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Without appropriate and informed calls to action, online activism isn’t really active

<h6>Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian

What began as an email rant by Larry Giberson ’23 turned into a three-part exchange: Giberson’s publication in The Princeton Tory, a response here at the ‘Prince’ by Imani Mulrain ’23, and a final commentary on Mulrain’s response by Hillel Koslowe ’22. At the risk of contributing a poorly tacked-on epilogue to the trilogy, I’d like to point to something I feel has been missing from the conversation.

After the three authors left me in turn deeply unsettled, slightly placated, then confronted with necessary nuance, I still didn’t know what to do if I supported their causes, my own skepticism about their claims notwithstanding.

From anonymous posts on @blackivystories to definitely-not-anonymous email rants on residential college listservs, Princeton students are no strangers to online activism. Such actions, often in the honorable pursuit of speaking one’s mind or informing others, can achieve those goals, but sometimes at the expense of misusing a platform, embarrassing yourself, or, paradoxically, undermining your own cause, in a Pyrrhic victory.

The first step to using a platform effectively is to make sure your stance isn’t only backed up with logic and evidence, but to ensure hyperbole doesn’t overtake your argument. When we advocate for a good cause, we are all liable to say the wrong thing to support it. Your opponents will straw-man your argument, reducing your activism to one misstep. Arguably, something similar happened to Mulrain, when Koslowe examined her rhetoric and found it to be hyperbolic, undermining the cause behind it. 

But besides that all-important logical validity, a call to action is really what I want from social media and online activism. If I did agree with Giberson (which I don’t), what should I do next? Is signing the POCC letter enough? If I did agree with Mulrain, where do we go from here? Which other historical figures must we reconsider? 

When you’ve left me tantalized with the prospect of change with nowhere to go, my immediate response doesn’t go far past sharing the same opinion with you. Literally sharing an opinion to my own little social media audience is a worthy strategy, but what else can I do?

We adopted the word “influencer” to describe the very novel and sometimes strange power that content creators and celebrities exercise on social media. But we shouldn’t forget that whether or not we are all “influencers,” all of us influence. Consider carefully what your audience needs to know and how they can help. Heed the nature of your platform.

Remember that a residential college listserv is a platform to which hundreds of students turn their heads when you decide to step up — know that there will be repercussions when they listen. So, make sure, at the very least, you’re not blatantly, objectively wrong.

Back in June, the Instagram account @leftnortheast posted, “The contrast between the rulings of the [employment nondiscrimination] LGBTQ+ case and the Atlantic Coast pipeline case is a textbook example of how liberals will only stand up for marginalized people when it’s financially convenient.”

The slideshow Instagram post featuring that text has gained over 10,000 likes, and the account has over 30,000 followers. While these are small numbers in terms of Internet reach, this is by no means a small number of people to be influencing politically.

Statements such as these, which run contrary to governmental processes, can erode the very cause they are meant to support. In the post, user @leftnortheast accuses the Supreme Court of ruling in favor of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (which planned to run through several historically African American counties and miles of forested land) because of financial motivation.

The Ethics Reform Act of 1989, however, prohibits all federal employees, including Supreme Court Justices, from accepting anything of value from people with business before them, and the Justices report whatever they do accept from people without business before them. Justices are motivated by this law, personal conscience, and the threat of impeachment to refuse unethical gifts. Now, if Supreme Court Justices were accepting bribes to make certain decisions, that would be really important to note and fight against. But they’re not.

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The real danger in @leftnortheast’s statement lies in its implications for environmental activism. Perceiving the contrast between the two cases as financially motivated is harmful and wrong. The real reason the LGBTQ+ ruling aligned with most liberals’ beliefs was because of the strong national law in place, the Civil Rights Act. In the pipeline case, there is no such law pertaining to the specifics of the circumstance.

As Pacific Legal Foundation attorney Jonathan Wood told Bloomberg Law, the pipeline decision was based on property law, rather than environmental law. Essentially, land that belongs to the National Park Service (NPS), which the pipeline would have traversed, was protected under the Mineral Leasing Act. But though the NPS was taking care of the trail, the U.S. Forest Service still technically held ownership, which entailed the authority to issue a permit to construct a pipeline. That’s what the Supreme Court found.

Placing the blame of this decision on financial motivation diminishes the need for lobbying legislatures that pass the body of law to which the court must adhere. If an environmental law covering USFS land had been passed which was close to as powerful as the Civil Rights Act, the question of the pipeline passing over the land would not have been brought to court at all.

When advocating for change, advocate for change that will make a real impact and continue to work for good. Yes, absolutely call for the arrests of the cops who killed Breonna Taylor. But don’t forget to advocate for police reform or defunding the police. Yes, call for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline to be canceled. But don’t forget to advocate expansion of the Mineral Leasing Act’s regulations. Whatever your stance is on what foundational change should be, do not forget to share it. If you disagree with it, speak out against Woodrow Wilson’s name being removed, but tell us how we can protect his legacy from here on out. If you agree with it, tell me how to ensure similar figures are re-examined.

Finally, the pipeline was ultimately canceled, with the two energy companies running the project citing delays and uncertainty around cost as reasons. US News reports that the several lawsuits brought up by opposition — including the one that ended up at the highest court in the land — were causes for those delays and costs regardless of the outcomes of the cases: “The Atlantic Coast Pipeline’s backers said that, owing primarily to legal expenses, the project’s estimated cost had risen to $8 billion from the original estimate of $4.5 to $5 billion.”

While user @leftnortheast did not know the fate of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline at the time of posting, litigation is a worthy activism technique, especially since it nearly doubled the cost of the endeavor. Notably, the Supreme Court decided in favor of the pipeline, and it still failed.

To expect the pipeline plans to be stopped because of liberal-leaning Justices (who aren’t the majority on the Court now anyway) is unrealistic with the current laws in place. If user @leftnortheast wants real environmental regulation, then they should advocate real environmental regulation — regulatory law, not arbitrary judicial decisions. If Giberson and Mulrain want change (or constancy), they should advocate actions we as readers can take to ensure those outcomes.

Princeton students who want to effectively advocate their positions should present clear, evidence-based reasoning for realistic and actionable solutions. Civil, logical claims will be taken more seriously than antagonistic and unfounded ones. 

Mollika Jai Singh is a first-year prospective public policy major from Rockville, Md. She can be reached at mjsingh@princeton.edu.

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