You don’t need a public take on everything

Listen, learn and think critically before adding your voice


Maria Uminski / Daily Collegian

By Catherine Hurley, Assistant Arts Editor

I spent a lot of time on social media in May and June 2020. I scrolled through thousands of posts that expressed outrage at the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers, shared information about Black Lives Matter protests and called for the police to be defunded.

One stood out, though.

“Gushers wouldn’t be Gushers without the Black community and your voices,” the company tweeted. “We’re working with @fruitbythefoot on creating space to amplify that. We see you. We stand with you.”

“What? This cannot be real,” I thought. Does the world really need Gushers, the company that sells fruit snacks injected with corn syrup, to denounce racial injustice? It seemed very silly at the time, despite a $200,000 donation to the NAACP Youth and College Division that the company made a few weeks later.

Brands have an image to keep up and social media statements are an easy way to do so, if only to avoid being called out. But this mindset seeps through to average users as well. It creates a dangerous cycle of misinformation, performative activism and opinions that range from half-baked to downright offensive.

Sometimes, it’s better to keep things to yourself.

The filtration of news through social media puts immense pressure on people, no matter their age, status or insight, to speak up on world events and social injustice. When everyone else is posting a black square to Instagram or sharing information via carefully styled — though not necessarily factual — infographics, are you supposed to do the same?

There’s a false belief on social media that people who aren’t speaking up online aren’t engaged, aren’t aware, aren’t listening and aren’t doing “the work.”

If a person donates to an organization and doesn’t post a screenshot, did they even do it?

Sharing mass-produced content to raise awareness for a national, top-of-mind issue is generally a performative yet harmless act. People find themselves in trouble, however, when they start posting unfiltered commentary during major events.

Philosopher Patrick Stokes asks students in his classes to recall the common phrase “everyone is entitled to their opinion.”

“‘As soon as you walk into this room, it’s no longer true,’” he tells them. “‘You are not entitled to your opinion. You are only entitled to what you can argue for.’”

If “‘entitled to an opinion’ means ‘entitled to have your views treated as serious candidates for the truth’ then it’s pretty clearly false,’” Stokes said. He believes people confuse an opinion not being taken seriously for not being allowed to hold it at all.

Stokes’ argument can be found on social media all the time.

Social media platforms, Twitter especially, create a level playing field between verified news sources and experts and arbiters of misinformation. They encourage you to share what seems most outrageous and add your opinion as if it’s equally factual and important. And people get in trouble for doing so — sharing their uninformed, off-the-cuff remarks, if only to be in on the action.

It would be wrong to say that social media has never been a positive force in shaping social justice conversations. The Pew Research Center reports that 23 percent of United States adults who use social media have changed their views about a political or social issue because of something they saw on social media.

“I never thought much about defunding or abolishing the police,” an anonymous 31-year-old woman responded, “but after seeing social media posts, I’ve researched and read up on the topics and now believe in fairly substantial cuts to police funding.”

Platforms also allow people to share experiences and organize for a greater cause. The Minnesota Bail Fund, for example, raised $20 million in four days for jailed protesters in 2020 after support for the cause spread on social media.

But oftentimes, the speed at which people share their thoughts does more harm than good.

I’m not encouraging people to censor themselves, in fact the opposite. Social media would be a better place if people took a moment to read, think critically and consider whether their joke or statement is really adding to a conversation.

Ask yourself, “why me?” and try to come up with something better than “because I can.”

And if you’re going to do so, be a Gushers. Follow up your seemingly out-of-place post with real-world effort to make change.

Before you decide to speak on a cause online, think about your motivations. Take the opportunity to listen, learn, align your actions with your words and be mindful of your place within a larger issue.

Catherine Hurley can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @cath_hurley.