With social distancing policies in place, student activism is now largely online. Ava DeSantis talks to three students in Washington D.C. about political discourse under COVID-19.
Activism and political discourse did not end under stay-at-home orders or during the COVID-19 pandemic. Student at George Washington University, Laya Reddy continues her political education at-home by “reading books and articles about racial justice and then engaging in meaningful conversations about it with the people in my community, whether over text or through Zoom.”
Technology allows activists to reach beyond their limited social circles. Reddy described emailing her congressional representatives, and writing an article for the Hatchet on “racism within the voting system.”
Arkeh replaced “protesting on the streets or meeting with representatives” with reaching out to her political leaders “online via email and phone calls,” “signing petitions,” and “donating to reliable organizations through online platforms regarding issues of importance to me.” Arkeh was able to keep up with current events on issues she cares about using these methods, including contributing to humanitarian aid for Lebanon and efforts to end the annexation of the West Bank.
The new emphasis on technology and social media activism may be workable, but it demonstrably shifted the experience of political discourse.
Austin described the disorienting experience of living at-home, in conversation almost exclusively with conservative family, leftist friends, and few moderates. “For me, it’s been weird because most of my social circle has the same political views, so a lot of my ‘work’ has been talking to my family, which doesn’t always go over well,” she explained.
Those without a gap between their views and the views of their family members, are not experiencing political debate or disagreement as they once did. “The opinions circulating social media are usually more leftist/liberal,” said Arkeh.
Since the COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S., Arkeh says she has not had “as many disagreements with people.” She attributed this shift to her tendency to “follow leaders, figures and accounts that reflect [the leftist] ideals” she supports. Social media is a useful tool to “voice injustices and encourage advocacy,” Arkeh explained, but this “leaves less room for opinions/approaches that are less radical.”
Arkeh added that social media does not encourage productive disagreement, in her experience. “Social media,” said Arkeh, “does minimize the sense of formality, making people more comfortable with attacking others.”
Finally, although social media allows the user to curate their own experience, it is far from private. The awareness of an employers’ presence can encourage students to self-censor their views. As students prepare for the professional world, even in their own online spaces they feel forced to perform for a less provocative ‘adult’ political sphere.
Austin and her coworker are self-identified socialists, but monitor what they say or do on behalf of their employer. She said, “it’s really hard to promote BLM and fight for actual systemic change if we have to act like centrist [democrats] for the sake of [public relations].”
Emilie Austin is a student at American University and runs the Global Scholars Program there. Laya Reddy is a student at George Washington University and columnist for the GW Hatchet. Joy Arkeh is a student at George Washington University and a journalist for the Borgen Project.
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