Questions I Ask Myself As An Activist
#BlackLivesMatter is currently on all social media and most of the people you follow have probably posted about it (myself included). What I have seen with many of my friends and also influencers I follow appears to be a panic not to be doing enough, stemming from a fear to be called out for 'not doing your part.' Some people I follow share over ten different resource banks on the topic per day. Have they really looked into all the resources listed there? Have they read those things themselves? Or was it posted in order to appear like they are doing the right thing?
As a member of my university's committee of Amnesty International as well as Amnesty's Digital Verification Corps, I have been involved in human rights activism for years. I am involved in what people traditionally think of as activism in my local Amnesty group since we organise protests and distribute flyers and also hold information meetings. As a digital verification corps member, I am doing some less traditional activism in the form of verifying footage of human rights violations. Even though I titled this post 'Questions I Ask Myself As An Activist' and just referred to myself as an activist, I do not really think of myself as that. I am a pretty shy and introverted person and so I am usually involved in the organisation of protests as well as the making of posters and flyers, but I am not your typical activist who will courageously approach people on the street to educate them.
But the years in activism have nonetheless taught me a few things and I thought I would share what I ask myself before getting involved in any activism - whether it is online or in real life.
1. Do I Really Know Enough To Talk About This?
This is the most important question. It does not mean you have to be an expert who has read every book on the topic. But it means that you are confident that you understand the issue at hand and that you have your facts right. Before I get involved with activism, I research the topic. I usually end up with a one-page document with a few pointers and sources (it is absolutely fine if you just google around a little and do not take notes - I just find it helpful for ordering my thoughts). It takes a few minutes to put it together, but it makes you order your thoughts. It makes you think before you post and form an opinion. Not all activists agree on everything and that is also okay - you may agree with the message but not with all the means used. That is why research matters because it makes you think about these things and you can then form a more nuanced opinion.
At this point, I also decide what I really want to be an activist for in the context of that issue. When posting about #BlackLivesMatter, you may have noticed that I usually phrase my support as a support for the message behind the hashtag. The reason for that is that I did not want to give a blanket endorsement to anything done in the name of that movement as I personally disagree with property damage and the use of violence in the name of activism. I know some activists argue that this is sometimes necessary and I respect their opinions, but I personally find the arguments unconvincing. Agreeing with the message of a movement does not mean you have to blindly defend everything associated with it. Engaging in an exercise of deciding what aspects of something you support also allows you to make a better argument to people challenging your views since you will be able to point to the boundaries of your support. Debates are a big part of activism and spreading the message. Those debates do not just happen at protests and in information meetings from Amnesty, they are probably happening at your dining table. Bring facts and a clear opinion to these debates.
And lastly, if you are posting about a specific event: fact-check any claims regarding the event. Are there other posts from credible sources that confirm the claims? Are there conflicting reports from credible sources? You are not helping any cause by trying to make arguments related to it stronger with fake claims - such disinformation is easily called out and it distracts from the validity of the arguments the fake information is supposed to support.
2. What is the Goal Of Posting This?
What do you wanna achieve with this post? I asked myself this question way before I had over ten thousand followers on Instagram because every single person who follows you is a member of your audience and therefore you owe them a responsibility. You do not have to fit the image of an 'influencer' to have an audience - we all have one and your friends may listen to your posts more than you think. The point may merely be to show solidarity or maybe it is to inspire others to join you in doing so or it may be going a step further and asking people to read up on the topic or even donate.
At this point, it is also worth asking yourself whether you really want to post this. Why are you thinking of hitting 'post'? Is it to prove to people you are a good person? Or to actually contribute? I know a lot of people are currently calling out 'performative activism' which is activism done merely to increase one's social capital, but I do not think of the term as entirely negative. Do not get me wrong - I do not think it is great when people do it, but the fact that it is in people's heads that it is no longer socially acceptable to be against #BlackLivesMatter is a good sign. But you should nonetheless not hit 'post' if that is your only reason. If that is your only reason, you have not understood the point of the movement. The point of the movement is not to make you feel good about your contributions, the point is to save lives and ensure equality. Hit 'post' when you do it for others and not for yourself.
3. Is This The Right Way To Say It?
Once you know why you are posting something, ask yourself whether it could be made clearer or whether it could easily be misinterpreted. I honestly suck at this step. English is not my first language and I often look back at things I wrote and think to myself, 'that could've been done a lot better.' But I like to think I am getting better at this step. At this point, not just clarity matters. Another thing that matters is how you address people. Everyone's activism has a different style and so this will vary. Personally, I am quite shy and that used to be combined with a pretty big mental health issue in the form of depression. It has made me aware of the fact that not everybody is always capable of engaging with triggering issues. We all have different triggers and sometimes bad news in the world as a whole can also simply overwhelm people. And especially in the context of the current pandemic, many people have lost their jobs and may not be able to donate. Other members of my audience may live in countries where any activism can put them in danger. I try to preface any calls for action with those caveats and making it clear to my audience that I understand that. To me, activism is not about shaming people who are probably on your side for their inaction, it is about convincing them to join your side actively and not just with their thoughts if it is possible for them to do so.
At this point, we also get to the issue of information overload. If there is one thing I have learned after years on Youtube and other socials, it is that when you give people too many options, they tend to choose none. One link is usually more effective than twenty. It seems counter-intuitive because it makes you feel like you are doing less, but it is actually a clearer sign to your audience of what they could do. And it seems more achievable than clicking through twenty different things. We all know how we are not motivated to start working at all when work has piled up and it is quite similar with resources of information: too many is just too many. Keep in mind that you are not the only person they are following and all the other influencers are also putting many resource lists in their stories and newsletters and posts and whatever else there is. When people are so bombarded with options, it can get overwhelming and it can seem like they will never be able to catch up with any of the information on the topic.
And besides, have you looked into all the things you are sharing? I am rather doubtful that everyone I follow has really read the over twenty books on race they recommended to me over the past few days. Personally, it took me a few days after the movement took off to share one link and it is the only resource link I have shared (Jack Edwards' resources list). It took me a few days, because I looked into the things on that list. I regard having an audience as a responsibility to make sure that whatever I post is worth their time. Things I have not really looked into are not things I should be posting. So I do not post them.
4. Am I Ok?
And lastly, do not forget to check in with yourself. Engaging with potentially triggering content takes a mental toll and it is important to also give yourself breaks. Dogs on Twitter or an episode of Hannah Montana usually manage to cheer me up. It may seem selfish to ask about yourself when you are doing it right after posting or researching about people being in a much worse situation than you are. But the fact that other people have bigger struggles does not invalidate your own and activism has to be healthy for its activists in order for them to keep it going. It is ok to also post bright things that happen in your life and to have good moments too. It does not mean you are forgetting about other things - but it means that you are also allowing yourself to be happy in some moments and that is important.
And that is it. This is the thought process before I get involved. Going through this process means I am not one of these people just hitting retweet on anything they see without verifying whether the information is true. It means I may post less, but I like to think the things I post have more credibility thanks to this process.
Lots of Love,