Op-ed: Social media activism doesn’t always tell the whole story

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic and the cancellation of in-person classes for universities across the country, this past year has left several students with far more time to spend at home, particularly spent on their phones.

During 2020, we witnessed the massive nationwide protests that ensued after a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd, and we lived through the anticipation of the 2020 presidential election, all of which also contributed to a surge in another related area: social media activism.

Although advocating on behalf of social issues is certainly not new to social media platforms, the surge in content I’ve seen urging others to educate themselves and “take action” has been so powerful that I too felt pressured to share information as a commitment to my awareness and compassion for others. The insinuation seems to be that not participating in this massive exchange of resources communicates an unwillingness to confront uncomfortable, real-world problems that one needs to engage with to better themselves as a member of society. Instructive, sometimes authoritative, language is used to tell friends that they’re complicit in advancing injustice if they don’t subsequently get involved, whether that be signing a petition, making a donation or simply resharing content. Even ultimatums are given telling followers to unfollow the accounts of their peers if they don’t share the same opinions on some controversial political disputes. Certainly, anyone who regularly glances through their social media apps has witnessed this phenomenon – it can more or less be recognized as a type of mild coercion on the part of our friends. As much as it’s essential to refrain from directly pointing fingers, it’s imperative that we stay attentive to the impacts of this behavior.

The added goal of remaining inclusive of the struggles and rights of civilians globally intensifies impulsive sharing when it comes to world events. The aforementioned collective, activist-minded peer pressure incites users to feel the need to speak about complicated international conflicts without always possessing well-informed or well-rounded views. While I don’t mean to degrade individuals who are dedicated to standing up for their morals and advocating for others, young and socially conscious social media users too often develop an opinion without first acquiring all of the relevant information, which in turn can lead to misinformation. I urge fellow students to second-guess the information they see and approach activism more cautiously and humbly in an effort to reduce misinformation.

Over the course of the last year, myriad posts with titles like “What’s happening in *insert country* and why you should care” have been circulating across platforms, many among the GW community as well. Again, the educational intentions behind this type of sharing are admirable, but the outcome of the action itself may be irresponsible and misleading. For example, the title slide of this infographic post about the Nagorno-Karabakh war between Azerbaijan and Armenia in the fall of 2020 reads “WTF is happening in Armenia,” when in fact any reputable news source would report that the conflict didn’t take place within the borders of Armenia, but within Nagorno-Karabakh and its seven adjacent occupied districts – all territories internationally recognized as de jure part of Azerbaijan.

To well-intentioned third parties not directly connected to the groups, regions or sensitive events associated with a particular conflict, I ask: What good is your intention to educate others about something that you have quite clearly not researched yourself?

Unfortunately, numerous, less impartial infographics can present undertones of ethnic hate, extremely charged words and exaggerations in an attempt to gain support for their causes by garnering emotional sympathy from audiences. Immediately inserting yourself with a viewpoint in conversations about events in regions of the world in which you have no background and whose geopolitical histories you have not studied in detail, in essence, lacks humility and integrity.

Even the Student Association, which aims to represent the interests of students from all backgrounds and nationalities, inappropriately contributed to this kind of reckless behavior in October. The SA Instagram account shared an infographic post originally constructed by the GW Armenian Students Association about the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh conflict to their stories, which highlighted a one-sided perspective and also included information about contacting U.S. representatives and donating to the Armenian war effort. The SA Senate later passed a resolution calling for the SA executive branch to apologize for sharing the post.

At GW, a university that prides itself on its reputation for creating the next generation of global leaders, students should remember that international conflicts need to be discussed respectfully, with room for opposing viewpoints, but nonetheless based on trusted academic knowledge and credible sources of information. This entails assessing objective outlooks that fairly weigh historical records, political entanglements and international law instead of solely relying on personal accounts that may be biased due to ethnic and cultural tensions. When browsing through Instagram and Twitter, students should remain vigilant while digesting current events. The provocative calls to action by their peers may not tell the whole story.

That is to say that if you do consume social media activism, particularly relating to international crises, be sure that it is not all you consume in understanding the scope of an issue occurring thousands of miles away from you. Consult differing perspectives before forming an opinion and jumping to conclusions because, as the old saying goes, there are always two sides to every story. Think before you share. Take everything with a grain of salt.

Ayda Akgün is a junior majoring in Spanish & Latin American Languages, Literatures & Cultures.

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