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Social media cannot replace democratic participation

Historically, the public has seen American college campuses as places of social activism and involvement. Whatever apathy exists outside university walls, students are expected to lead the way by being proactive in addressing the social and political ills of the day. With the invention of social media, the very definition of what it means to be “involved” has become muddied. While it has been useful in heralding the 2011 Egyptian Revolution, the use of social media in the United States as a means of activism, I believe, has had the opposite effect. Rather than being a change agent, social media has been a tool for maintaining the status quo. 

Widespread access to the Internet has given the public an outlet to post their feelings both overtly and anonymously. This has given many a feeling of power, as they are able to vent on public forums without the inconvenience of engaging in true dialogue. Rather than engaging in face-to-face discussions with those who may disagree with us, we are able to substitute them with Facebook or Twitter posts, where the default reactions of most are to “like” or “favorite.” These sites do not provide a built-in mechanism for debate — what do we make of a system that does not allow us to “dislike” or take issue with?

As our politicians have now discovered social media as a marketing tool, it is now used by many of them as a substitute for engagement with the public. The crisis in Ferguson is a lesson in the dangers of substituting virtual involvement with real involvement. When the announcement was read late Monday evening that Officer Darren Wilson would not be indicted, the anger, and subsequent violence, was completely predictable. Having seen the Rodney King and Trayvon Martin cases play out in prior years, we have come to expect those who see the judicial system as rigged against them will have no immediate way of venting their despair.

Where were our politicians that night? Were they out on the streets of Ferguson, showing solidarity with those who felt disenfranchised and angry? Did any of our major political figures see fit to stand among the people? Some old enough may recall a time when Robert F. Kennedy chose to get out on a flatbed truck to announce that Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated. Does anyone think his actions would have had the same effect, if he merely Tweeted his feelings?

When Cory Booker was 22, he wrote an impassioned article entitled, “Why have I lost control?” in which he laid bare his anguish over the Rodney King verdict. Today, as a New Jersey senator, his response to Ferguson was to tweet his 1992 article and share a passage written by MLK via his Facebook page. 

Given the behavior of our elected officials, it is not surprising that college students themselves are now deluded about what it means to be socially active. Only “racially-charged” national crises, such as the Ferguson case, are deemed worthy of attention and action. Many seem minimally aware of politics and current events — many students at Rutgers were not even aware of November’s senatorial election that re-elected Booker. There is a form of selective attention that results in high profile monitoring of cases, like the Michael Brown case, by the public.

When students choose to march on campus and engage in early morning chants in reaction to racially charged cases, it was clear that students were not being proactive but merely reactive. While this may make us feel as if we are involved, we are actually being manipulated. If we, as students, are only aware of racial inequality in our justice system when a particular case is highlighted in the media, we do the cause of justice a disservice.

Social media is not a substitute for the democratic process. While it may have a role in mobilizing people, as observed with the march from the Douglass Student Center to the Brower steps last Tuesday, we should understand its limitations. If a Rutgers student, or any citizen, truly wants to “honor Mike Brown,” take the problem in your own hands and take the initiative to change the world you live in. Sign a petition, write a letter to your congressman, organize and exercise your right to peaceably assemble. Do it even when high-profile cases are not “trending” on Facebook or Twitter.

Dan Corey is a Rutgers Business School first-year student majoring in journalism and media studies and supply chain management. He is a staff writer for The Daily Targum.

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