The summer is ending for us here in Florida. It’s still hot and will be for another few months, but the school year has started and everyone’s back to work. I’ve been a part of two family reunions and a major gathering for my grandmother’s funeral. I got to go to a bunch of interesting conferences on human rights, progressive politics and podcasting this summer, so I am well fed with new ideas and new contacts for the upcoming season.
The hard part has been coming back to doing the work. My break from activism and from recording was good, but stepping up to confront the emergencies around us right now feels completely overwhelming. Indefinite detention of immigrant detainees is on the horizon, fires are burning in the Amazon, catastrophic shootings and casual gun violence happening everywhere, and the movement for impeachment demands our participation. It’s easy to see how to move forward with ResistanceMom the podcast. There is so much to write about. But I need to know how to get back involved.
The for-profit Homestead child detention camp appeared to close a couple of weeks ago, but officials are now saying they’ll have more child detainees there in October of this year. Witness Homestead is near the top of my list. Global Climate Strikes September 20-27, and ongoing efforts throughout August to push for impeachment, as well as the nationwide movement for a free and fair election in 2020 all are incredibly important. Where do I put my time?
Somehow, it’s a battle all the way across the world that may break through. The millions of people protesting for democracy, the rule of law and police accountability in Hong Kong today tied their movement to the international pro-democracy movement in a historic action creating a human chain throughout their city. It’s being done 30 years to the day after 2 million people joined hands across nearly 430 miles around the Baltic Sea to demand independence and accountability for the Soviet pact with the fascists in 1939. That was called The Baltic Way and was part of what contributed to the dissolution of the former Soviet Union. Today’s action is being named the Hong Kong Way.
I am going to go out on a limb here and put a marker on August 23rd as Democracy Day. I’m heading out tonight to stand for Democracy and stand with Hong Kong in downtown St Pete, Florida. My hashtag for the next little while will be #BraveLikeHongKong.
My favorite socio-technologist, Zeynep Tufekci, who was featured on a Resistance Mom episode in July, is actually in Hong Kong right now researching the Hong Kong protests and their digital infrastructure. Look for her @zeynep on Twitter for real-time commentary on the Hong Kong protests.
So I found my starting point for this fall. Decide where yours is and get to work. Remember that there is nothing more painful than caring about what’s happening in the world and not doing anything about it. Take action. It gets your energy flowing in a whole different direction and has ripple effects for all the people around you.
Before moving on, I want to send my deepest thanks to resisters all throughout our Florida community and around the country and around the world who haven’t taken a break this summer: The people at Witness Homestead observing the concentration camp that we now know isn’t actually closed, the progressive candidates running for office in the thick summer heat, Moms Demand and March for Our Lives leaders who are pushing us closer to a safer future. And Hong Kongers who have stood up to police violence and before the entire world to demand democracy.
This episode, and all episodes of Resistance Mom are engineered by Norval Sound Recording in St Petersburg, Florida. I want to thank Norval Alleman of Norval Sound for an incredible first season of sound engineering and for being Resistance Mom’s first sponsor. Look for Norval Sound Recording online at NorvalSound.com.
So let’s talk about Likes and Shares, the resistance work we do on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. Compared with all the other political activities we engage in, there’s no question that social media gets more of our time than any other. It’s not even close.
My guess is that even highly engaged resisters in leadership positions probably spend around 6-10 hours a month at meetings, demonstration, or making phone calls, but easily spend 60-100 hours a month, which is 2 to 2.5 hours a day on social media. I do actually think most of us spend perhaps ten times as much time on social media as we spend on other types of political work.
We get our daily information, signal our approval or disapproval with likes or angry faces and share what we want our community to see more of. Social media, primarily Facebook and Twitter, are where we keep up with news from family members and far-flung friends, but it’s also where we take our first steps as resisters: we sign petitions, send letters and comments to elected officials, and read articles about issues to learn more. Social Media is where progressives frame their issues the way we see them and rally our base as emergencies and other actions arise.
Social media is without a doubt the most powerful engine for this activity that exists anywhere. A single well written post on an emerging issue can allow an activist without any institutional backing to reach thousands of people or even hundreds of thousands of people through viral sharing.
Facebook and Twitter, launched in 2004 and 2006 respectively, seemed made for the progressive communities when we first started to use them. During the presidential campaigns of 2008 and 2012, the Obama campaign played out on our news feeds and timelines. will i am’s Yes We Can video was viewed more than 36 million times. Raising awareness and compassion about issues using personal stories is at the heart of what we do, and social media at first seemed to fit with our movement like a glove.
We adopted social media in the biggest way possible, making these startup companies some of the financial titans of the world just as we started to realize that these technologies could in many ways be too powerful.
We are now becoming painfully aware of the critical differences between a privately owned tech company and a true public square. We don’t have an inherent right to be there and speak. They can block our posts or kick us off the services entirely. When we rely on them as the primary mode of communication for a group, we’re counting on an algorithm that’s a black box. We have no control at the end of the day over how widely our messages are distributed among our network or if they’re shown to anyone at all.
As socio-technologist Zeynep Tufekci wrote in Wired this summer, “…we should be leery of entrusting power to corporate giants that are largely unaccountable. If you innocently run afoul of them, you may have little or no recourse. A suspension from Facebook can cut you off from friends, allies, and audiences; losing access to Amazon or the App Store can destroy livelihoods. Often all a wrongfully barred person can do is fill out forms and look desperately for a personal contact at the company—much the way people in poorer countries look to family members in the state bureaucracy to solve problems.”
Apps like Facebook, Twitter, What’s App, and Telegram have been powering movements for freedom and democracy all over the world, from Ukraine’s Maidan Square in 2014, to Tunisia’s launch of the arab spring in 2011, and including to the ongoing mass protests for democracy happening now in Hong Kong.
But we began to learn that the tools could be used by our opponents effectively as well. Right wingers began to exploit the propensity for online conversations to be more divisive than other forms of communication. Russia invested billions of dollars into unlocking the potential for online news and social media to confuse and overwhelm voters, first in Eastern Europe and now here.
They’ve exploited the way algorithms tend to favor extremist content and figured out how to insert themselves into millions of online conversations by creating tens of millions of fake accounts. Rather than being a place where telling our stories leads to greater understanding, social media started to become a place where the truth is often intentionally distorted, confusing millions of people who rely on these networks for news, information and support.
As activists work to challenge companies like Facebook and Twitter about the disinformation they help promote, their response has been to minimize their role and refuse to comply with privacy regulations where they exist. Advocates for journalists, the democratic process and marginalized communities have lost faith that Facebook, in particular, can be treated as a good-faith actor. British journalist Carole Cadwalladr is famous for saying in a TedTalk this year about Facebook and Twitter, that “liberal democracy is broken and you broke it.” Private companies don’t necessarily have a commitment to our communities, to any nation or fundamentally to democracy. However much money racists, Russians and the super rich have to spend seems to be the amount of business they will do promoting authoritarianism and hate.
In the United States, there are practically zero regulations protecting our democracy from the impacts of Russian or other anti-democratic interference online. We used to regulate political speech on radio and television. Companies making use of the public airwaves used to be required to cover controversial topics relevant to the American public and present opposing sides of the arguments about those issues. Those protections were called the Fairness Doctrine, and were eliminated in 1987, a move that lead directly to the development of modern right wing talk radio and Fox News.
It is in the unregulated sector of digital media, with unreported expenditures, that the Russians were able to fulfill their wildest dreams in 2016: spreading disinformation, dividing Americans from one another and helping elect a President who would support Russian interests on the world stage.
2016 feels like a long time ago now. We’ve definitely lost ground, but resistance activists across numerous sectors are learning how to continue to do our work in this critically important arena. We have a long way to go to reclaim our political discourse from unaccountable and hostile state actors, but we are no longer a populace utterly unprepared for information warfare.
People are paying attention to whether or not they are getting wrong information online. They’re attending workshops like one held this weekend by Common Ground Florida, on identifying misinformation online. People are realizing they need to become paying subscribers to the news sources that are trustworthy. News organizations are a critical part of our infrastructure that can only survive with paying customers. Getting our news from free aggregators and customized news feeds means we’ll only get information the algorithm thinks we’ll like, and starves the institutions who are trying to continue to report on events around the world. So, for example, I’ve gotten our family subscriptions to the Washington Post, The Guardian, to Judd Legum’s newsletter, Popular Information, and made small contributions to a couple of podcasts.
People are also learning to be more discerning about fake accounts online. The advice to “not feeding the trolls” is more widely understood these days than ever before, which basically means not letting yourself be drawn into online conversations sparked by inflammatory statements, especially from people you don’t know. A bot’s job is to upset you, to try and get you to say inflammatory things in response, and take up a lot of your time. Whether it’s an automated script originating in Macedonia or a lunatic NRA account here in the US, you have zero chance of changing its mind. Spend your time on other political work.
There are some basic clues for identifying fake Facebook and Twitter accounts, which I focused in an episode called The Moms Movement in Season 1 of ResistanceMom.
Another thing we’ve learned is not to help opponents in the race for clicks and shares. Trump gets the exposure he wants to larger groups of people when we retweet anything of his in order to condemn him. Make your comment without including his post. I actually block Trump on Twitter along with other right wingers a) so I don’t have their cruelty hitting me when I check my phone, and b) so I’m not ever boosting their visibility. You can actually follow an account called Unfollow Trump that lets you see what his tweets are without giving him the clicks.
Thankfully, in the last year people seem to have adopted new standards for handling the aftermath of shootings or other terrorist attacks. Many more journalists and even the general public have figured out not to share statements or manifestos from shooters or even use their names or photographs online. We don’t have to help them spread their ideas or add to their personal notoriety.
So, the American people are no longer complete babes in the wilderness in dealing with social media. It is horrifying to think of how vulnerable we all have been up to this point, really, to the most vile predatory and premeditated attacks on us as a nation and as a democracy. We trusted Facebook and Twitter like they were a town square, or the water cooler at work or our own front porch, when of course they were none of these things.
It’s our job now to take what we’ve learned in adapting to the realities of this environment and begin to reclaim our power as organizers.
First, we do need to stay active online. For hundreds of millions of people, these spaces are where issues are framed for the country as a whole, where people discuss their responses to tragedies and challenges, and the qualifications of candidates. Progressives and democrats have to keep our voices raised there. The advocacy groups fighting for women’s health care, for racial justice, environmental protection and everything else need us to sign their petitions and get their hashtags trending.
But you can also rebalance your portfolio. If there are weeks where you are only liking and sharing, look for one meeting you can get to, a phone call you can make to your member of Congress, or a candidate you can work for – even if it’s only for an hour. If you do a little bit of political work that’s not online in your community, challenge yourself to do one additional thing and find the time by cutting an hour or two out of social media.
There really is a value to the flow of likes and shares that we contribute to online, but it all takes place in an extremely addictive and discouraging environment. Our apps and little screens use terrifyingly advanced psychological tools to keep our eyes fixed there as long as possible. Even if social media was a place in which we had the upper hand right now, which we don’t, too much screen time is depressing for anyone.
Politically, social media is not our home turf right now. The biggest objectives of our most sophisticated opponents are to confuse and misinform us, to push divisive messages so we won’t want to work together, and to leave us discouraged – thinking nothing we do will make a difference. I think everyone using Facebook and Twitter in America over the last few years has felt these effects.
So spend less time there. Doing action with people is interesting in completely different ways. Some people are scared to walk door to door for a candidate, but I’m here to say, you are way more likely to encounter angry, crazy people online than you are walking through any neighborhood. Volunteering for an organization helps them reach concrete goals and helps you meet new, like-minded people.
The groups working to win elections, protect the environment and stand up for immigrants, and everything else urgently need more people to show up in person. I know there are all these calculations out there about how many books we could read a year if we quit social media, but I think even if we just cut in half the time we spend on Facebook, myself included here, we could elect a Democratic House and Senate that could save our actual lives.
This show was really hard to write. The biggest barrier I had between me and writing was how powerfully I have become addicted to social media over the summer. I think that turning relentlessly to this endless stream of news and commentary feels like a way to be involved when, for whatever reason, we can’t actually be involved. But it isn’t enough.
Find a campaign you want to work on. Go to a meeting for a local environmental group. Call Planned Parenthood and ask what volunteer opportunities they have. Rebalance your portfolio of political action so that likes and shares don’t take over for the incredible political experience these next few years are going to be.
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That’s all we’ve got for you today! It’s a pleasure to connect with all the resisters I meet out there every day in making the show. If you have questions or feedback about the show, send me an email at [email protected]. I’d love to hear your ideas for new episodes or guests.
That’s all until next week. Thanks for listening and keep resisting!