4 Reasons Why Movements on Social Media can Never Really Drive Change

It is safe to say that right now, I feel quite a lot like Michael Crichton, after he published State of Fear – a book which decried the very concept of Global Warming as we know it. And seriously, as I write this I can see all the social media apologists unleashing their wrath on me – thinking of me what all those Al Gore fans must have thought of Crichton. In the next few lines, I am going to criticize the tool which has been heralded as the greatest contributor to social change in the history of mankind. Feels good to go this far out on a limb. The analogy itself was worth it.

Ever since Why This Kolaveri DiAnna Hazare’s anti-corruption campaign made it so big on social media that it actually transcended into the real world, I have been noticing a revolution of sorts; posts about social change, and the so-called ‘latent’ issues of our country and the world have started making it big on social media. Pretty girls have lost the battle of likes to malnourished children. The practice of capturing human misery on camera or in words to win universal acclaim is now no-longer limited to the Pulitzer/Booker winners. Sreekant, from the Failsafe College of Arts and Science is doing it too. In fact, all one really needs to emulate Sreekant’s success is an internet connection, a WordPress or Blogger account, and (unbelievably) a bleeding DSLR camera. Additionally you might have a Facebook page which supports the ‘Balding middle-aged men from Everywhere’, or as the more tech-savvy and less focused ones do it, a Facebook page titled ‘<first name> <last name> Photography’.

But I should stop before the statements on my blog cross the Setalvad-Roy limit of political incorrectness, and elaborate. So here goes nothing:

#4 Causing more harm than good

Quickly now, list the topmost advantage of running a campaign for social change on Facebook. This is like one of those magic-mind-tricks where the magician always knows the word you’re going to choose. Because it is the single most obvious word, and unless you’re overthinking or consciously avoiding it in order to get away from what I am going to say next, your answer was ‘AWARENESS’.

Awareness is the key. Through social media, you, your thoughts, and your opinions (which most of us, including me, consider to be universal truths) reach more than just the ten-fifteen people you might meet on a daily basis. We wouldn’t have as many young and energetic supporters for the Anna Hazare movement without Facebook, because of course, the young and energetic people in our country prefer Facebook to news. Crib all you like, you have to admit that nothing makes people aware like social media.

My problem is more on the lines of, ‘what next?’ There are things that a movement for change requires which social media can never provide. They most often require a leader, they require persistence, and most importantly they require that the awareness of the people converts to meaningful action. But more on that later. Suffice it to say that for reasons I will explain later, social media movements hardly ever score on these fronts. ‘Awareness’ happens. But what next? There are two ways in which wasted awareness causes more harm than good, both of which were manifest in a very recent mass-attempt at driving social change.

(NOTE: Before I go any further, I must point out that in the next paragraph I am going to be talking about a derivative issue of rape. I understand that even though this is a derivative issue, it may end up becoming offensive or unpalatable to many, simply because it is hard or maybe even wrong to consider the flip-side or keep an open mind about such things. I would like everyone to know that I do not condone rape, nor do I believe in a punishment even slightly lesser than death for the ones who have committed it. Nevertheless, if you feel that your sentiments will be hurt, please do not read the next couple paragraphs.)

After the terribly unfortunate Nirbhaya incident, the social network in our country was flooded with angry posts, suggestions for punishment, and a lot of effort was immediately made in recognizing the faulty societal stereotypes Indians have about rape, their root cause and the dismal way in which we serve justice. It was indeed unfortunate. But it was the perfect case of awareness doing more harm than good. Because after more than two months of incessant posts and increasing awareness, this movement took a curious turn. I saw tens of posts which were nothing more than a difficult ‘woman’s life in India’ experience. Let us not discuss the credibility or the right of these authors to preach (many of them were actually NRIs), but it was resulting in a serious problem. These posts weren’t really talking about the ‘solution’ to the problem of rape any longer. These posts were simply ‘prolific’ and ‘brutally honest’ pieces of writing which continued to describe the same-old problem multiple times to the same-old audience in torturous detail. This is pointless awareness building. I hate to say it, but in my mind these posts were little more than a clichéd and formulaic, yet successful glory-seeking experiment for the authors. And I say so, because they served no other purpose. They were harmful. Firstly, because they were awareness targeted at the wrong audience. Does it make sense to continue writing intellectual pieces and making artsy comedy starring Kalki Koechlin to tell people that rape is not a woman’s fault? No! I, you and the rest of the country with a three digit IQ and Facebook profiles have been staring at the same thing since day one. More effort on us is wasted effort. While we are appreciating these vain efforts and discussing acceptable content for films already cleared by the censor board, rapes continue to happen. Because the eloquence of all these blogs doesn’t reach that two-bit-sorry-excuse-for-a-human who is just waiting to spring on his next victim.

Secondly and more importantly, these posts were harmful because they did what every extremist post does to the heads of people. They feed stereotypes. In this case, the stereotype of ‘all Indian men are pigs’. And I am not kidding. Those five words are the literal subtext of almost every article I came across. I understand some Indian men are terrible either because they’re rapists or because they’re circumventing the rape issue neatly, but ALL of us? A stereotype never helped anyone, and I honestly believe that we should start questioning all those activities that encourage stereotyping in the name of building awareness.

#3 They are leaderless

A very important point of differentiation between most social media drives for change (read, failed campaigns) and a moderately successful one like the Anna Hazare campaign, is that the anti-corruption campaign had a well-defined leadership. It would be wrong to say this movement ended with just awareness. People actually joined, took to the streets, and put in some realistic action to give the cause some righteous momentum. And they didn’t do it simply because they became aware of an issue simultaneously. They did it because there was a leader sitting on top telling them what they could actually do, rather than just feel outrage. A smart, resourceful, dedicated man who represented their collective thought better than a juggernaut of humanity with misaligned motives could have

I realized this point as I was watching a particularly awesome episode of The Newsroom where Will MacAvoy points out to an OWS organizer how almost every great movement in history has had leaders. When specific ones weren’t appointed people rose to the occasion. Because it is truly impossible to negotiate with a mass. The mass has a life of its own, it instils awe and fear, and not to forget, it creates awareness. But results? Not so much, really.

I decided against naming many movements here unless they were too generic in nature, because on their own they do mean something (and yes, I am really, really scared of this tendency people have to nit-pick once they have something specific on their hands). But most of the examples I found subscribed to the ‘we are all equal’ clause without really needing to. Now there are multiple schools of thought on this, but I personally don’t have a single example of a completely leader-less movement which successfully effected ‘radical’ social change.

#2 They are a bandwagon

I could sound really hypocritical saying this, given I joined the largest bandwagon in the country, but all a sad-and-defeated Engineer-MBA can ask for is a little sympathy. In all honesty, the cause of educational bandwagons deserves its own righteous movement. (Un)Fortunately though, not a lot of those who are running such movements belong to that group.

Back to social media movements, however, there are simply TOO many of them! There is something or the other for virtually everything, making my joke about the bald men a few paragraphs back almost unfunny. What it also does apart from being annoying is breed disinterest. How? Well, to understand that, you might want to tone this down to the simple stuff. Ask yourself, how many times can you read the same joke/cheesy comment/rant and still laugh/tear up/boil with anger? Not too many. Everyone just lies when they say they could watch the final scene of The Shawshank Redemption infinite times and still get goosebumps. I give them a maximum of five repeats. And not-so-miraculously, this can be extended quite definitively to pages on social media.

And to a very large extent. So many of us ignore calls to social change on Facebook on a daily basis, because either they are too unrelated to our lives, or they are just another post about Facebook changing privacy levels (‘now everyone can see the photos I wanted everyone to see!!!’). But the truth is that a very large proportion of us are also going to be passive or a lot less active about the next big thing. The anti-corruption campaign was a massive hit during the first hunger strike – we actually got a man out of jail through protests. But the second time Anna started a fast, the movement fizzled out. People couldn’t concern themselves with another round of ‘my larynx for the Lokpal’. And suddenly there were visible dissidents – people whose conscience simply couldn’t take a SECOND attack on the due democratic process.

A version of this, happens to every movement on Facebook. And if one could just disengage oneself from the minor hypocrisies of daily social media, one would realize that social change should not be held hostage to our ever decreasing attention spans. In my head it seems like a simple case of the slow and steady. No one could savour three thousand Mars bars a day. But one a day for the next 3000 – where do I sign up?

#1 They discourage REAL action

Truth be told, this article is on the wrong side of many limits, be they length or political correctness. There is a lot on this page which would go down as an inconsequential or offensive rant, and I wouldn’t mind it. Unless it was directed at this point.

Unlike the three points above (one of which is just a filler, really), this point angers me. And yet, you wonder, isn’t this the most counterintuitive of them all?

Ever since social media exploded with such revolutions, one category of networkers has grown exponentially.  Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you, The Hypocrites. Social media has been feeding this blight for ages now, even as it slipped the notice of most people. In fact, it quintupled in the time you read this statement. No kidding.

For the hypocrites, social media has made life easy. I have seen so many examples of such people – people who believe that their liking a page about stray dog welfare has made them a champion of canine rights. People who think it isn’t enough to announce their cathartic liberation to the world, and try to push this ‘responsibility’ on you citing a moral code they Googled less than an hour ago.  It is unfortunate really, how things such as these propagate. And yet, since I cannot push my vendetta because of a personal outrage, let me also speak about how they are more than just an annoyance.

Let’s go back to awareness. I think we agreed that’s the biggest advantage of the social media movement. And yet, the big question is, what next? I told you how the fact that there are too many such movements and the fact that they’re leaderless contribute to them not amounting to much. But that isn’t all. In truth, the biggest reason why these movements don’t work out is the hypocrites. They are breeding a culture of inaction which doesn’t get countered because of political incorrectness. People believe that they have fulfilled a higher moral purpose after they have harped a little about a cause online. They push it down others’ throat all the while thinking that they have raised awareness to an issue, that incredibly, they have done their bit. And as this subtle satisfaction of the self continues, so does the corruption, so do the rapes, and so does the slow death of everything that begs for people to come and move things around. People don’t. People just say beautiful things, and wait for the likes to come pouring.

In all these 2269 words, I might have said things that are amoral, wrong politically incorrect or weird at some level or the others, and I will gladly step back and look at them again if you said so. But this one thing, I believe and stand by firmly – if you think you have alleviated the suffering of a single soul by sitting in your room and ‘calling for action’ on social media, you are lying to yourself.

Because the day you will move those mountains, would be the day you actually went outside and pushed.

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