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5 young activists in 4 countries, Part 2: The social media crucible

The US students who walked out of schools nationwide in protest against gun violence yesterday have counterparts in many other countries. On March 24, young activists all over the world will be staging events in support of the March for Our Lives movement started in Parkland, Fla., and there are other causes and kinds of social change their peers have taken up, social media playing a prominent role in their work, worldwide. This is a two-part post that zooms in on five remarkable activists in four countries, ages 18-24 who spoke on a panel at Facebook’s Global Safety Summit in Washington earlier this month. Here, in Part 2, a look at some of the life-changing challenges their work in social media has brought them (read about them and their work in Part 1)….

A crucible is a “place” where severe struggle happens, but it leads “to the creation of something new.” Based on the accounts of Tábata Amaral de Pontes, Evelyn Atieno, Camryn Garett, Amika George and Harnidh Kauer – activists and leaders between the ages of 18 and 24 in Brazil, India, Britain and the US – social media has been that kind of place for them, as well as a platform and power tool. Though they’re all highly skilled media users, it has brought some tough experiences that grew their strength and confidence. Listening to them from the audience, it was almost as if they were processing those experiences out loud as they spoke on stage.

When Tábata said mobilizing was easier than organizing her movements (in Part 1), she clearly didn’t mean that using social media is easy. She and other panelists described searing experiences they had because of their very public projects – experiences that a lot of people may never have, much less people so young, and that clearly led to what sounded like new levels of strength and confidence.

Her pivotal experience was having a digital gossip magazine with “millions of followers that propagates a lot of fake news” (the Brazilian version of a “supermarket tabloid”) start to publish “fake news about me and my family every single day…. My family became very scared. I come from a very poor part of Brazil, and I couldn’t afford a lawyer, and my family said, ‘Maybe they’ll come after you. Maybe they’re going to harm us.’… That hurt me a lot. I cried for a lot of days. I thought about giving up on all my mission. Because there was no answer, and we don’t have laws for that in Brazil yet.”

Nowhere to turn but inward

The epiphany came when she realized she had to tell her truth publicly, without giving any credence to the publication by linking back to it. In a public post, she said, “I was very strong about who I am, what I defend and why I defend those things.” The response indicated she’d made the right decision. “The people who had seen all those [defaming] posts [told her], ‘thank God you said something’,” she said They told her “they were scared that, because I didn’t say anything [for a while], I was agreeing with all those lies.” And because she didn’t explicitly refer to the offending content, people who hadn’t seen it simply said, “‘Those were nice things that Tábata wrote about what she defends.’ Because it is so important that you do not give audience to [your detractors]…. That is not the type of politics or dialog in which I believe. I won’t go and hate in the same way that they hate on me, but I do need to be very strong about who I am,” Tábata said.

Youth activists panel

l. to r.: Amika, Camryn, Tábata, Harnidh, Evelyn and mod. Taylor

Evelyn had to dig for that kind of strength at an even younger age, in high school, when a celebrity’s manager called her and threatened to sue her for the way Affinity covered “something very racist” the celebrity had posted online. “We were the first people to cover it, so…it blew up immediately…. We were getting thousands of retweets and thousands of views,” she said. “So at the time I was…super scared and did not know what I was going to do. I don’t even know how they got my number. They said they wanted to sue me but in the back of my mind I knew I wasn’t doing anything wrong. I was just telling the truth. And just because you’re famous doesn’t mean that you should not be called out.” So she didn’t back down, she told us, and, interestingly, the manager “called back and [said], ‘We thought about it, and you really didn’t do anything wrong and do you want to do an interview with [the celebrity]?”

But the story didn’t end there. Evelyn explained to us that, “at first, being young, sometimes you think adults are right, so you think, ‘oh, maybe I really did do something wrong.’ But sometimes you really have to look to yourself and realize that speaking out is never wrong especially if somebody’s doing something wrong. So by me standing up to them and saying, ‘I’m not going to take this down,’ it was actually rewarding….”

Private person, public purpose

The other tough thing about this experience, she said, was how public it all was. “I’m a really private person and…I try to keep my identity kind of anonymous…. People found my personal Twitter and…didn’t like the things I tweeted in my free time, so of course this created a whole bunch of people tweeting me hate and trying to dig up stuff about me, and it’s really nerve-wracking…. It kind of deterred me from using social media, even to the point of thinking I don’t want to do this anymore.”

That pain became a portal. “I had to think to myself, ‘My purpose is bigger than this. What people are saying today, the next day people are going to be saying something else, and you should never feel bad if you’re doing the right thing. Because although people will send you a lot of hate…if what you’re doing is strong and is good, then it will withstand all the hate and it will prosper.”

Having gone through that, she now helps her contributors through similar struggles. “My teen writers get a lot of hate on their articles as well… and they’ll tell me ‘I don’t feel like writing anymore,’…and I tell them, ‘the fact that they’re reading your article and they’re commenting like that means you’re doing something really big…. I just tell them, ‘Keep positive. Social media can break you; social media can also make you. Always keep a level head…. It’s great to have a community that’s by teens, for teens where they don’t feel alone in the world.”

Growing resilience

Harnidh found she literally had to “disappear” from social media altogether for a while. “Like in many other countries, right now the political environment in India is very very fraught. The lines become very sharp and something like that happened with me,” she said, referring to a very negative encounter that Camryn, too, like Evelyn, had with a celebrity on Twitter. In Camryn’s case, the celebrity was Cher, whose fans went on the attack after Cher challenged her in a tweet for writing a piece questioning a film (Cher was to star in) about the clean water problem in Flint, Mich., before the problem was resolved.

Harnidh told us her Twitter experience “became very, very violent, to the point that I got rape threats, murder threats, and that breached my tolerance too. I’m very ok with hate because usually there’s as much, if not more, support, but this time it just took its toll on me…. I came home and cried.

“It’s kind of hard to explain to your parents, especially when you comment [publicly, as a writer and poet] on current issues. You’re always expected to be on…. Sometimes I just don’t know what happened. I don’t know why you’re outraging…. So at times just the pressure of being a voice that people look to when they want to frame their own opinions can take its toll, which is why in the past six months at least I have tried very consciously to be slightly slower with my opinions. I take a step back. I read more. I try to see if there’s something I’m missing and then try to put something out. Because it is important to not have a knee-jerk reaction to everything.”

There’s definitely an upside, Harnidh said. “The validation you get from that [having an] opinion people are sharing and [being someone] people are depending on…is definitely a rush…. But what’s the cost of that rush, that constant stress of always having to be on top of things, the cost of people always having to know what the next 3-minute trend is? It’s exhausting after a while.”

Countermeasures, self-regulation

But there’s an antidote: “Puppy videos,” she said. “I’m not kidding. The cool thing about social media is, there’s a lot of inane content on it, which acts as a great break, great filler. Memes serve a dual purpose: One, they’re funny. Two, they’re great political content.” I suspect she’s representing her generation and the next one, when she says, “On Instagram, my feed’s filled with memes because sometimes I just want to laugh. I don’t see why you have to constantly be on the defensive about things.”

She found she had to self-regulate and figured out how. “Once an article [she’s written] is out, I’d obsessively track who shared it, who didn’t, what were the reactions to it. The rush of it drags you in. You find yourself refreshing the page to see if you have retweets and comments.” So she would “take a step back…. Sometimes I stop, not check an article for four days. There’s no need to check responses in real time…. It’s a point where you peak, where you use social media so much you finally have a realization that ‘OMG what am I doing?! Why am I getting dragged into it so completely? That’s the point where you pull yourself back, you say, ‘No, sit down, you don’t get to do this anymore.’”

This conversation on stage was powerful not just because these young leaders told us their stories. They also let us into their thinking process as they worked through challenges in life and media. They illustrated for me how narrow our view of social media and how young people use it often is, where for them and so many change agents of their generation, media is both a “tool” – for self-expression, self-actualization, mobilization and change-making – and a “place” where all that personal and collective development plays out. There’s a great deal going on there. I wish all media critics and policymakers could hear these stories and the wisdom of their tellers. Because, as we saw throughout the country this week and as we’ll see in multiple countries this month and next, there are young change agents all around us, online and offline, who deserve not only our support but also our resolve to allow them some space to find their own strategies and strengths in and with the media of their (and our) networked world.

Part 1 of this series can be found here.

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