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Let’s Talk About Social Media Silence

By M. Austen Wyche, Contributing Opinion Writer
M. Austen Wyche ’27, a Crimson Editorial comper, lives in Canaday Hall.

“Silence is complicity.”

Many of us have heard this phrase. It gets at the famous words of South African anti-apartheid activist Desmond Tutu: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”

Tutu’s words, like most other things, have adapted to the age of social media. During the peak of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020, many claimed with great zeal that those who were silent — for example, refraining from posting a black square on their Instagram feed as an expression of solidarity — were complicit in perpetuating suffering.

This strand of social media activism has shown no signs of going away — made clear by the response to the ongoing Israel-Hamas war, which has featured a similar wave of social media posts shaming people for their silence.

Tutu’s sentiment is noble and broadly right, but we would be wise not to apply it in the context of social media.

Our world is fraught with complex and nuanced issues, and discussing them requires thorough context and knowledge of history. This extensive foundational knowledge leads to informed opinions, meaningful discussions, and, ultimately, better solutions.

When we demand that people weigh in on issues when they don’t feel ready, it amounts to a harmful pressure to conform to social expectations instead of a way to foster substantive discussions. It’s like asking a voter to cast their ballot with no information about either candidate.

The consequences of this pressure are clear. A good example can be found in the wake of the last couple weeks’ events, which prompted many celebrities to take to social media to express their (perhaps premature) opinions. Actress Jamie Lee Curtis posted her support for Israel on Instagram, later deleting one photo after its photographer stated that it actually depicted Palestinian children in the Gaza Strip running from Israel-launched bombs. Meanwhile, singer Justin Bieber posted a photo in solidarity with Israel, but the image actually showed ruined buildings in the Gaza Strip.

These are simple mistakes, but they touch on a deep problem that exists well beyond this conflict: speaking before learning. Influencers could easily avoid making these mistakes if they slowed down and educated themselves instead of instinctually gravitating towards the “post” button. Especially when celebrities can reach so many people, the spread of misinformation and poorly informed opinions can have harmful implications for our discussions and our trust of one another.

There are lots of issues about which I don’t feel prepared to speak. Nonetheless, the culture of Instagram activism demands opinions.

For instance, I have felt an overwhelming pressure to comment on the conflict in the Middle East during the last few weeks, despite the fact that I still don’t have a particularly informed or nuanced opinion to share, and I doubt it will help anyone if I pretend that I do. It’s rarely the case that posting an Instagram story will fix an issue or make our discourse better.

The mere act of posting, especially when an enormous social pressure exists to do so, is not a proxy for how much one cares. Expecting young people to form a knowledgeable opinion in less than a month about complex issues — like a conflict that has lasted 75 years — is unreasonable and often results in disingenuous activism.

Let’s not confuse a decision not to post with a decision never to care. I am not defending willful ignorance on human rights issues. It is imperative that young people — the future leaders and defenders of democracy — actually take the time to understand and weigh in on the global affairs that will impact them and generations to come. To let temporary silence become perpetual and indefinite silence, or a deliberate attempt to dismiss human rights abuses as unrelated to our everyday lives, is simply unacceptable.

So it is undeniably important to spread awareness about the issues of our time. But before you post that infographic on social media, take the time to make yourself truly informed.

We must also challenge the notion that any issue is simply black or white — no matter what infographics say. Holding a multifaceted viewpoint is critical; understanding different perspectives allows us to grow as learners and as people.

For those with deeply held opinions who are confident enough to advocate, you should continue to advocate. For those working diligently to develop an opinion, take your time and focus on getting it right.

Throughout American civil rights movements, the courage of everyday people to speak out against injustice has been imperative to progress. As we grapple with the enormous political, economic, and social issues plaguing our world, let us allow people to take time to digest, research, and articulate their views.

To effectuate meaningful change, we must let go of the narrative that reactive social media activism is synonymous with productive activism.

M. Austen Wyche ’27, a Crimson Editorial comper, lives in Canaday Hall.

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