Community Activism and Social Media

Last Updated: 06-27-18

Shortly after I left my career in high technology, and with significant help from my wife, I became a community activist.

My particular “thing” was money in politics and the power of large multinational corporations. Success in such matters is always hard to gauge, but it was fulfilling to be in the arena, working for change.

My experience taught me to support and believe in the power of community activism. Activism helps people think about important issues. It plants the seeds of change. It marks the genesis of all important movements in world history.

Social media is a popular tool among modern activists, who use platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter and others to reach thousand or even millions. Movements such as Arab Spring, #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo benefited significantly from social media.

Social media allows like-minded individuals around the world to find each other. People post their thoughts hoping for acceptance and validation and eventually migrate, along with others who share their ideals, to the same groups.

But social media also has a dark side. Research links social media to anxiety, depression, lack of sleep and suicide. “Cyber bullying” is a new but well established societal problem. If this isn’t bad enough, social media also compromises our personal privacy when corporations such as Google and Facebook use advanced artificial intelligence systems to learn more about us than even our friends and family.

Another big risk of social media is the development of filter bubbles. Experts define filter bubbles as states of intellectual isolation resulting from the human tendency to seek and consume information that agrees with our viewpoint while ignoring or labelling as “fake news” information that differs from our viewpoint.

Filter bubbles proliferate and are exacerbated by social media. Ultimately, we elevate to “friend” those who present information with which we agree and avoid those who refute this information. First virtually – and ultimately physically – people congregate on opposing sides. Divides widen and harden.

When people are long separated from alternative views, they begin to think everyone believes as they do. Shock and denial occur when those who live in filter bubbles encounter the real world. Since these emotions are distinctly unpleasant, those who live in filter bubbles tend to enter the real world less frequently over time, further hardening the borders between themselves and others.

Here in Oakmont, we have our share of community activists. They peer over walls and under rugs to find truth. They’re motivated by a variety of deep-seated needs, but their goal is  common: to be on the lookout for poor governance and to sound the alarm when they find it.

Many of Oakmont’s community activists contribute via social media platforms such as NextDoor, Oakmont Buzz and Oakmont Observer. Such contributions expose ideas to more people and stimulate responses that can refine presented arguments.

But they can also go off the rails, lurching away from fact into conspiracy theories, innuendo and outright nonsense. Outrage and holy righteousness are spawned, which in turn begets more outrage and increasing violence of word and deed. Before long, villagers look for pitchforks and prepare for war.

This pattern is extremely disturbing to many Oakmonters. When I canvassed door-to-door during my election campaign, I heard time and again from residents who had logged into their NextDoor accounts and were immediately put off by the childish, angry attacks written about their neighbors and/or the community they call home.

Although the number of Oakmonters who post frequently on these sites is relatively small, I’m becoming very concerned for their reputations and dismayed when I hear them disparaged so frequently by so many.

Another problem is that many who consume social media gauge the community’s temperature based on the degree of vitriol on these sites. This is false attribution because, in truth, for most of us, Oakmont is the same place before, during and after big social media blow-ups. We still take part in social, cultural and educational opportunities, play various sports, enjoy the surrounding natural beauty and get together with friends regularly. But somehow, people get the impression that Oakmont has become much less livable because of the negative campaigns of those who post frequently.

The best community activists walk a fine line. They fight for causes, but don’t fight against people. They hold firmly to their principles yet treat those holding different ideas with great kindness and respect.

This is very, very far from easy. Anyone can be a community activist. All it takes is concern about something. But not all activists can do their work without hurting people and making enemies.

It takes continual recommitment to our ideals to ensure the passion we feel about issues does not provoke us to anger and personal attacks. I work at this constantly and fail more often than I’d like!

Continual recommitment requires unwavering attention. We must constantly analyze our behavior to see whether we’re living up to the entreaties of our better angels.

Oakmont needs community activists and social media. However, to best serve Oakmont, our community activists must not fall victim to unfounded speculation leading to falsehoods, innuendo and conspiracies. They must avoid outrage and righteous indignation, as these negative impulses damage their own reputations, infect others and divide our community.

There will always be potentially divisive issues in communities the size of Oakmont. Only with civility, patience, respect and finally trust can we resolve them peacefully.