Written by Erik Thone //
“Social media engagement is not a substitute for but a supplement to traditional embodied practices of pursuing justice.”
Tweet that. 118 characters. That’s my thesis statement. If you like—whether you continue reading or not—include the link to this article. In two minutes, you will have made an 800-word contribution to the public dialogue on social media and activism.
I have a relatively sad 40 Twitter followers (I’m too long-winded to be good at it). Author and activist Shane Claiborne (@ShaneClaiborne), on the other hand, has 77.1K followers. It’s not Beyoncé level—15 million followers—but it’s pretty impressive for a Christian activist. Claiborne recently tweeted: “It takes around 100 nukes to make the world uninhabitable. The US has about 7000. How many times do we need to be able to blow up the world?” The tweet was retweeted 323 times. Now let’s assume Claiborne’s tweet was retweeted, exclusively, by people like myself with sadly small followings. 323 people retweeted the post to each of their 40 followers. 12,920 people, potentially, read that tweet via those who retweeted it. At least 90,000 people might have seen his “blessed are the peacemakers” message.
To put it bluntly: Any movement not trying to organize using social media as a resource is being negligent.
Now let’s assume you’re not a “celebrity pastor,” and like myself, you’re an ordinary Christian trying to have some sort of meaningful impact within your sphere of influence. My own work is exceedingly modest. I have a blog where I occasionally post reflections; most of them receive a humble 20-30 views, with only two reaching a wider audience through organizations that shared them.
That’s the multiplication game of social media—and doing it successfully involves being multiplied and being a multiplier. By networking together with people who share our values, we amplify one another’s voices. I share your voice with my followers (some of whom may end up following you), and vice versa. I contribute to Streetside Conversations, and this article links to my blog—but the article is also on my blog, linking readers to Streetside Conversations, and creating a circle of amplification. In this instance, it’s a small-scale interaction, but it exemplifies the way social media can function to organize and extend our collective voice.
This is only valuable, however, if our voices have something worthwhile to say.
Too often, social media becomes a space for ranting, crass political commentary, and unsubstantiated rumor-mongering. And this all becomes possible when we distance our persons from our profile. For social media to be a meaningful tool in the struggle for justice, we have to understand that our social media “voice” is an extension of ourselves, not something independent of us. There must be consistency between the two. We might ask ourselves, “Am I actually doing anything to further the cause I’m advocating for online?” A Facebook post in itself isn’t changing anything, but it’s real easy to pat ourselves on the back and excuse ourselves from further action by posting some article. Real activists hate this superficial “support”—but social media is saturated with it. Because it’s so easy to simply click “post,” our words, by default, are “cheap” until we establish credibility through our actions.
When attending political activities, I try to address this by posting some sort of photo or video from the event. Doing so demonstrates authenticity while asserting the necessity of action beyond the social media world. Shane Claiborne’s social media account has a strong following because his “followers” know his Twitter voice is consistent with his lived commitment to justice. His credibility does not come from social media but from his work in the streets. His social media presence amplifies these efforts, but it would have no influence apart from them.
Social media is valuable as a public reflection component within an action/reflection approach to social change. It has the potential to amplify our reflections and initiate widespread conversation, but this is only valuable if our reflections are firmly informed by direct action. Direct action keeps us rooted in the real world, where injustice is suffered. Direct action gives flesh and meaning to the otherwise cheap words we might tweet or post. Direct action is Jesus on the cross, covered in blood, dirt, and sweat. You can’t “take up your cross” online, but it’s a pretty good way to spread the word.
Erik Thone (@eothone) is a student at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago and a candidate for ordained ministry in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. He has served as a missionary in London, a youth and family minister in Orlando, FL, and is now the pastoral intern at Gethsemane Lutheran Church in Seattle, WA.