Twitter Is Turning Us Into Political Punks

Hashtags, tweets and Facebook posts are not a substitute for real political activism.

Generic images (Thinkstock)
Generic images (Thinkstock)

(The Root) — As seminal events take their twists and turns through the zeitgeist, more often than not we’re as likely to tweet about it as we are to act on it. These days, critical issues aren’t marked by mass movements to counteract fire hoses and snapping German shepherds on a bigot’s leash. And you’d be pressed to find sit-ins at lunch counters or college campuses.

Outrage is less in-your-face, more anonymous fumes on the feed. You can hide the whites of your eyes under sunglasses or snap only half your mug in the profile square.

Generally speaking, we’ve become a world of tweeting punks. We’re like kids who punch and run in the schoolyard. The online space, much like cable talk, is now dominated by a vernacular arms race of who’s snarkier than who. But at the end of a long, exhausting day of freestyle clashes, name-calling and incessant whining about the state of things, we should ask ourselves: Did we get anything done other than piss off other people?

In other words: is our social media translating into social impact?

While political scientists and pundits get punch-drunk with virtual signs of increased political engagement, we may be misreading the signs of that engagement. Suddenly we’re all stars. We have better ways to amplify our stage presence, but screaming is one thing. Execution is something else.

Somewhere along the way, we mistook digital advocacy for social change — the easiest, most efficient way to get it done. We databased our capacity to change and ended up diluting it. Some of that is pure laziness; some of it is because it’s cost-effective. But much of it stems from not knowing the what-separates-the-professionals-from-the-amateurs political process.

Hoodie-accessorizing profile pics and screenshots may have been the viral sensation that ultimately raised needed awareness for #TrayvonMartin. But the political dots have yet to connect. “Stand your ground” laws remain in 26 states (as well as among any number of emotionally distressed, wife-beating, trigger-happy gun collectors looking for an excuse). And while there are more than 600 black state elected officials throughout the United States, many playing key leadership roles in state legislatures, no one has yet triggered an effective “Stand your ground” repeal movement.

Hashtagging #VoterID in your feed and retweeting the rage might get you fist-bump replies. But it’s not as if the Supreme Court cared about your hashtag before it gutted the Voting Rights Act this past summer, along with affirmative action as we knew it. Black politics got its ass served on a conservative platter while #blacktwitter went viral.

Smart folks point out that political engagement is actually rising. A recent University of Chicago survey (pdf) of 3,000 people ages 15-25 found “participatory” politics increasing or at relatively respectable levels in a democracy, with much of it driven by regular social media use. African-American youths, at 57 percent, are more likely than their white (51 percent), Latino (49 percent) or Asian-American (52 percent) counterparts to send messages, share status updates and links or routinely chat it up. Overall, 41 percent of the youth demographic was reported to have been politically engaged in the previous year.

However, many of us are improperly equating high levels of political engagement and vocalization with actual political participation and mobilization. That’s just more people finding newer ways to shout.