Outrage is a unique kind of moral emotion that motivates us to lash out at others who do something we perceive as wrong. This made sense centuries ago when we lived in small communities of about 50 people because if our neighbours lied, stole, or cheated, we and those we loved would likely be directly impacted.
Moreover, we had a good chance of doing something tangible about our anger. Those who broke the rules were punished, excommunicated, or forced to make amends. However, like many of our survival mechanisms, outrage may have become more harmful than helpful in the context of modern society, social media, and online trolls.
Feeling furiously indignant is exhausting and demoralising and can make even the most optimistic among us lose faith in humanity. It’s also usually an inaccurate depiction of what is really happening.
Humans have an inherent negativity bias, meaning we notice and remember adverse events and emotions more strongly than positive ones. We are also prone to sensationalism, which explains why the most horrifying news headlines get the most clicks and reposts.
Of course, social media also has great potential to be used for good when we share information about matters dear to our hearts and amplify the voices of those who traditional media outlets ignore or actively oppress. But how can we balance online activism with protecting our sanity and wellbeing?
What is the difference between making a real impact online and reacting unconsciously to every upsetting news story that pops up in our feed?
Does speaking up online actually make a difference?
Technology advocates and social media enthusiasts maintain that online spaces are the new home ground for political and social uprisings. The speed of information exchange, the lack of physical barriers, and the seemingly endless choice of spaces to connect over niche issues support this view.
But the flip side is that online activism may be less powerful than we think. It takes almost no effort to repost someone else’s words about an important issue, making it convenient and accessible. However, the speed at which audiences lose interest or become desensitised means we hear more voices than ever, but our attention spans have never been shorter.
Most grassroots activist groups spend time and energy getting to know one another, arriving at a mutual understanding of their goals and challenges, and committing to unite to achieve real change. They know they will likely make mistakes along the way and support each other to learn and improve as the movement grows.
This approach seems to be at odds with how online activism often plays out. It’s so easy to dismiss or scroll past issues that we feel uncomfortable or uneducated about because there is always something else that feels safer or easier, with less risk of ridicule from those who disagree with us.
It is tempting to remain nestled in our own echo chamber, perpetuating an online algorithm that keeps feeding us more of the same. In this scenario, the internet’s promise of more diverse and informative content becomes illusory and unfulfilled.
Effective political action is defined by its pervasiveness and impact, not its intent. Online protests and campaigns are undoubtedly powerful in their own way, especially in cases where people with physical barriers couldn’t otherwise participate.
But if collective action never transitions from the digital world to the ‘real’ world, it may never reach those we need to convert or who can make real change. Staying in our online bubble is more comfortable, but it leads to preaching to the choir and reduces our ability to bring more people on board to stand with us.
So, is online activism all it’s cracked up to be? Or is it a poor substitute for the drastic, self-sacrificing movements of generations past?
The answer is likely somewhere in the middle. Speaking up online is probably not the be-all and end-all of making a difference, but neither is it the useless form of “slacktivism” that some critics dismiss it as.
How can you make sure what you do online makes a difference in real life? How can you harness your passion and outrage to make tangible differences in people’s lives? And how do you do all this while protecting your mental health and personal safety?
Activism vs reactivism: How to make a (real) difference online
Social media moves insanely rapidly, so don’t feel pressure to keep up. By slowing down, you can avoid getting swept up in reactivism, where you compulsively repost or rant about issues without giving them the thought and caution they need.
Important topics will still matter in a few hours when you are more capable of making an impactful, considered contribution to the conversation.
Impulsively jumping on the bandwagon can reflect virtue signalling or a desire to absolve yourself of feeling uncaring or uninformed. Creating space between learning about an issue and speaking out on it gives you time for self-education, mindfulness, and strategic messaging that will make your activity more powerful.
It also creates space to check in with directly impacted people to ensure your work makes a positive difference.
Tell a meaningful story
Data and numbers add value, but emotional impact inspires change.
Where appropriate, share your experiences and connect the dots for your audience about how the issue directly affects your life. Explaining that your favourite holiday destination will be underwater by the time your grandchildren go to university elicits a stronger response than reposting stats about rising sea levels.
Start local, and think about how your words can have the greatest impact.
Pass the mic to people with lived experience
If you care deeply about something, avoid the temptation to position yourself as the authority on the issue, especially if you don’t have direct experience.
Seek online activists who are experts in the area, such as body positivity influencers who live in a larger body or disability activists who live with disability.
A helpful phrase to remember is “nothing about us without us”. Never speak for anybody else, even if it is well-intentioned, as it can be paternalistic and miss the point of what that community really needs.
Those directly affected by social issues and discrimination are the true experts in what needs to change.
Use social media as an activism supplement
Online activism has a place, but not as the sole form of advocacy.
Take your work offline to make a bigger impact and reach people who will probably never stumble across your blog or Instagram account.
In a time where we are so saturated with online messaging that most of us are pros at tuning it out, don’t underestimate the impact of traditional awareness-raising methods.
Call your local members of parliament, talk to your conservative family members about issues they may be uninformed about, and make conscious choices regarding investing money and voting.
Know when to speak and when to listen
One obvious downside to everyone and their dog having a platform to express themselves is that it shifts our focus from actively listening to others to getting our own voices heard.
Learning humility and when our voice may not necessarily be the most important or helpful is a sign of mature advocacy. Learn when your words will make the most impact and when to pass the mic to someone else.
We have so much to learn from one another when we listen with our whole hearts and minds.
Don’t be afraid to step away
Sometimes, even if we want to speak out, we simply don’t have it in us.
Pushing through fatigue and despair can help to a point, but if it persists too long, it’s a slippery slope to burnout and giving up on a cause altogether.
Taking breaks to refill your cup is a courageous act of self-care that will make you a more empowered and powerful activist.
Naturally, sometimes the issue is urgent enough to extend yourself for. In these instances, draw on your personal support network or seek help from a mental health professional to ensure your activism doesn’t cost you your health.
Compassion is key
Despite my natural inclination towards cynicism, I believe in the current and future generations to make the world a better place.
Social media is a significant contributor to why young people today are so informed, passionate, and inspiring. We can learn much from them in our collective journey to harness digital spaces to close inequities and drive innovation and global social progress.
These goals are only possible by setting boundaries that allow you to follow your passion and do what you love while allowing space to care for and love yourself as well. The online world can be a powerful and brutal place, so don’t forget to practice fierce compassion for yourselves and others. We are all doing our best.