The lungs of the informed youth are on fire

The rise of misinformation and slacktivism in the age of Instagram.

Alongside this piece on news consumption through social media, we conducted an interview with Sam Koslowski and Zara Seidler from the @thedailyaus, which you can find here. 

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The Amazon is burning. It has been burning for three weeks

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There have been more than 26,000 forest fires in the Amazon this month alone – my heart is breaking 

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Why is nobody reporting on this?!!

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The Amazon provides 20% of the earth’s oxygen

Within hours of the first one, there were tens of them. Every second or third Instagram story I opened displayed pictures of the Amazon going up in smoke, adorned with captions repeating the same line: the Amazon provides 20% of the earth’s oxygen. Everyone I followed seemed to be outraged, and an online movement was born within the 24-hour limits of the Instagram story, around the tagline, “The Earth’s lungs are on fire”. 

At its best, the ‘Amazon is Burning’ movement is a positive example of social media providing a platform for young people to engage and mobilise over social issues. But upon closer inspection, it also happens to be a glaring example of the entrenched and oft-ignored flaws of the ways in which our generation employs these platforms for socio-political discourse.

Despite being posted thousands of times, the assertion that the Amazon rainforest contributes 20% of the Earth’s oxygen remains factually incorrect and is also highly misleading. Peter Brennan, in a piece for The Atlantic, writes that although losing the Amazon would create a “desiccating feedback loop” resulting in the collapse of millions of species and rendering the ambitions of the Paris Agreement virtually impossible, the rainforest at a most generous consideration contributes around 6 percent of oxygen living organisms. Even then, measuring the Earth’s oxygen is an incorrect way of assessing climate change effects. 

By the time this article was published, the 20% line had been quoted, tweeted and shared all around the world.

These platforms have become our primary sources of information, and whatever misinformation that circulates through them is usually forgiven or forgotten.

Like many other twenty-somethings probably reading about the Amazon through their Instagram feeds, I didn’t question the statistic. I read the line repeatedly and never felt compelled to fact check, but merely accepted. Maybe we can’t punish ourselves for our errors – after all, even French President Emmanuel Macron made the error of tweeting the false fact. Moreover, posting a line like that isn’t the worst sin you could commit; it doesn’t diminish the fact that the Amazon, a valuable ecosystem, is being purposely deforested for commercial gain with devastating effects for climate change. 

The exposed falsehood of such a powerful and repeated line is a telling moment in our formative years as the guinea pig generation of social media activism. These platforms have become our primary sources of information, and whatever misinformation that circulates through them is usually forgiven or forgotten.

It would be easy for me to write that we should simply be more vigilant in our reading, expand our range of sources and fact check as we go, but setting such an expectation would likely prove unrealistic. By design, social media platforms only allow for partial or summarised information – digestibility is their appeal, at the cost of detail. Platforms like Twitter became instrumental in social movements such as #BlackLivesMatter and during the Arab Spring because of the concise delivery of content, which allowed for concentrated, driven social movement. But, there’s not much else you can fit in 140 characters.

Particularly in the social circles of Australian universities and schools, students seem to be turning more and more to Instagram stories as a preferred mode for posting about social issues. It presents an alternative to the longform Facebook post that can feel too exposed (especially when your 800-long list of Facebook friends includes anyone and everyone you’ve ever met) , it’s more useful than a Snapchat story because you can link out (plus it’s way more aesthetic), and it disappears after 24 hours (not taking up valuable real estate on your feed). At most, you’ll fill the screen with three to four lines of text, and maybe fit in one photo at best. It’s quick, condensed, powerful and far-reaching, but potentially ill-equipped to fully articulate something like the science behind the impact of the Amazon forest fires. Sharing a post is even breezier. 

Peter Brennan’s article clocks in at about 1700 words – how many Instagram stories would that take up? Would there be anyone committed enough to tap through all of them?

As a twenty-one year old in Sydney, sitting on the bus while I tap away on my battered iPhone, I am acutely aware that I do not possess the adequate fact-checking resources nor scientific intellect to do the kind of research Brennan conducted in order to protect myself against misinformation. But I don’t need that. Publications and news outlets like The Atlantic, or our own free-to-air ABC, do this kind of work already, but the problem is that we are not seeking out their work. Or turning on the television. As young people of the social media era, we are becoming increasingly less willing to move beyond the horizons of Instagram and Facebook to consume journalistic content produced by organisations with fact-checkers and official research procedures – in other words, organisations that can be held accountable for misinformation.

Social media companies, whether by intention or inadvertently, are making this more difficult. In January 2019, over 1,000 individuals were laid off from American digital news organisations such as BuzzFeed and HuffPost. Many of these outlets cited Facebook and Google’s disproportionate power as being a large contributing factor – the duopoly take about 84% of online advertising revenue and give almost no information on readers, views or algorithms in return. Over recent years, Facebook and Google have established a power-dynamic which ensures digital media companies become dependent on them to circulate their content, profit from these companies but make it harder for them to succeed. Moreover, the apps are designed so that users don’t want to leave the app by clicking on a link to read the full article. Don’t we all know the feeling of skipping over the “click here to read the full article” to scroll to whatever’s next?

The effect seems to be twofold. Firstly, users like us become more easily satiated with simple headlines and Instagram graphics rather than detailed longform journalism. Secondly, news sources that don’t have subscription models are most disadvantaged financially, and ‘free’ news that would primarily benefit young people with limited spare income becomes rarer. I don’t need to have a university level understanding of geology to know that the Amazon doesn’t produce 20% of the Earth’s oxygen – I just have to read an article. But there’s something wrong with the fact that I find it too burdensome to spend three minutes off Instagram to do that. 

Despite all of this, it’s undeniable that the Amazon forest fires would never have been added to the G7 Summit were it not for online outrage, nor would Leonardo DiCaprio have pledged $5 million to the cause. It’s a veritable catch-22: social media provides an optimal platform for social activism, but our dependence on it has grown so large that it is now our near-exclusive source of information. But, it goes unregulated and overshared, so we end up with Cristiano Ronaldo posting a photo of the Amazon on fire from six years ago, not six weeks ago, to millions of followers who think none the better.

The appeal of social media to many young people, lacking in time and plentiful in mobile data, is complacency: RSVP-ing to a protest event takes place of attendance, posting an Instagram story takes place of real discussions about an issue. There’s a term that refers to this kind of social media activism: “slacktivism”. It’s somewhat derogatory but it summarises the tendency of people our age to consider online activity to be their sole form of social activism. However, perhaps it doesn’t fully give credit to the fact that online activism is also the birthplace of movements with real consequence like #MeToo and the global climate change protests. But that’s not to say that the system’s perfect.

As young people in 2019, we pride ourselves on the fact that at the click of a keyboard, you can show your support for a cause.

Research has in fact shown that activism that begins in private is far more likely to lead to subsequent action on the issue as the enactor feels an intimate link to the issue, than with activism that begins publicly.

What we often fail to recognise is that within this, there is an inherent element of performativity. Social media perception is increasingly determining our self-worth, so this performativity is particularly acute when our activism exists exclusively online, as is the case for many university-aged people with limited time and resources. But if our activism exists only in the virtual world, maybe it becomes less about the factual accuracy of what we are saying, but the one-sided instant gratification we get for posting something that is ‘good’. 

Research has in fact shown that activism that begins in private is far more likely to lead to subsequent action on the issue as the enactor feels an intimate link to the issue, than with activism that begins publicly. 

While the Instagram stories on the recent Alabama abortion bans did rally huge amounts of support for pro-choice movements and raised awareness of the issue, in conversing with those who had posted or spoken about it online, I kept coming up against a strange phenomenon: the conversations would elicit no more of a response than “yeah how awful is it?”. It was as if the act of posting was the start and end of the activism, the post had been sent out into the void of the world and that was that. Responses to them were unusual and disagreement was openly frowned upon; the act of posting itself was the value of the act, not the consequences of the post into the future.

My biggest fear is that we are at risk of only seeing in black and white. Things are either good or bad, because it all that we have room to say in a tweet or an Instagram story. The consequences of issues are yet unspoken, and surrounding discussions and questions go unsaid as we cut ourselves off from further conversation and replace it with a pseudo-self-branding mechanism. Where is the room to discuss how Alabama’s abortion ban would affect future Supreme Court decisions? Or whether abortion laws were overly restrictive across Australia? The only response I could elicit was abortion bans equals bad.

And what does this mean for issues like the Amazon forest fires? 

Beyond the posts, tweets and stories, where is the space for us to have conversations about protecting the indigenous communities? Or the burning of fossil fuels? Or to engage in the actual scientific reasoning behind the headline?

It is time for us to take a serious look at the way in which we consume and share information through the veins of social media, as well as question why we do it.

I cannot say that online activism is by nature “bad”. The digital world allows voice and agency to youth that had previously always gone unheard. It has allowed real change through movements such as #BlackLivesMatter. It has allowed us to comfort those across the Tasman in the wake of the Christchurch shooting. These moments of solidarity, outspokenness and support are of tangible value.

But it is time for us to take a serious look at the way in which we consume and share information through the veins of social media, as well as question why we do it. Social media activism is praiseworthy, but we have to consider that it does not exist alone in a vacuum. It must be supplemented – with other action, with other discussion, with other information. We’ve seen the success of online activism, but it’s also time to recognise its limitations.

The Amazon is still burning. We are still hurtling towards a tipping point in the race to save the earth. We’ve brought the issue to the altar of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. So, what do we do now?

Soo is an editor for Et Cetera and is currently completing an Honours year in English Literature at the University of Sydney.

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