The Daily Tar Heel

Serving the students and the University community since 1893

Monday September 20th

Column: From social media to mutual aid

Don’t limit your advocacy to 280 characters.

<p>DTH Photo Illustration. A student pulls up the Twitter app on their phone. With UNC's campus shutdown in the spring, more and more students have turned to social media for activist work.</p>
Buy Photos DTH Photo Illustration. A student pulls up the Twitter app on their phone.

In the age of social media, the internet has proven to be a powerful tool for social and civic engagement. With the ability to disseminate information quickly, websites such as Instagram and Twitter have been the foundation for many people’s activism.

Through hashtags, Instagram stories and Twitter posts, we can see people rallying behind important and relevant causes — the Black Lives Matter movement, sexual violence against women and most recently violence against Asian Americans.

At the same time, despite its incredible power, social media can cause us to oversimplify complex issues. More importantly, it can cause users to become complacent, believing their posts have done enough when their benefits are debatable.

I love digital features like Instagram stories as much as the next person. They are easy to use and give a platform to issues I support. As well-intended and thoughtful as this is, however, these posts are merely a drop in the bucket, and often fail to bring substantive change to the communities that need it.

In the last year, we have seen no shortage of people partaking in social media trends that seek to advance some cause. On Blackout Tuesday, millions of people posted black squares to show solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of George Floyd’s murder.

Blackout days on TikTok gave space for Black and Jewish creators, while infographics chronicling violence against women were reposted thousands of times on Instagram stories.

The sentiment behind these movements are powerful, but they raise concerns over their usefulness and longevity. How useful are stories, which disappear after 24 hours, in providing relief? These displays of activism might not be the best way to provide long-term aid.

Don’t get the wrong idea — social media is an incredibly useful tool for rallying support around crucial causes, spreading awareness and uplifting marginalized groups. But online advocacy should be met with tangible action.

It’s far easier to click the retweet button than dedicate time and effort towards volunteering or donating. And by reposting or retweeting, we demonstrate we care about a cause and want others to as well. 

Unfortunately, this virtue signaling is where most people stop.

We are trapped in this idea that posting online is a substitute for advocacy when it is really the opposite — it’s a supplement.

At best, limiting your advocacy to social media posts and shares will at least bring awareness about issues that many people would lack otherwise. At worst, these so-called displays of activism are performative attempts to gain clout from serious and complex issues.

Furthermore, while recognizing how useful social media can be in informing people, the issues we choose to speak about online are often complex. A 280 character limit often doesn’t do these issues justice.

How do we compensate for this? Action. To use social media without also bringing that advocacy into practice is a failure to recognize how nuanced these real-world issues are.  

Community building is central to advocacy work. By building better communities and uplifting people within them, we can improve lives and better the circumstances of people in a way that would be impossible from behind a screen.

Here are some opportunities on and off campus to bring your digital advocacy to life:

  • The Campus Y and its 31 committees are the hub for social justice work on campus. From women’s equality, to criminal justice and LGBTQ+ advocacy, there is truly something for everyone.
  • UNC Medical Center has plenty of opportunities for undergraduate students, from volunteering at blood donation centers to providing aid to families.  
  • If you’re interested in criminal justice advocacy, the Prison Books Collective in Durham sends books to incarcerated people in North Carolina and Alabama. While guest volunteer visits are on hold due to COVID-19, you can make a donation or purchase a book from a local seller
  • The LGBT Center of Raleigh provides resources such as mental health support and HIV testing to LGBTQ+ individuals in the Triangle area and is a great place to contribute.
  • Carolina Cupboard is a food pantry on campus for students. You can sign up to volunteer or donate food items through their website.
  • Support Food Not Bombs 919, an autonomous collective of volunteers who provide free vegan food for everyone.

These organizations are just the tip of the mutual aid iceberg — there is an abundance of opportunities both on and off campus to give back to the community and support marginalized groups.

This isn’t a call to stop posting on social media. Instead, treat social media as a starting place and as a supplement to the hands-on work you are able to do within your community. 


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