How Effective is Online Political Engagement?

The following is a response to my classmate Anna’s post, which asks whether the Internet is actually changing the discourse around democracy. I think about this question a ton, so I’m glad to see someone else stuck on it. She asks:

“Do social media sites and other new media technologies hold a significant amount of political relevance?”

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I mostly think “yes,” but there is a definite limit to what can be done online.

The social media world has inarguably become an important tool for consciousness-raising and educating with regards to politics and policy.

However, thanks to the Internet, I know about horrible things that are happening right now in the Ukraine and in Venezuela. I know the Reader’s Digest version of several human rights offenses happening globally, but I know of no way to directly have an effect on those outcomes apart from sharing articles and videos with people I know online. (Nor do I know for sure if anyone from the U.S. should be getting directly involved.) I share in the hopes that the more people that know, the more likely it will be that international leaders may take some sort of action. That’s not enough, but it’s all I know how to do with the platform I have.

But I also know of human rights offenses in the United States. I am aware of systematic and racial injustices within the prison system, of lack of support for military veterans, of poverty and hunger, of immigration issues, of gun violence, and of a whole host of other problems within the country I inhabit. I have no excuse of distance or of ignorance in confronting these problems head-on, and I also share article after article via social media about these issues. That’s not enough, either. And this time I can get directly involved, but I often don’t.

Here lies the problem of “armchair activism“/”slacktivism,” and I’ll be the first to admit that I am truly guilty of it. The Internet has led to some really crucial discussions about politics, culture, justice, etc., and part of the struggle to change anything lies within these conversations. People need to know what is going on in order to care about it, but they also need to engage IRL.

Calling representatives, voting, protesting, face-to-face discussion, volunteering, finding community behind a cause, even sharing your own personal experiences—that’s where political action and policy change have the most potential. It’s less comfortable, more difficult, and contingent on time, resources, and other privileges.

It’s also totally necessary.

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