July 12, 2023

Social Media and Digital Resistance

Author photoBy Karen Sternheimer

It’s not hard to find stories decrying social media. From concerns about mental health, bullying and eating disorders, wasting time, and spreading misinformation, the presumptive “harm” of social media has become taken for granted, especially where young people are concerned.

A recent Los Angeles Times article opined:

Like a digital Tower of Babel, social media is evolving into an increasingly ugly and chaotic space — a real-time repository for our worst impulses, uninspired musings, scatological humor and ill-formed thoughts that should be kept to ourselves. It is an online Mall of America: vast, vacuous, relentlessly commercial and soul-sucking. And in a time of immense crisis — political, ecological, social — it has become a garbage dump of vile commentary publicly aired because that’s just what we do now.

I admit, I’m not a huge social media consumer, and there are things we should think critically about regarding its use. But we might be missing some of the ways in which young people in particular are using social media with so much attention paid to potential harms.

A study by Rob Eschmann focuses on how young people use social media in ways that create “digital resistance” to racism they encounter online and in their everyday lives. His book, When the Hood Comes Off: Racism and Resistance in the Digital Age, is based in part on interviews with college students who describe how sharing their experiences on social media is both a form of activism as well as a space to explore meanings of race with others.

Eschmann acknowledges that “online racism is ubiquitous,” starting the book by talking about his first experience as the target of racism while playing online video games with his cousins (p. 82). Nonetheless, he concludes that “social media and internet technologies…[enable] the creation of spaces where folks of Color don’t feel so alone when discussing their experiences of racism” (p. 111).

Research participants described how online spaces give them “room to process” issues of race that they encounter, especially as people might be reluctant to talk about race in person (p. 112). This means that they might have conversations on their own timeline, returning to online discussions and sharing more ideas after taking time to think more about them. “Increased access to empirical resources and time to craft careful statements” allows participants time to “poke holes in the dominant paradigms for understanding race” (p. 114).

Eschmann also notes how social media can create feelings of community among strangers with similar experiences of racial microaggressions, which are incidents that might appear to be small, are often unintentional, but can have a cumulative effect on overall health and wellbeing. “The ability to interact with others without being in their physical presence, and being able to reflect and engage on your own time may increase the comfort level many people have talking about race” (p. 111). Simply put, conversations on a social media platform might include many sources of support, where in-person conversations are more limited to those who are there at the same time.

These examples illustrate how “digital spaces …[create] new opportunities to resist” what Eschmann calls “dominant historical narratives” about race (p. 131). These narratives often involve minimizing the experiences of racism that people of color endure; online spaces offer opportunities for affirmation and support by sharing experiences. They also provide opportunities to call out racism from a safe distance.

There’s a lot not to like about social media, some of which Eschmann explores in a discussion of a Facebook page that invites anonymous postings about race, among other topics, that seems to be a magnet for hate. But despite its many shortcomings, Eschmann’s book reveals that there are opportunities for social media to be beneficial to people experiencing marginalization.

How else has social media been used to create “digital resistance?” What are ways it might be better used for this and other purposes?

Comments

Although my experience may be different from others, social media had a positive impact on my mental health. Being an only child in a small village, I found solace in my virtual friends on Facebook and Instagram. They provided me with constant support and helped me overcome my struggles. Of course, I'm aware that social media can also have negative effects..

Thank you! This is an interesting article. I hope to hear more updates from you.

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