If you’re on social media, you probably encounter them frequently: images of missing people, often girls, with a note saying that someone’s daughter/wife/sister is missing and a plea for anyone who sees her to get in touch with the original poster. Such images are widely circulated, often with a load of guilt attached — if you don’t pass this on, you don’t care about this missing person, and you should feel ashamed of yourself. They go the rounds, and no one seems to follow up once the Retweet, Share, or Reblog button has been hit.
It seems like such a quick act of doing good for the day — help reunite a woman with her family. But, in fact, some of these requests for help come from abusive partners trying to track down women who have gone into hiding, who will be forced to move yet again if they’re outed. Some come from abusive families, or stalkers, or other people who mean the subject harm. Such requests should only be circulated if they ask people to forward information to the police, who are a legitimate resource in missing persons cases (and can also verify that someone is truly missing).
Yet, many people don’t think about this when forwarding such images, though advocates who work with battered and abused women and children have tried to increase awareness about this issue.
It’s not just these images, though. Every day, I see people blithely retweeting bits and pieces of ‘activism’ without thinking about the full ramifications. They publish lists of names because they’ve been told to do so in order to honour/remember people, without thinking about who they might be endangering and whether the people on that list would have wanted to be listed. They call for ‘intervention’ in atrocities without thinking about the fact that intervention, in the West, often takes the form of military action and can quickly turn into an extension of colonialism, signed, sealed, and supported by a population that screamed for justice.
The internet makes us aware of many things that are happening in the world, and many of those things are terrible. Our first reaction, as caring human beings, is often to do something — but unfortunately, we don’t look to people on the ground to find out what would be most helpful, or how we can serve. Instead, we go with whatever hashtag or act of activism we see first, without stopping to consider whether that’s the best course of action. We go for the most performative form of support, instead of the most effective; we change the colour of our Twitter icons, instead of asking if there is perhaps something more meaningful, important, and less damaging we can do.
In the United States in particular, we have a complex ethical responsibility. The US has long regarded itself as policeman of the world, and it exerts its power where and when it can. In an era when colonial actions are, on the surface, frowned upon, the nation has been more careful and reluctant when it comes to invading foreign countries (openly). Yet, when citizens demand action, it provides the country with a license to dispatch the military — as seen, for example, in Syria, where people were understandably horrified by the situation on the ground and called for vague forms of action or help, which in turn spurred the US and other governments to consider military action.
Unfortunately, some forms of ‘activism’ online feed the military industrial complex as well as the prison industrial complex, as seen every time someone commits a heinous crime and suddenly everyone starts calling for that person to be punished to the maximum. While progressives are generally against the death penalty, that doesn’t stop them from supporting harsh prison sentences; prison abolition is not a popular topic in progressive circles, even less so when it comes to talking about people who commit serial rapes, murders, and other terrible crimes.
When the government sees so-called progressives and liberals demanding relatively socially conservative ‘solutions’ or ‘help’ like prison, like military intervention, like police intervention, it takes notice, and it uses this to solidify support for activities we should really not be enabling. While the political factors here are extremely complex, political activism online matters. We know it does, because we see the effects every day, in a myriad of ways large and small. Internet communities have driven major political decisions, challenged governments, changed television programming, and opened up entirely new conversations in historically closed and hostile industries and environments.
That means they also come with extreme responsibility, because what we say and how we say it actually does have an influence. Before people thoughtlessly share something with followers or comment on something, they need to do some background research. They need to find the source. They need to look at what people on the ground are saying and find out how they can actually help. And they need to be unafraid when it comes to advocating with other progressives — if you see, for example, a list of names that shouldn’t be shared for the safety of those involved, you need to say something. If you see someone sharing information about a missing woman that leads to a personal instead of institutional contact, say something. If you see people advocating for militarised action, say something.
Because this is a powerful tool for activism and change at our fingertips — anyone who says otherwise is lying — and that means we need to be careful and thoughtful about how we use it. If we abuse it, we’re no better than the people we criticise for not thinking about the larger ramifications of their actions. Not everything on the internet is a good thing, not even if it’s from a reliable, trusted, progressive source: clicking ‘retweet’ may be fast, but it’s not always what you should be doing.
Image: New ‘Over Capacity’ Graphic, Shovelling Son, Flickr.