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There’s no question that social media has benefited animal advocacy in remarkable ways over the last decade. Activists are using platforms such as Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to organize protests, promote veganism, distribute online petitions, announce campaign updates, post news about animals ready for adoption, share animal rights documentaries, and much more.

But social media has a dark side, and I’m not just referring to its insidious influence on the election process or the amplification of hate. Companies leverage the expertise of “attention engineers,” who use our psychological vulnerabilities to make social media apps and platforms as addictive as possible. Why? Because your attention—the hours you spend on your mobile device, for example—results in profits for these companies. Facebook, for instance, uses algorithms to track your preferences and present you with content your online history tells them will make you feel good. Then you’ll see an ad, followed by more fun content—and another ad. Meanwhile, companies such as YouTube and Netflix will automatically play a related video just as the one you’re watching ends. They put the burden on you to decide when to stop.

Did you know that Steve Jobs never intended the iPhone to have third-party apps like Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook—or be anything more than an improved iPod that can make calls? True, even the original iPhone had Internet capabilities, but that was more of a bonus feature. If you look at the presentation Jobs gave in 2007 to introduce the iPhone (at about 36 minutes in), you’ll see that the “Internet” segment was all about email, Google maps, and weather widgets. Interesting.

The overuse of social media is something I’ve been thinking about for years, and I explore it a bit in the new edition of Striking at the Roots. As I consider it more and more—and I probably use social media as much as anyone—what has me concerned is how its use can specifically affect the well-being of animal activists and, by extension, their activism.

In addition to the many consequences of spending too much time on social media—such as the impact it has on our self-esteem and creating a fear of missing out on fun others are experiencing—animal advocates may be particularly vulnerable to other side effects. Here are some examples.

Depression

Animal activism is hard. Although many people claim to “love animals,” for instance, the vast majority of these same people continue to eat, wear, and otherwise exploit them. Challenging these behaviors can leave activists feeling disheartened, to say the least.

Add to this the constant barrage of graphic photos of animal cruelty that stream on social media, the offensive comments from trolls under posts, and outright cyberbullying, and online platforms can prove dangerous to our mental health. A study of 1,787 young adults in the U.S. published in 2017, for instance, found that participants who used 7–11 social media platforms had substantially higher odds of having increased levels of both depression and anxiety symptoms.

During her 12 years working for one nonprofit, Marsha Rakestraw had to monitor social media, where she was constantly confronted by scenes of animal suffering. “Having to immerse myself in that quagmire of harm and pain day after day for more than a decade has taken its toll,” she says. “Especially in the last few years of being in that job, I’ve felt that I’ve lost all sense of joy.”

Another activist, Meg York, had a similar experience. “Social media has contributed to, or possibly created, my compassion fatigue,” says Meg. “On Facebook, I have unfollowed most of the nonprofit organizations that I have liked, as I cannot bear witness to unending cruelty. It undermines my ability to be an effective activist, as I find myself mired in despair, overwhelmed by the magnitude of the problem, and unable to change the reality for the specific animals who are suffering in the videos and pictures.”

I am not implying for a moment that animal advocates are the only people susceptible to depression. What I mean is that animal activism is already a depressing endeavor, and so activists may be especially exposed to the feeling of despair that social media can lead to.

Reduced attention span

Justin Rosenstein, the former Facebook engineer who created the “like” button, is among a growing number of high-tech experts who now warn against the lure of social media, which they believe severely limits a person’s ability to focus and possibly lowers IQs. “One reason I think it is particularly important for us to talk about this now is that we may be the last generation that can remember life before,” Rosenstein says.

A reduced attention span could affect anyone’s life. For the activist, it could result in a gap in learning about the issues, for example, or impact their ability to share a meaningful conversation with someone, whether it’s at a conference table or a dinner table.

Diminished human interactions

Animal activism very often relies on making connections: mingling with new people, overcoming social anxieties, and inspiring others to see the link between animal exploitation and their consumer choices. While making connections on social media can be great, there’s nothing that equals the power of making such connections in person. Unfortunately, a growing body of evidence suggests that social media is undermining family relationships and harming people’s ability to interact competently in an offline setting. Former Google Design Ethicist Tristan Harris, described by The Atlantic as “the closest thing Silicon Valley has to a conscience,” warns in his TED talk that social media technology is “changing our ability to have the conversations and relationships we want with each other.” Consider this: In which form of communication would you gain more insight about someone—an online post or a face-to-face conversation? Clearly, there is a much higher quality of connection when we speak with someone directly.

As activist Sherry Morgado puts it, “I found that I was coming to rely too much on social media as a form of activism, and neglected one-on-one interaction, which I believe has much more power and authenticity. In personal interactions, there is an opportunity for a dialogue, to ask questions, and to read facial expressions and body language. I have come to feel that social media is just too removed from that energetic space between people where the possibility for real change can happen.”

Weakened decision-making

Spending too much time on social media affects your ability to think for yourself and form your own opinions. One study demonstrated how participants were more open to peer pressure within social networks. Of course, animal activists tend to be committed to their principles, but we should all treat with caution anything that impacts our capacity for informed decision-making.

Loss of social etiquette

Social media has no room for verbal nuance, tone, or body language, which are among the many important cues that help humans navigate the complex world of interpersonal communication. Because many posters of online comments can remain anonymous—or they believe they are calling out hypocritical behavior—they often give in to the temptation to be judgmental and rude.

“One of my biggest struggles with social media is dealing with all the negativity,” says Cathy O’Brien. “Many people seem to be very quick to judge and attack others, often with extreme hostility. As an activist and a human, my desire is to cultivate more compassion and respect for all beings. I want to put my voice out there and be an advocate for the issues I believe in, but I want to do it in a way that helps create more compassion and caring; I don’t want to be part of the negativity and hostility.”

Activists who participate in such online hostility may think they are doing the animals a service, but they are just helping depict activists as insensitive bullies.

Unhealthy sleep patterns

Interruption of regular sleep patterns is among the hallmarks of a social media addiction. Lack of sleep is not only damaging to our health, but it can affect our productivity and cognitive performance. Any animal advocate who wants to put quality time into their activism is going to need quality sleep. Along with eating well, it’s one of the fundamental steps we can take to avoid burning out.

*****

Am I saying animal activists should stop using social media? No. Social media is an important tool, and its influence in the movement will probably continue to grow as new, more powerful platforms are created. But social media should never be a substitute for on-the-street, grassroots campaigning. If you are able to address the public in person about how animals are exploited, please do so. I don’t mean you need to be confrontational; indeed, making a vegan meal for an omnivore or sitting down to share an animal rights documentary with them can often have a more positive impact than holding a protest sign in front of a slaughterhouse.

Moreover, I encourage activists to use social media and our devices with more intention. You might also consider a digital detox, including such steps as:

You might even reduce your use of social media by cutting out one or more platforms or going without them altogether for a week or a month. You may be amazed by how much more you get done, how it improves your sleep, and how it lifts your mood. It might even make you a more effective activist.

I will speaking more about the importance of self-care at the Animal Rights National Conference in July. I hope to see some of you there.

 


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