge part of third-wave feminism is its interest in breaking down social constructs such as gender roles or gender itself, as well as its attempts to combat negative stereotypes and media portrayals of many marginalized groups. What is the best way to combat things comprised mostly of ideas, media, and words? With something that exists almost exclusively as ideas, media, and words, of course — like social media.

So no, I don’t think the inflammatory critiques of online-only activists are called for. But I do think that it’s important for us to realize that social injustice manifests itself in many, crueler ways than in our words, thoughts, and stereotypes and that the fight to combat these issues must also take place outside of the internet.

For us mental health activists, fighting stigma online should be paired with volunteering with organizations that work to expand access to effective treatments, or with social workers trying to help those who need treatment pay for it. We can volunteer with NAMI or other support organizations, fundraise, or push for more ethical treatment of those with mental health conditions in our school or workplace — there’s so much we can do.

We can even expand our use of online activism. Social media can be a powerful political motivator, if the right message is getting through. Think about it: lawmakers can’t pass a law combatting stigma. What would a law like that even entail? They can, however, increase mental health funding. They can pass laws that protect the rights of those with the most severe mental illnesses who usually end up on the streets or in jail — or who die during encounters with the police. They can pass higher standards for mental health care or (as President Obama just did) require insurance companies to offer more or better mental health coverage.

Pair a million people on Twitter with a thousand letters, emails, and phonecalls? We might just remind Congress that mental health is something they should care about.

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Photo credit: Sean MacEntee via Foter.com / CC BY

I cannot begin to imagine what the world would look like if the millions of young people who are post passionately about social issues were to also take actions that make the world a better place. This is one of the biggest reasons that I have revamped my entire blog.

My blog has been called Synapse because I love to study the brain. But now, the name has an even bigger meaning — it’s a metaphor, if you will.

You see, a synapse is the space between two neurons where a signal is transmitted from one to the other. If, when you wanted to move your arm, the signal couldn’t go across the synapse, you wouldn’t move. The signal would be lost, somewhere up in your cortical neurons.

In other words, your thoughts wouldn’t be translated into actions.

I want to encourage others like me to synapse — to take all the passions, convictions, and thoughts building up on our social media accounts and jump across the gap separating online activism from real-world action.

The task can seem daunting, sure — there’s so much wrong with our world that there’s no way a single individual can fix everything. But there’s so much that we can do that will make difference in our communities.

Who knows? If enough people get together, those small differences we each make just might turn #revolution into real-life reform.

Header photo credit: mkhmarketing via Foter.com / CC BY

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