Social media can help users to become activists, but the influx of information can also be paralyzing.
That’s according to digital anthropologist Rahaf Harfoush and Duke faculty member Negar Mottahedeh, who spoke during a panel discussion this past Wednesday.
The discussion, “Outrage Fatigue, Democracy and Activism in the Age of Information Overload,” was hosted by Laurent Dubois, director of the Forum for Scholars and Publics. Panelists analyzed the role social media played in response to world events and tragedies, specifically the Paris terrorist attacks and the Iranian post-election crisis.
Both panelists emphasized how advancements in social media allow people to stay connected in ways that were not possible before.
“We’re experiencing empathy on this constant level,” Harfoush said. “You’re not just reading about (an event) in a newspaper, but you’re watching videos, you’re following livestreams.
“We’re doing it in real time, so the sense of drama, the sense of uncertainty, the sense of fear as it’s unfolding in front of our eyes has a huge emotional impact that wasn’t available before.”
Activists are also changing social media platforms even as they use them, Mottahedeh said.
“The biggest outcome of the Iranian-post election crisis, at least on Twitter and on Facebook, was the real transformation of these platforms as a result of people’s solidarity,” Mottahedeh said. “Google created an Alpha tool for translation. Facebook allowed users to write in Persian through a translation tool just within four days of the crisis.”
Dubois also asked the panelists to discuss the psychological effects of social media’s continuous stream of information, including “outrage fatigue.”
“We live in an ecosystem of an infinite amount (of information),” Harfoush said. “It’s a very dynamic state where information itself is constantly flowing. And despite the fact that it’s constantly flowing, we’re struggling because even though – rationally – we know that we’re never going to reach the end, I think some level, psychologically, we keep struggling to find the end.”
Mottahedeh and Harfoush said social media can be empowering. However, he also cautioned that constant information does not necessarily lead to action.
“Eventually you start hearing the same piece of sad news over and over that it loses its ability to pull you, and that is really dangerous,” Harfoush said. “I believe we need to bring it back to personal impact. That is the perspective shift that we need, which is a bit at odds with the nonstop flow of information that we’re being bombarded with on a daily basis.”