Blackout Reflection: The Opium of the People

note, this is a part of a series of reflections made during the 73 day social media blackout that Dream Defenders just ended.  Find out more here.

Before I joined the Dream Defenders, I was one of the many organizers around the world whose work did not reverberate through social media with thousands of likes and follows. Even though I was doing amazing grassroots work with some of the dopest people in the world, I felt voiceless and powerless because I didn’t know how to talk about my organizing online. I used to get together with friends and ask them how they did it, feverishly writing down tips for how to make my work attract attention because I felt like I had to. When I shared this with other Dream Defenders after arriving here in July, I was surprised to hear that even people who I had perceived as having the power of a huge organization, still felt invisible as individuals over social media. In the age of the internet, power and exposure have become increasingly relative - you can always have more followers and retweets and you’re bombarded with examples of others who have all of these things all the time. It’s clear that social media creates a feeling of loneliness and inadequacy for many of us regardless of our positionality.  

Why any of this matters in the first place is really what we should be asking ourselves. Social media is constantly fueling and draining our egos - making us feel hyper belittled and narcissistic at the same damn time, making us feel like the revolution is about us. Social media has created a race to the top mentality within our movement, while pandering to the basic human desire to connect with others and be recognized. Movement relationships have eroded online, because we are competing for airtime under the guise that airtime itself is scarce. And I think the scariest part about all of this, is that we don’t realize this dynamic exists or at the very least, believe that we are in control of it. However, after 73 days off of social media, I’ve come to the stark realization that these platforms have much more control over me, than I have over them. In fact, social media has such a strong hold of me, that I could barely adhere to staying off of it for 73 days. I went on several times, because I just had to look. It’s embarrassing to admit, but I was curious to know who had liked my last post.

Social media is based on the premise that we, as users, are the ones who preside over the platform.  The internet itself is considered a democratizing force in which every individual has an equal space to speak. Fights for net neutrality have been rooted in this messaging - the internet is the voice of the oppressed and must remain a place for the people.  But the reality is that social media has, and always will be, owned and operated by corporations.  Their business model manipulates the information we feed them with for their own gains. Despite our perception, social media is not in our control. It’s the illusion of such and while I can’t deny the importance of having spaces to share our own stories in our own words, I think we must ask ourselves if social media is really the right place to do this.

In my 73 days away from social media, I’ve had more space to root myself in my own consciousness without sitting in the thoughts and lives of others every waking moment. For the past 4 years, the first thing I’ve done almost every single day is check my Facebook and Twitter accounts. Without realizing it, I would feel bad about myself because inevitably one of my “friends” would be doing something more exciting or righteous than me, or because I’d be bombarded with images of Black and Brown death. Yet, social media is addictive. I couldn’t stop. This is not healthy. It’s psychological warfare.

Studies confirm that being on social media actually makes us depressed. When Sandra Bland was killed, my timeline was filled with images of her in her death and as the week went by, tiny pieces of the story came out one headline at a time, with each one flooding my entire timeline for hours. The psychological damage committed by seeing so many images of violence inflicted on our people is not liberating. It’s created a landscape where our movement is more about death, than about life. And the oppressor is perfectly content with this. In fact, it’s exactly what they want. What’s so sick and twisted about all of this is that they prey on our notions of freedom - our human desire for connection and recognition and our social desire for democratic and equitable communication – to do all of this.

A recent article revealed that Facebook and Google are competing to be the first to blanket the world in wifi access. Likewise, military forces are beginning to use social media for the newest wave of modern warfare. It’s clear that in 2015, global power will not be won through physical force and oppression alone, but  through controlling messaging and communications and the ways we understand and internalize our own conditions as humans.  In fact, a recent study showed that Google can determine the course of an election by making minor alterations to its search algorithm. This matters because Google frequently lobbies politicians for favorable regulations and consults with them and their parties in order to help them win elections.

The internet and its social media platforms have amassed immense amounts of data on us, using our clicks, purchases, downloads, posts, friends and “likes” to create individualized footprints of each of us.  With our data, corporations can manipulate our search results and Facebook timelines, to shape our behavior. While operating under the guise of neutrality, the internet has become completely personalized. You and I can Google the same word and get completely different results, yet, we both see Google as the ultimate source of information. When my friends and I are debating a fact, we often end the conversation with “let’s Google it,” failing to recognize that Google is a subjective force with capitalistic interests.  We end up having different understandings of our own condition simply because of what google tells us. The power the Internet has to erode our trust and connection to one another is terrifying.

I do not mean to send the message that the internet is not a powerful tool for our movement or that digital organizing doesn’t matter. However, we must recognize that the internet in and of itself is not a democratizing force and should not replace community-owned media outlets. As much as we would like to believe otherwise, the purpose of social media is to collect data and sell advertising space to corporations so we buy their stuff and build their power.  Just like Walmart and Nike have made us think we can’t live without them, Facebook and Twitter have convinced us that we can’t win without them. At times, they’ve convinced me that I’m not a good person or organizer because I don’t have hundreds of likes or followers on their platforms. This is sick. The internet – like any corporation – profits by convincing us that our survival, and in this case, our organizing, is dependent upon them.

At the end of all of this, I haven’t come to the conclusion that I won’t use social media at all but instead, I will intentionally use it as a tool without allowing it to use me.  It won’t be the first thing I check in the morning or the last thing I look at before I go to sleep.  I won’t let it shape my thoughts or my mood. I will catch myself when I’m letting my worth as a person be determined by my likes or followers. I won’t judge others based on what I seen online and will strive to have open and direct conversations with folks, rather than tell them (and the world) how I feel about them online. I will make social media work for the movement and will be honest and vocal when I see it operating the other way around.


- Rachel Gilmer

Dream Defenders Chief of Strategy