Social Media Blues?

August 13th, 2014 by Hillary Rettig

How Filtering Your Facebook, Twitter, and Other Feeds Can Make You a Happier and More Effective Activist

Dear Hillary: “How do I enjoy myself when so many horrors go on continually?”

Consider this a continuation of last month’s column on how to be happy in a world filled with suffering, in which  the importance of: (1) consciously deciding how much of your life you want to devote to animal activism or advocacy, and (2) taking regular breaks was discussed.

Hillary & Billy

Hillary & Billy

This month, try doing an easy thing that will benefit you all year round: filter your Facebook and other social media inputs.

If your social media exposes you to an unending stream of horrific images and urgent “calls to action” it could be taking a toll psychologically, and possibly impairing your effectiveness in activism and other areas.

It’s true that, as the late animal activist Gretchen Wyler famously said, “We must not refuse to see with our eyes what they must endure with their bodies.” However, that doesn’t mean that you should, as one activist/psychologist once put it to me, “constantly re-traumatize yourself” by exposing yourself to an overwhelming stream of terrible images and urgent appeals. There’s also a difference between making a deliberate decision to sit down with a book or blog post you know will be challenging, and logging onto your social media and getting blindsided by something awful—over and over again.

When I say “filter” your inputs, I mean asking friends and organizations to refrain from sending you content that upsets you, and unfriending, unfollowing, unsubscribing, or otherwise blocking communications from those who won’t comply. (It’s an entirely reasonable request, by the way—so don’t feel guilty. I would actually question the judgment of anyone who gives you a hard time about it.)

If you doubt how much this seemingly small step can improve your life, just try it for a week or two. (You can always reconnect later.) When I did it I experienced a huge relief—and then realized that I hadn’t felt completely safe around my social media for a long time: that, every time I logged on, I was worried about what terrible image or story I might be assaulted with.

Others report similar experiences.

Another reason to filter is that social media of even the non-traumatizing kind can suck up too much time. Don’t get me wrong! I love social media. It’s an amazing tool for both staying in touch with loved ones, and social justice work. But like any tool it can be misused. (Anti-Social is an app that will let you shut down your social media to get some work done, but as a productivity coach I recommend going a step further and getting a cheap second computer from which you entirely strip the Internet, games, and other distractions.)

Sharing is Caring—Up to a Point!

Despite its obvious benefit, animal activists are often shocked when I suggest they filter their social media feeds. There are three common objections:

1) People feel it is their duty to witness the animals’ suffering. I addressed this point above with the Gretchen Wyler quote.

2) People are worried that, without the constant, graphic reminders of animal suffering they won’t care as much. Based on my own experience and that of others, I promise you that that won’t happen. You’ll care every bit as much and you’ll also be in a much better frame of mind to take action.

3) People feel that using social media to share the graphic content is important activism. “Sharing is caring,” as the expression goes; and it is—but only up to a point. Remember that the goal of activism is not simply to share information, but to do so in a way that yields individual or societal change. Sharing that doesn’t accomplish that isn’t effective activism—and the sharing of disturbing information might actually be counterproductive. Psychologists at the University of Massachusetts at Boston and elsewhere have shown that those viewing graphic images of animal and human suffering can experience trauma symptoms; and some researchers speculate that such images may actually influence some viewers away from the activist doing the presenting and the viewpoint being promoted.

So–filter your inputs, and filter your outputs, too. Don’t be “that activist”–the one who broadcasts an ongoing stream of horrific stuff out at unsuspecting or unprepared others. This is particularly true if many of your contacts are non-vegan, and thus the very people we hope to persuade.

Here are some positive ways to use social media to support animals:

1) Share and celebrate our personal and societal victories, and other good news. Also share fun stuff like jokes—but not the double-edged jokes that actually put non-vegans and others down.

2) Strategically share information with other vegans who can actually do something constructive with it. Karen Dawn does this brilliantly with her Dawnwatch newsletter, in which she shares information on media coverage of animal-related issues while encouraging her readers to write letters, leave comments, or provide other feedback to media people. But you can do this on an individual level, too.

3) Strategically share information with non-vegans. For example, while I frequently share vegan victories, yummy vegan foods, and health-related information with my many non-vegan Facebook friends, I limit my sharing of cruelty-related information to a few times a month, and I almost never publish graphic images.

Some vegans would judge me for holding back important truths that they feel non-vegans need to see, and they might be right. However, I know that even my seemingly “mild” sharing has cost me some Facebook friends. Once someone unfriends me, I’ve lost a lot of my ability to influence that person, so I prefer to tread cautiously.

4) Promote vegan products, personalities, and businesses not simply because they’re vegan, but because they’re fantastic. (Be selective—don’t promote everything—and be authentic!)

5) Support other activists and advocates. As we all know, the Internet bullies are out there and veganism can bring them out in force. But on the Internet, as in real life, it often takes just a little pushback for a bully to turn tail and run. So if you see someone fighting a righteous fight, or getting picked on, get their back.

So those are a few of my rules for social media. It’s a big topic, though, and a moving target. I would like to hear YOUR ideas for using it to promote pro-animal values, and especially for staying safe and happy while doing so. Please share them in the comments section.

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