Today, we can look back and see how social media has been used to spark movements of positive change. Young people from around the world have been inspired to join protests against racial injustice and women’s rights. They’ve held global and national leaders accountable in the midst of a climate crisis – a lot thanks to social media.
Even Girls’ Globe has social media to thank for its early growth back in 2013. Yet, in a post-me-too world that’s only beginning to recover from a pandemic, we can also see how social media has been detrimental for personal wellbeing, democracy and human rights. So, it makes sense to ask. Can you be a feminist and STILL use social media?
As I investigate whether it makes sense to still use social media as a feminist, I want to first review the pitfalls of these massive digital networks.
1. Is social media growing anti-feminist?
With the release of the Facebook Files, Girls’ Globe took a three month break from Instagram and Facebook. Brave whistleblowers like Frances Haugen and others have showed us the horrifying effects of these profit-first social media corporations.
Twitter, Instagram, Tiktok, Snapchat, Facebook are tools used to spread hate speech, including racism, xenophobia, homophobia and transphobia. They are used to practice serious forms of digital gender based violence, including human trafficking. And this is being done at such a pace that our communities and lawmakers can’t keep up.
These social media networks are used by “influencers” and misogynists like Andrew Tate, who have gained a tremendous following while spewing hate against women and encouraging violence as an expression of masculinity.
Here in Sweden, one of the most gender equal countries in the world, we’re seeing a shift in values of the young generation of first time voters. This generation, that has grown up with social media at their fingertips, is the first generation with an increasing divide in opinion between men and women. These young men are the first in Swedish history to be more anti-feminist than their parents.
2. Social media has proven to be anti-democratic
Not only has social media created a stronger polarization between citizens. We’ve seen how social media fuels conflicts through misinformation and conspiracy theories – to such an extent it has an effect on national security. Social media has been complicit in making attacks possible, like the one on the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021 and the storming of Brazilian government buildings in January 8, 2023.
Social media is also complicit in conflicts and human rights abuses taking place around the world – like those in Ethiopia and Myanmar. Facebook knew how its platform was being used to incite violence in Ethiopia, and did very little to stop it. Last year, Amnesty released a report on how Facebook helped fuel the violence against the Rohingya people in Myanmar leading to the atrocities by the military.
“While the Myanmar military was committing crimes against humanity against the Rohingya, Meta was profiting from the echo chamber of hatred created by its hate-spiralling algorithms.”– Agnès Callamard, Amnesty International Secretary General
Social media is to blame for a harsher rhetoric in politics and the media – that’s how the algorithms work. And we’ve seen the most brutal results of that now.
3. These networks are detrimental for young people’s mental health
We’ve known for a long time about the detriment to girls’ and young women’s wellbeing that platforms like Instagram, Tiktok and Snapchat have. The algorithms feed users content that harm self-esteem and body image.
Social media is built to be addictive. It provides short term boosts of dopamine in the brain and is engineered to boost our FOMO (fear of missing out). These networks use algorithms and notifications that fuel addiction that can be as harmful as using cocaine. – which is in itself really dangerous.
Again, this isn’t news – we’ve known about these issues for a while. And the companies providing these platforms are more than aware of them, yet very little is being done about it.
We’re witnessing a rise of anxiety and mental health issues in the young generation that has grown up with the constant connection of social media. The correlations need to be investigated and taken seriously.
4. Social networks aren’t really social
Studies have shown how social media, despite its name, makes us feel less connected than before. It can actually have an opposite effect. They make us feel more isolated and separate from each other – much different from Zuckerberg’s first intentions with Facebook.
5. These corporations are part of surveillance capitalism, owned by rich, white, CIS men from the global minority
The major social media companies collect a ton of data from you. This data is not only used to create a more “optimal experience” for you as a user. It is also used to fuel the growth of the AI technology. While AI seems to provide ways to make our lives easier, there are many dangers that are yet to be understood in this new tech revolution. The “Godfather of AI”, Geoffory Hinton, recently left Google and has openly spoken out about the harms that these techologies can have in the near future.
If you want to know more about surveillance capitalism, you can read this post I wrote a while back.
This is without mentioning the takeover of Twitter by Elon Musk, which has led to a more hostile user experience – especially for minorities, including people with disabilities, trans people and women. Musk’s Twitter is a place where hatepeech is rampant and verification becoming even more difficult. In regards to the effects on politics, Musk also fired the content moderation staff in Brazil leading up to the elections in the country.
As we know and are aware of ALL of the above, it really makes sense to ask: Can you be a feminist and still use social media?
I believe that the answer to that question is individual – because despite the negative effects, it’s not an obvious decision as feminist activists and advocates in a digital world. Below, I’ve put together a process to evaluate your use of social media and to make conscious decisions about using these questionable platforms. The steps below are influenced by the methods of digital decluttering presented in the book Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport.
1. It all boils down to this question: Why?
The reason for using the various social media platforms needs to be crystal clear. This reason needs to make sense for you personally and be aligned with your values. Once you make a conscious decision about why you’re using these platforms, it’s easier to limit their negative effects by setting good boundaries.
If the reason for using Facebook back in 2007 (or whenever you joined the app) was to connect with friends and family, but today you connect with most of your loved ones via a messaging app, it makes sense to reevaluate why you’re still on Facebook.
I might still use Facebook because we have a great neighborhood group to buy and sell things like kids’ bikes they outgrow or fresh tomato plants. And since contributing to a local and circular economy is important to me, I will most probably stay on the app. However, since this gives me a clear reason for using the app, I can go ahead and declutter my Facebook app. I can take out features I don’t need, unfollow profiles I no longer am interested in – and just not use it as I had before.
If social media is where you get your news – it’s important to reevaluate your news sources. The algorithms shape your world view, which has shown to have polarizing and really harmful effects. Perhaps you’re better off subscribing to a news source where credible journalists are compensated for their work?
Whether its TikTok or Twitter, take control by asking yourself why you’re using it? And if you don’t have a sound reason for using it that benefits you or the work you do – delete it. There’s no reason to stay if it doesn’t make sense for you.
Maybe leaving is the best gift you can give yourself.
2. Weigh the costs vs. the benefits
We need to weigh the costs vs the benefits of these platforms. Even if the reason for using these platforms are clear to you, they may have negative effects on your wellbeing or on your activism or advocacy.
For a long time, I’ve used Instagram as a way to express my opinions on politics or share my work as an advocate for gender equality and human rights. Yet, I’ve noticed how the app easily distracts me from what I was doing and how it can drastically shift my mood to the worse. It has made me less efficient and less intentional.
So, first, evaluate the costs. Does the social network distract you from your reason for using it? How much time do you spend on the app? How good do you feel when using it? What’s the feeling in your body after using the app? Does it harm your wellbeing? Does it make you feel unsafe?
Then take a look at the benefits. Does using the social network benefit you in line with your reason for using it? What are the positive aspects of the app?
Ask yourself if the use of the app is worth it.
3. Is there a better alternative?
Now that you’ve defined your reasons to use the various social media platforms and weighed the pros and cons, its time to look into the alternatives. Are there other options out there that you can use for the same reason?
Perhaps there are other tools that don’t have the same negative effects that you can use with good conscience.
If you’re using social media for your activism and advocacy, it can be necessary to evaluate if these platforms are really the best way to go about your digital work. Perhaps getting published on external, credible platforms can be more effective? Or maybe good old meetups IRL (in real life) can be more influential for change in your community?
4. If you’re unsure, delete the app for a month
If you still don’t know if you should leave social media or use the apps, take a month-long break. Give yourself the time to REALLY evaluate their influence in your life and work. Seven days is too short, and may just leave you with withdrawal symptoms.
Before you take your break, announce it to others if you need to. Allow your network other ways to get in touch with you during this time. Take more conscious control over your time and the people you connect with during this time, which leads me to the final point.
5. What would you rather do with your time?
Social media can suck the life out of you by causing anxiety and stress. I’m guessing that more often than not, social media drains you rather than lifts you up. Or it makes time vanish before your eyes, and all of a sudden minutes or even hours have flown by.
Some studies show that the average person with a smartphone uses it for more than 4.8 hours per day. Social media apps use up a large chunk of that time. That’s more than a part-time job!
If you think about your feminist self and the good you want to be a part of, what would you rather do with your time?
Is it to write articles or make art? Is it to finish a course or to start a social enterprise? Do you want to join a protest or volunteer locally?
When we become conscious about what it is we really want to do with our time, we can begin to really make a difference – in our own lives and in the world. Social media may be a small tool to help you do that. But it’s not going to help you before you make your own conscious decisions about what matters most to you.
This post is part of a bi-weekly column on feminism in a digital world and other issues, by Julia Wiklander, Founder of Girls’ Globe. Please share your thoughts in the conversation section below. To receive the latest posts in your inbox, subscribe.