On 24 August 2021, the Democratic Socialists of America, Los Angeles chapter, tweeted “we regret to inform you all that tweeting isn’t organizing”.
This was followed by a threaded tweet encouraging people to sign up for an event entitled DSA 101, during which they could ‘learn how [to organize]”
we regret to inform you all that tweeting isn't organizing
— DSA-LA (@DSA_LosAngeles) August 24, 2021
For an account with a relatively small following (28K), the tweet received a fair amount of engagement – 307 Retweets, 820 Quote Tweets, and 3,203 Likes. There were also a lot of responses, many of which criticized the premise of the original tweet for its blanket rejection of the role of social media in modern movements. However many of the replies focused on a specific critique of the tweet – that its characterization of online activism as ‘less-than-real’ was ableist in nature.
User @BeingCharisBlog wrote “I regret to inform you that all ableism isn’t organizing” while @itswalela wrote “Take this down, this sh*t is ableist. Some of us are literally confined to our homes during a pandemic due to disability/ being immune compromised. Last year myself & other disabled ppl made a Google doc to get immune suppressed ppl nationally what they need & that’s good enough.”
Take this down, this shit is ableist. Some of us are literally confined to our homes during a pandemic due to disability / being immune compromised. last year myself & other disabled ppl made a Google doc to get immune suppressed ppl nationally what they need & that’s good enough https://t.co/85cvcjKHnI
— Walela (they/them) (@itswalela) August 25, 2021
I regret to inform you that all that ableism isn't organizing https://t.co/58wsGU3y4T
— Mx. Charis Hill ♿🏳️⚧️ (they/them) (@BeingCharisBlog) August 27, 2021
Others joining the conversation critiqued the assumption that people with disabilities needed social media to organize and engage civically.
User @grrrcait “everyone saying this is ableist don’t realize how condescending they sound. as if disabled folks can only organize online”, while @communoah wrote “I actually think tweeting can be used as an organizing tool BUT I’m really bummed by the kneejerk ‘this is ableist bc disabled people can’t go outside in a pandemic’ takes, as if socially distanced organizing is solely restricted to this corporate platform.
I actually think tweeting can be used as an organizing tool BUT I'm really bummed by the kneejerk "this is ableist bc disabled people can't go outside in a pandemic" takes, as if socially distanced organizing is restricted solely to this corporate platform https://t.co/z6bkgViFqS
— 🦷 teeth are skeletons ☠️ (@communoah) August 26, 2021
The discussion stemming from the tweet raises a number of interesting points that I’d like to delve into. They relate to the role of digital technology in activism by people with disabilities, and more widely on the pervasiveness of the concept of slacktivism.
Digital activism by people with disabilities
my disabled mom was an activist before Twitter existed. here's what she did:
– 1:1 calls
– phone/text bank
– cold contact press and community groups
– make graphics & agitprop
– order supplies
– hold a planning meeting
– give a presentation on strategy/history https://t.co/r0x571ksMc
— Laura Lou (@explauratory) August 26, 2021
Some Twitter users engaging in the discussion on the DSA-LA’s tweet noted that activists with disabilities have and do use a variety of tools and tactics, which pre-date or are not dependent on the Internet and social media. Similarly, in reflecting on the history of disability activism, academic Benjamin Mann notes that “these examples both demonstrate the legacy of embodied disability protest and set the stage for new forms of digital activism that are beginning to emerge that include a more diverse set of body–minds in participation and interact with embodied protest.”
However, while there is a rich history of what Mann terms ‘embodied disability protest’ it is still the case that people with disabilities may find it challenging to participate in forms of civic engagement such as voting or attending a protest for a myriad of reasons. In an examination of the #CripTheVote campaign from 2016, Mann argues that digital forms of disability activism must be included in our understanding and definition of activism. In the DSA-LA discussion, several users who identified themselves as having a disability shared their own experiences of the positive role that social media has played in their activism journeys.
I get where you're going w/ this (don't just stop @ tweeting, take action) but as an activist (disabled & intersectional) who was pretty much bed bound, my organizing DID take place online, did create change & that's not any less valid than an able bodied model of activism❤️✊
— Michele (Rebelwheels NYC) ✊❤️♿️ (@RebelWheelsNYC) August 26, 2021
For disabled folks like myself, sometimes this is all we can do. Luckily me, there are days I can actually get out and do things though they’ve become more limited as time goes on. Others aren’t so lucky.
— The Gatekeeper of Gozer She/Her 🏳️⚧️ 🎃💀👻 (@LittleMissKittn) August 25, 2021
The pervasiveness of slacktivism
The premise of the original tweet is rooted in the idea of ‘slacktivism’ – the idea that when it comes to activism and social change, online actions are less impactful and meaningful than in-person actions. While this idea has been discredited by many academics and practitioners for not being grounded in reality and for failing to capture the complexity and nuance of the role of social media in activism in a digitally networked era, it somehow still continues to find adherents.
In Twitter and Teargas, Zeynep Tufekci notes that “most people who become activists start by being exposed to dissident ideas, and people’s social networks – which include online and offline interactions – are among the most effective places from which people are recruited into activism.” For me personally, social media has been a crucial avenue for exposure to new ideas which have challenged my own understanding of social change and have even led me to engage in a range of actions, from donating funds to attending an event or a march.
This is also not to suggest that there aren’t many valid critiques of social media and its use within the context of activism. Last year, few of us could have avoided seeing individuals and brands alike posting black squares to protest police brutality and racism. This was soon followed by discussions of this action being performative and hollow (in particular by brands) and the fact that the use of the #blacklivesmatter hashtag with the squares made it much more difficult for some people to access crucial information and resources.
Bringing about change in society is complex and lengthy and there is no simple or single formula for it, and any tactics, be they hashtag campaigns, google docs of resources, marches, or acts of civil disobedience must be evaluated for their respective strengths and shortcomings and viewed in relationship to one another. It is also critical that our conceptualization and understanding of organizing or activism is not drawn only from that which is experienced and embodied by certain kinds of bodies and ways of being. In her book Restricted Access: Media, Disability, and the Politics of Participation, Elizabeth Ellcessor writes, “too often, disability is conceived of as outside the normal range of civic and cultural experiences; asserting the presence of people with disabilities as users, using these tools in both normal and innovative ways, is itself a political action.”
I’m not sure why the DSA-LA posted that original tweet. Perhaps they knew it would elicit strong reactions and thus boost their engagement. But it’s a good reminder to all of us to stay vigilant and resist simplistic narratives when it comes to the role of social media and digital technology in activism.
Let me know your thoughts on the subject!
I also encourage you to check out a blog by my fellow Talk Back blogger Lauren tackling the question of who is an activist? It also touches on some of the points that I have raised here…
Also, if you’re interested to read some of the articles and books I mentioned, here are the details:
Ellcessor, E. (2016). Restricted Access: Media, Disability, and the Politics of Participation. NYU Press.
Mann, W.B. (2018). Rhetoric of Online Disability Activism: #CripTheVote and Civic Participation. Communication Culture & Critique, 11 (2018) 604–621. doi:10.1093/ccc/tcy030
Tufekci, Z. (2017). Twitter and Teargas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest. Yale University Press.