The180·The 180

Facebook activism isn't real activism

Activist and author Nora Loreto calls on her fellow activists to break up with Facebook as a tool for change.
Writer Nora Loreto thinks her fellow activists need to leave Facebook behind if they want to accomplish real social change. (Wikimedia)

Facebook is ubiquitous in the activist community.

It's used for everything from finding information to sharing stories to coordinating rallies. 

But Nora Loreto, a writer, musician and activist based in Quebec City, says organizers need to confront Facebook's limits.

I know, it feels like progress. 

When people use technology to work together for a common political or social goal. 

Take the example of Gilary Massa. 

She was working at Ryerson's student union, had a baby and went on maternity leave. 

Three months later, she was fired without notice, and her unionized position was replaced with a non-unionized one.

Support for Massa mobilized through a Facebook campaign called "I Stand With Gilary." 

The Page coalesced anger from sympathetic Canadians and it shared information about maternity leave and workers' rights.

But when Massa reached a legal settlement, the campaign ended and the Facebook group's momentum fizzled. 

While Facebook may have been instrumental in resolving the individual issue, it wasn't able to morph the fight into something broader, even though they received other requests from different women with maternity leave horror stories.

 A campaign needs a perfect narrative in order to succeed on Facebook:  a problem, and a straightforward solution that people can rally around. 

But many campaigns, especially ones that focus on systemic issues, don't fit that arc. 

Righting a wrong done to a woman on maternity leave is one thing, but big-picture goals like extending paid leave, or creating a national childcare plan, require fundamental and multi-layered change.

I know what you're thinking. 

(Submitted to CBC)

Facebook is often described with words like social, community or engagement. 

We've been lead to believe that it is the modern town square. 

But it's actually a powerful driver of individualism. 

What we think of other people becomes who they are. We live in our heads, even when engaging with others.

Issues that ought to be momentary setbacks can quickly become conversation-enders. 

And users can simply move on to the next item instead working to reach consensus. 

So it should come as no surprise that the most successful mobilizations have used Facebook peripherally. 

Take the 2012 Quebec student strikes against tuition increases. 

Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, one of the movement's spokespersons, captured the debates that happened in cafeterias, school hallways and gymnasia across Quebec in his book, Tenir Tête. 

He wrote that in fact, there was nothing spontaneous about the strike.

It was, on the contrary, the fruit of a long and often taxing mobilization effort. 

Despite the fact that social media occupied the same level of importance then as it does today, and that activists were young and of the generation best positioned to leverage Facebook, Nadeau-Dubois' analysis barely mentions organizing on Facebook.

While many protesters were on social media, the students took the time to meet face-to-face in order to gain their victory.

The strength of that movement can't be overstated: it toppled the Liberal government of Jean Charest. 

Today, Nadeau-Dubois is sitting in the National Assembly, having recently won in a by-election with just under 70 percent of the vote, beating out twelve other candidates. 

There are, of course, benefits to using Facebook. 

As the "I Stand With Gilary" campaign showed, the medium can be useful in micro-activism. 

But we have to be honest with ourselves about how damaging our overreliance on Facebook has become in the macro. 

If our desire for social change extends beyond the resolution of a single issue, we need to close our laptops or turn off our phones, and spend more time in the presence of others. 

Building a better world requires unmediated interaction, often even looking each other in the eye, and that means leaving Facebook behind.

Nora Loreto is the author of From Demonized to Organized: Building the New Union Movement.


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