At the end of January, I took a distressed call from my mother. She was overwhelmed, she said, by the anti-Trump Facebook world.
“There are a hundred of these resistance groups, and I have no idea which of them are actually doing anything,” I recall her saying. “And every day there are 20 new headlines about something out of the White House, each more awful than the last. I’m just paralyzed.”
She was calling me for advice on how to use the internet as a tool to become more politically involved. As a young person whose formative years were spent on the internet, and as a burgeoning columnist dispensing advice about civic engagement, I felt I was coming up short on both.
“Um — I don’t know — spend less time … scrolling through things?” I said. “I think the most important thing to do is just show up to actual events and meetings.”
To augment my sense of personal failure: As I was conducting this conversation poolside at a friend’s house in Los Angeles, thousands of people had converged on LAX to protest Trump’s just-announced immigration ban. I had not taken my own advice.
But, like my mother, I also felt very, very tired — mostly from the internet-driven weight of everything to read, to do, and to resist.
We’re not alone in our fatigue: Post-election, NPR talked to 150 listeners who said they were having to rethink how they used social media in order to preserve their mental health. In just the first few months of Trump’s term, terms like “resistance fatigue” and “acute news exhaustion” began to pop up. A clinical psychoanalyst wrote in the New York Times that many Americans seemed to be experiencing a form of disorientation and anxiety that resembled psychosis.
Facebook is the scene and source of so much online-inspired insanity — roughly half the respondents of a Pew survey last fall noted that political discourse on social media felt “angrier, less respectful, and less civil” than in other realms.
“Zuckerberg,” the world shouts in chorus, “you have ruined us!”
“Wow — wrong — I am actually here to save you!” he responds. Zuckerberg announced at the start of the summer that Facebook’s mission would pivot to “give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.” He’s doubling down on Facebook Groups as a method of building “meaningful communities.”
With so much (well-deserved) negativity about social media, I felt the need to ask how it could be used to do something meaningful. In 1996, early internet advocate Al Gore organized “24 Hours in Cyberspace,” a sort of proto-livestream showing the ways in which the internet was touching the lives of humans all over the world. Gore, at the time, extolled the internet’s potential to achieve real environmental action.
Fast-forward 21 years: Our lives are touched, it doesn’t feel very good, and the president doesn’t accept climate science. Is it possible to use the internet to converge people in a meaningful way? Or should we all just unfriend everyone and delete our Facebook app?
I started with a call to Amy Gonzales, an assistant professor at Indiana University’s Media School, to talk about her research into the internet and social networks. She says reporters usually call her to reinforce the idea that technology is bad.
“I don’t,” she says with a laugh. “That’s a simplistic take on what this stuff is.”
Gonzales’ research has shown that marginalized communities — including black, Latino, and less-educated — use the internet to broaden both their online and offline social networks. She executed the study in Philadelphia, which she describes as “heavily physically segregated.”
“The suggestion,” Gonzales explains, “is that the internet potentially becomes a way for people who have been excluded from access to wealthier, more resource-rich networks to circumvent that.”
Social media can be leveraged as a tool to reach and organize those marginalized communities. Thais Marques is a digital organizer for Movimiento Cosecha, which is trying to mobilize between 5 and 8 million undocumented immigrants across the country for a strike that will demonstrate the power of immigrant labor in the work force. That includes farmworkers, who can be very challenging to reach.
For organizing purposes, Marques experiments with messaging platforms and technologies heavily used by immigrants to communicate with each other — Facebook groups and messaging and WhatsApp — to share information and news about Movimiento Cosecha’s issues. For example, since launching a peer-to-peer texting campaign for an earlier labor demonstration, Marques has seen the local organizing hubs for Movimiento Cosecha grow from five to 70 groups.
Marques stresses the importance of finding out what immigrants are talking about and what they need. “I think that the digital tools and tactics that have been used since Change.org launched, for example, have been targeted to middle-class white America,” Marques explains. “And the thing to keep in mind is that those tactics won’t work when we’re trying to organize communities of color.”
Digital organizing has had a big impact on local politics in Seattle, says Hanna Brooks Olsen, cofounder of the recently defunct blog Seattlish. She points to how easy it is to spread information about protests or explain why, yes, it’s actually important to show up to a council meeting.
Seattlish was meant to get people to participate in Seattle politics. “One of our founding tenets of the site was: We’re not here to kvetch,” she says. “We have to offer people actionable things they can do if something upsets them: Here’s the exact city council member who voted on this, here’s when, and here’s what to do about it. And most people don’t know that!”
Olsen points to the Seattle Transit Riders Union’s campaign for a city income tax (Washington has none) as a digital success story. The recently passed tax — 1.5 percent levied on very high earners — will fund necessary climate mitigation projects in Seattle: public transit, energy-efficient new construction, affordable housing in dense urban neighborhoods.
I called Katie Wilson, general secretary of the Transit Riders Union, to ask how she viewed the digital element of that campaign, which went under the name “Trump-Proof Seattle.” She said that social networks like Facebook and Twitter are necessary evils, but not the cornerstones of the campaign.
“We’re intentionally focused on face-to-face interactions,” Wilson said “To really build up power, we need to be getting people in a room together to make decisions together. It’s not relying on those superficial actions that take place online.”
It’s not a stretch to argue that the internet was key to our awareness of environmental injustices like Standing Rock, climate refugees in the Pacific Islands, and the Flint water crisis. You can hold your screen in your hand and read these stories, and if you’re not one of the people experiencing those injustices, you think: “How awful.”
And you feel like a slightly better person for having those feelings.
But they’re meaningless without action. This is the gist of cultural sociologist Carolyn Pedwell’s essay for Zócalo Public Square, in the publication’s exploration of the idea of empathy as a modern phenomenon.
“‘Feeling right’ is not enough,” Pedwell writes. “Complex structural problems can never be overcome solely through the force of feeling. They require deep political work, including policy and legislation as well as social-movement building.”
This is a different way of saying: Information does not suffice. You can absorb and share a million sad or angry stories and easily do nothing to make the problems behind them better. The fumbled advice I gave my mother still stands: The internet works — extremely well — to introduce you to things. But it is also an easy way to feel like you are taking action when you’re not.
Its value as a tool is more in its ability to meaningfully connect us to other people. If you’ve connected to a person or a cause online, and then you’ve taken that momentum offline to make real change, then the occasional acute case of Facebook fatigue was worth it.
If you haven’t, now is the time to start.
For more tips on bettering your community, check out the Ask Umbra Apathy Detox Guide.