As We Live and Tweet: How to Really Be a Social Media Activist
Hopeful activism online is hard. Our words and sentences (even our emoji) can’t accurately capture the complexity of our emotions, our longings, or our dreams. And depending on how it’s communicated, a perspective of hope can come across as naive, ignorant, or even insensitive to the hardship of others. If we’re not indignant, we’re presumed to be indifferent, and if we’re blatantly positive, we must be absolutely nuts. It seems there’s no way to be on the fringe of the political discussion anymore.
We’d argue there’s a more nuanced, productive way to run after the goodness, beauty, and truth we want to see in culture, starting with our social media platforms. There’s a way to speak out against injustice without growing disparaging. A way to be critical without being cynical. A way to mingle wit and wisdom, celebration and grief. A way to continue offering authentic hope to the world around us.
It starts with the understanding that hope isn’t a passive posture. It’s a launching pad, a call to action. More than that, it’s knowing that hope is not blind faith. It’s believing in what can, should, and will be, and contouring our lives around the pursuit of those things in the midst of the tension. As our resident writer Micah Conkling pointed out, “To be an activist, you need enthusiasm and a clenched fist. A social media feed shouldn’t shy away from politics, but also can’t just bang the partisan drum so loudly that good truth falls on deaf ears.”
So how do we coexist with the reality of what is and the possibility of what could and should be? How do we live and tweet as hopeful activists, arching always toward the renewal we crave? We interviewed a few of our online friends to explore practical ways to steward our online and offline lives faithfully. Here’s what we came up with.
Start with your offline life.
Something needs to change--that’s one thing we can all probably agree on. When the cultural air is so dismal we can cut through it, something needs to be re-calibrated, renewed, reset. That’s where we, the activists, come in. Though social media is a helpful tool for disseminating and discussing ideas we care about, Sarah Dolislager believes the bulk of our work toward promoting change in our communities and the world at large should happen offline. In other words, our online engagement is simply an overflow of the hard work we're doing to pursue good in the front lines of our lives.
“Our activism should always be stronger offline, in our communities, and engaging with issues face to face," she said. "If I spend more time tweeting than I do showing up in tangible ways for the people I’m tweeting about, I have failed. The physical communities around us and our online communities are both great opportunities to steward hope and spark change, so let’s get going."
Focus on facts.
Sometimes, Twitter feels more like a conveyor belt of anxiety triggers than a healthy source of dialogue. And let’s face it: in this political climate, we’re all one subtweet away from getting suckered into a divisive thread that could, for a lack of better term, “blow our witness.”
Conkling made the point that we should steer clear of the woe-is-me mindset. “For social media activism to transcend being an echo chamber of like-minded voices, we can’t just gripe and ridicule--and maybe we shouldn’t complain at all. Potent change happens through tenacious and bright good; we have to promote what we love instead of bash what we disagree with.”
That means fixating on the cold, gray, proven #facts whenever possible, as Dolislager recommends. She said, “I am guilty of the emotional retweet or even a Facebook vent (gasp!) if I don’t think first. I try to focus on sharing facts (of the true, non-alternative variety) and try to express my opinions thoughtfully, understanding that there are real people on the opposite side of where I stand. This includes political satire that’s based on facts because, let’s be honest, that stuff is really good right now.”
Ask yourself questions.
It can never hurt to run your ideas through a pre-determined filter to make sure you’re staying true to your ethos. Dolislager shared some helpful questions she asks herself before addressing important topics online: “Am I advocating or tearing down? If it’s the latter, it doesn’t belong online. Who am I advocating for? Do they need my voice or can I help to amplify theirs instead? What platform is the most effective for the message? What’s the goal? Spreading the word? Call to action? Encourage others? Stand on my soap box? Identify this before engaging.”
Rachael Kincaid gets even more specific with her filter system. “I try to always point people to Jesus, meet on common ground, and invite healthy dialogue. I try to get the back-and-forth off of my public profiles and onto email, and I only post about the things for which I’m willing to die. If [that] sounds dramatic, well… I can't think of a better rule by which to live in real life, so I just went with that one for my online life, too.”
Engage others with grace.
Social media moves fast. Sometimes so fast that we, caught up in a post-election storm of emotions, miss real opportunities to extend the grace and love that suddenly seems so absent from culture. Lindsey Wright pointed out that even in the face of blatant disagreement and harsh criticism, activism means taking time for empathy-fueled conversation, ideally in a separate, offline venue.
“It is tempting, when someone responds to a Facebook post with vitriol, or just plain poor logic, to simply ignore them, or worse, delete them. But I have found that the best way to handle those types of comments is to engage with kindness and grace,” she said. “Be civil, and ask questions; more than likely this person has a life circumstance that has influenced their opinion. State your case clearly, and with as much evidence as you can find, from a variety of sources. If at all possible, invite the person to continue the conversation in a private message, over the phone, or in person.”
She continued, “Bringing something online into ‘the real world’ can many times de-escalate a situation, and allow both parties to really be heard. It’s too easy to feel attacked when you cannot hear a tone of voice, or see a reaction. Do your best to protect the dignity of everyone who comes to your page, whether or not you agree with them, and above all, remain teachable and humble.”
Let the haters hate.
There will be situations when your attempts to genuinely connect around a controversial topic will be ignored or criticized--and that’s okay. As our dear friend and muse Kanye West once rapped “...And if they hate then let ‘em hate, and watch the money pile up.” Though we can’t promise any sums of actual cash will come your way, we know there’s spiritual and emotional payback in protecting your heart and mind from the cold cynicism of those around you.
In other words, while we shouldn’t seek to provoke conflict, there are times when simply sharing certain kinds of information will be perceived as inflammatory. And in those cases, we just need to be okay with being misunderstood. Dolislager said it well: “I try not to spend time worrying about if people will agree or if they will unfollow me. I want to use my voice for good regardless of what others think.”
Keep in mind that on the internet, a lot of the ugly discourse that takes place starts someone else’s thin skin or their urge to pick a fight. That’s their problem, not yours. So as hard as it may be, keep wielding your voice for the causes you care about. Resign yourself from the comments section. And most of all, resist the trolls, and they will flee from you.
Take comfort in quiet.
Some people believe that choosing to remain silent about politics on social media channels is a political statement in itself. We reject this notion wholesale. There are many, many perfectly understandable reasons not to engage in the dialogue online at all.
Cassie LaFollette describes herself as “one of the quieter ones” on social media channels, but that doesn’t mean that she’s disengaged from the world around her. Quite the contrary: “I will use the negative space to my advantage: when I have held my tongue a thousand times in case of error, then I will open my mouth with a kindness,” she said. “Since all my chips went into that kindness, it will hold more meaning than the one thousand harsh words combined. Perhaps sheer volume, though an obvious choice when it comes to wanting to be heard, has reached a saturation point on social media.”
Do the next right thing.
In this back-and-forth game of tweets, retweets, and subtweets, there’s no simple formula or black-and-white rule. Stewarding our social media presence well--whether via subversive silence or a loud voice crying out against injustice--means listening to (and continually re-calibrating) our inner compass.
What does that look like practically? Conkling said. “The philosopher Dallas Willard says the best way to grow is to ‘Do the next right thing you need to do.’ I’ve tried to use that posture in my approach to social media: tweet the next right thing, Instagram the next right thing, post the next right thing on Facebook. Not what’s funny or cutting or will win the most RTs, but what’s right.”
He continued, “The Fray, who I’d argue are of equal philosophical standing to Dallas Willard, have a song in which they say ‘sometimes the hardest thing and the right thing are the same.’ They’re correct. It’s challenging to not share the meme, to not make the joke, to not type up the Facebook comment that really teaches our conservative aunt a stern lesson about the tyranny of Wall Street. But be part of a resistance or movement can mean denying yourself easy pleasures.”
As we look for ways to wrap our lives around both hope and resistance, let’s remember that when we can’t find good, we’re capable of creating it. May we be people who, in the sometimes exhausting, always rewarding pursuit of righteousness, seek to build bridges instead of platforms.
A special thanks to our interviewees Micah Conkling, Sarah Dolislager, Rachael Kincaid, Lindsey Wright, and Cassie LaFollette for sharing the wisdom that shaped this piece. We'd recommend giving them each a follow as you grow your arsenal of hope-wielding activist friends.