By Phoebe Farag Mikhail
It happens regularly. A scroll down my newsfeed screams outrage about the latest tweet, rant, or hateful comment. Soon, I start to feel the same anger welling up inside me, the darkness around me, and almost succumb to the sense of helplessness that I can’t do anything to change this.
But I can. And you can, too.
It’s time to rethink our use of social media. I deliberately use the word “use” because it is our choice. We can use social media, or social media can use us. We can use social media to create and share what is good and beautiful, or we can allow it to inflame our passions, leading us to feed the beast of anger, fear, and lies. It’s time to stop being tools and take the tools into our own hands.
I just read an article about a panel on free speech on campus at Columbia University. It was soon after students had demonstrated against some controversial speakers who were set to speak on campus. I read with interest the various, convincing arguments about whether “hate speech” should be regulated, but the following two arguments pointed the way to what I can do, individually, to blot out the ugliness and lies being shared on the internet and elsewhere.
Suzanne Nossel, the executive director of PEN America, argued that “the answer is not suppressing or restricting the speech, but rather having other voices speaking out.” Similarly, Columbia law professor Jamal Green
attributed the resistance to hostile speech in part to the potential of social media to “metastasize” hateful discourse. At the same time, he cautioned that what inflammatory speakers really want is the oxygen of attention, and that “regulating them can sometimes give them more oxygen.”
There we have it. The oxygen is in what I choose to let my eyes see, ears hear, and fingers share. And now more than ever, I have the power to turn that choice into action. Media consumption used to be a one-way street. The big media companies, the big publishers got to decide what we knew, what we could consume. The internet and social media has given us the choices to decide what we will consume, and the tools to create and amplify. And yet, we are often still consuming mindlessly, clicking on clickbait, reacting to what is out there – and what is out there is often ugly and screaming for attention.
What if we chose instead to act instead of react? What if we chose, instead, to amplify instead of vilify? I have not yet seen a racist person rant on Twitter have his or her mind changed by social media shaming and angry shares. What if, instead of giving the racist attention with more shares, we ignore the racist and chose to amplify the stories and voices of people of color instead? When we share, comment, and rant about what we disagree with, we fill our social media spaces with more that we hate and disagree with – it’s the way the software works. Let’s work it instead of letting it work us up.
Let’s take this a step further. Let’s move beyond simply ignoring what we don’t like, refusing to give inflammatory speakers “more oxygen.” What if we instead were deliberate about seeking out and sharing the stories and voices of marginalized people? Why not reward THEIR words with shares and clicks? Why not follow them, subscribe to their blogs, read their work, and share it broadly with our friends instead?
A young person recently developed an app that allows teenagers to think twice before posting comments on social media that could lead to cyber-bullying. I’m waiting to download the app that says “think before you share,” that makes all of us think twice about sharing anything on the internet. Until that app gets created, we need to do this ourselves. We need to ask, “by angrily sharing this hateful article/tweet/video, am I inadvertently rewarding this person with attention or spreading misinformation?” And then, perhaps, a second question. “Is there someone whose voice I can amplify instead?”
Don’t know where to find that voice? Start by looking more closely at what your friends are doing. I recently discovered my friend Moniqua started a blog on her journey living with Colitis – a disease I had no idea existed, but which involved much pain, many medicines, and multiple surgeries. Why not use my “share” to help her raise awareness? My author friend Mireille Mishriky posts a story or an article sharing something inspiring every week on her blog. Through it I learned about how the City of Denver hires homeless people, about how a gym owner gave a lifetime gym membership to a Syrian refugee, and how a group of fifth grade students made right a racial injustice 60 years later. And Michael of Creative Orthodox shares beautiful, inspiring quotes with his creative illustrations regularly online.
A little digging on the internet can also help. Today I scanned the website Narrative.ly and found this amazing story of Marley Dias, who at the age of 12 started a campaign to collect 1,000 children’s books that featured people of color as main characters. She now has a new children’s book coming out about being a young activist, and I have a giveaway copy of this wonderful middle grade/young adult book, Marley Dias Gets It Done—And So Can You! for one of my readers. I also read this thought-provoking piece about an Indian-American woman who found her way in Europe after discovering herself, literally, Allergic to America.
You can also create the space for those voices to be amplified. Why not ask a question on your Facebook timeline that invites people to share their stories? One of my friends invited friends to share their thoughts and experiences about the #MeToo campaign. What they shared was eye-opening to so many others. A few weeks ago someone posted a question in a mothering group about prayers that have been answered, and the comments in response have been filled with amazing stories of hope in the midst of struggles. It’s thrilling to see my newsfeed filled with these voices, rather than the ones of hate, anger, and hopelessness.
When these voices are amplified, these voices get attention, and then they get more deserved attention than the inflammatory ones that seek to anger, divide, and judge. When they get attention, they get more opportunities to share their stories, crowding out the ugly and spreading beauty and love. These are the people we want to become famous, the ones we want to succeed, the ones we want to hear. So let’s hear them.
With the help of her family, 12-year-old Marley Dias did this too. She saw how the books she was reading at school did not represent her at all, despite many award-winning children and young adult books with African-American characters. So she started a campaign called #1000BlackGirlBooks, which aimed to find 1,000 books for children and young adults that featured black girls as protagonists. She also collected many of these books and donated them to school libraries all over the country and the world. Her mother’s non-profit organization is now cataloging the 9,000 books she found and has a database of the first 700 here. She is now the protagonist in her own book, a ‘how to’ guide for young people who want to engage in social change, and I love this book for its optimism, humor, sage advice, and honesty. Dias shares her own story while including useful tips for others, such as an activist’s toolbox that includes making sure you are part of a team: “Social activism is supposed to be just that—social!” She has a section devoted to cataloging how socially aware different Disney Princesses are, and there’s an entire chapter just on staying safe and being responsible on social media that I think should be a textbook for middle-grade students. This is a book for adults and young people, and Scholastic Press provided me with a review and giveaway copy of this book to one of my readers.
To enter the giveaway, subscribe to my email newsletter and comment below on how you plan to amplify the voices of beauty and drown out the voices of anger and hate. Giveaway closes at 11:59 EST on 15 February 2018, US and Canada addresses only, please.
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