Social-media activism can be a powerful force for good. But it’s a mistake, and even dangerous, to confuse social media awareness with being truly informed. While social media can make you more aware, it has equal power to inform and misinform. (Yes, just like so-called traditional media. Exhibit A: Fox News.) Social media is far better at communicating what we believe, how we feel, what we’ve heard, than it is at educating and separating facts from supposition from fiction. Media, whether social or traditional, can make people more aware. But awareness is not enough—we must sift through the tweets, status updates and click on the links they deliver, and then apply some critical thinking, to become truly informed. It’s what people do after they become aware, the efforts they make to educate themselves, the actions they take in support of a cause, that makes the difference. In the case of Troy Davis, too few people took action, and the action they did take, including the protest outside of the Georgia State House attended and promoted heavily on Twitter by Antwan “Big Boi” Patton of the music group OutKast, had virtually no chance of influencing the justice system that’s held Davis’ life in the balance for the past two decades.
I heard a lot of people on Twitter who believed their tweeting about the Davis case constituted activism on the level of the actions, risks and sacrifices (including their lives) made by young Americans during the Civil Rights Movement. A few people actually compared their persistent and passionate tweeting about Troy Davis to lunch counter sit-ins by students in Greensboro, North Carolina and other parts of the South in the 1960s. My response to that line of thinking: don’t be ridiculous. Unless riot cops were waiting outside to bust your head wide open to stop your Troy Davis tweets, just stop it.
Too many people—including many celebrities—who rail against the justice system when there are high-profile cases like those of Troy Davis and Casey Anthony in the news, believe that it’s not worth their time, and even beneath them, to serve jury duty when called. (Reminds me of all the celebrities pushing get-out-the-vote campaigns a few years ago who were embarrassed when it was revealed that they themselves had never voted, and in many cases, had never even registered to do so.) If you really care about the justice system and how it operates, you wouldn’t skip jury duty, nor would you need tweets from Kardashian (who naively tweeted the notion that Davis’ life could be spared if he was only allowed to take a polygraph test) or any other celebrity to take action. (Note: Just because a person has 9.9 million followers on Twitter doesn’t mean that person knows what they’re tweeting about.)
What will you do now that Davis is gone? What about the other 3,000 plus people slated for execution? Will you write a check or volunteer for organizations such as Amnesty International and The Innocence Project? Will you make a candidate’s position on death penalty reform a key condition of whether or not they will get your vote or your campaign contribution? Will you take the time to educate yourself about how the American criminal justice system works—and doesn’t work? Will you engage our youth and, as film producer Will Packer tweeted yesterday, urge them “to never do anything to put themselves at the mercy of the justice system”? Will you do something besides retweet or repost?
Social media activism does not take place while you are on Twitter or Facebook. It’s about more than turning a cause into a trending topic. It’s what you do with your time, money, energy and relationships once you’ve signed off, in the real world, that is the true measure of your activism. Anything less is just smartphone activism, an insult to those, both past and present, who really risked and sacrificed for the causes they believe in. Social media can’t save people. Only active, committed, informed and engaged people can do that.