Social media exploded with outrage last week with posts decrying Walter Palmer's shooting of Cecil the lion, with over 800,000 tweets, alone. Soon after, social media exploded with "somewhat less" outrage that there was more outrage about Cecil the lion than there was about black victims of fatal shootings. Some even took to the Twitters with the hashtag #AllLionsMatter 40,000+ times to satirize the controversy. Then, of course, #UFC190 captures Twitter's attention with over 700,000 hashtag uses. But for all of the attention to Cecil, shootings of black citizens in the U.S. and the Ultimate Fighting Champion fight, President Obama and his trip to Africa garnered the most comments on social media last week (since last week, comments about Obama have shifted to clean energy and climate control).
Before diving into the serious issues raised here, take a moment to look at what trended last week: the shooting of a majestic wild animal (with a name), the President's trip to Africa and the country of his father's birth, yet another death of a person of color in the custody of law enforcement, and two women beating the crap out of each other (albeit for just 34 seconds) on pay-per-view television. The reality is that among the 6.3 billion people on the planet, mass attention gets focused on a full array of topics all the time. From serious to silly, from life-impacting to playoff impacting, people fill their lives up with distractions and information all of the time.
As for whether or not Cecil was more popular than black lives, #BlackLivesMatter was tweeted only 200,000 or so times in the past week, but it was used over 700,000 times in the past month and millions of times overall. And when you roll in tweets and other social media posts about #Ferguson, #ICantBreathe and all the other sad examples of egregious shootings of blacks in America since Trayvon Martin (just to pick a time to stop looking back), the number is likely in the tens of millions. And if we take a step back from social media and look at the big, real-world picture, there has been more attention given to the issue of excessive force used against people of color in the U.S. than all of the other issues listed above combined. By far!
We have to stop measuring the importance of an issue based solely on the explosion of comments on social media. While such explosions speak to the importance of an issue, the full weight we give to that issue is based on much more than the instant or short-term reaction given. In fact, an issue that explodes on social media and then fades quickly away, even if millions expressed their reaction, is not an issue that is being taken seriously.
This is why real campaigns do not hinge on a simple explosion of outrage. In order to make meaningful social and policy change, the response to an issue must have staying power online and, especially, offline. Otherwise, it is just a flash in the pan.
When an issue explodes on social media for the first time, it should give rise to efforts to sustain that energy towards enacting enduring change. Otherwise, it is an opportunity squandered.
When an issue explodes on social media many times and nothing happens to change behavior or policy that is a serious problem. In the past couple years there are at least three such issues plaguing our country: the repeated killing of people of color in the U.S. by authorities or people protected by dubious laws, the persistence of violence against women and the rising frequency of mass shootings. These three problems are not only serious, but they have raised their ugly heads repeatedly in the last few years. There have been multiple explosions on social media about them. But has there been a sufficient response to change behavior and policy?
I'm personally going to start wearing a lion costume when I leave my house so if I get shot, people will care.- roxane gay (@rgay) July 29, 2015
Of course, we can debate whether or not we are making headway against any of these issues. We renewed the Violence Against Women Act, but that came after a heated fight and the problem still persists quite publicly on college campus and social media, to say the least of the problem. We are debating the militarization of our police and talking about how much black lives matter, but they keep dying in custody. As for addressing mass shootings, well frankly, this is the biggest joke of our country. The NRA has essentially shut down any meaningful efforts to change even the most common-sense policy proposals and America's gun culture has battened down the hatches for a long (imagined) siege.
So the next time you hear people complain that their issue is not as popular on social media as some other less-deserving issue, take a moment to put things into perspective. It may save you from angina.