When shares overshadow politics

If you have a set of Facebook friends anything like mine, you probably see periodic images shared from one particular page – The Other 98%. They’re actually a fully-fledged political organization, which seems particularly focused on using its Facebook page to craft not just a particular set of political messages but a broader political ethos. As they explain on their website, they are or at least want to be a “grassroots network of concerned people that shines a light on economic injustice, undue corporate influence and threats to democracy”. It’s hard not to feel at least somewhat glad that someone out there is broadcasting the sort of populist, anti-racist, and environmentalist veins of US politics that are often relegated to just underneath the surface.

But the images they share hopefully to create and popularize a new style of politics in this country sometimes miss the mark. Just in the first week of the new year, there’s been a few images they put out there that seem to tap into and embrace popular political ideas, rather than challenge unfair aspects to how things are done or talked about.

phonesThe image that started me down the road to questioning this group’s practices was this one. Like many of their most popular ones, it’s built on a pre-existing meme (in this case a Zach Galifiankis meme), where what’s usually a humorous paradox is written over his face. However, the text over this one reads, “There are teenagers who have unprotected sex, but have cases on their phones. Just let that sink in for a minute…”

On reading that, you might have the reaction that I did – that that’s a sign of a social and economic system that within which people just can’t win. Educational programs and political policies are in many parts of the US built around keeping teens ignorant of what options are available to them, with the aim of making them abstain from sex. Some political organizations have taken that line of thinking to its ultimate conclusion and are even actively promoting unprotected sex.

Even when teens who want to have sex (and legally can – let’s limit the discussion to that), it’s become increasingly difficult for them to find protection to keep themselves safe from unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections. The past year has seen Planned Parenthoods shut down across much of the country, so where are many teens going to find free condoms? And once they get there, are they going to have to navigate unsafe conditions? Or even violence?

The past few decades have seen wages stagnate, so it’s unlikely that teen are buying protection themselves. Doubly so, when you consider how it’s increasingly college students or even college graduates who hold minimum wage jobs, typically pushing teenagers out of the workforce entirely. The economic reality teens face leaves basically only adults (namely parents) to assist teens in traveling increasing distances for low-cost or free protection or birth control (or sex-related healthcare generally) or to directly purchase them closer to home. That’s uncomfortable at the best of times, and downright impossible for all the teens whose parents are somehow contributing to a culture and political system that shames those who seek protection.

Going back to the meme’s comparison, none of that stigma exists with cell phones. On the contrary, there’s a largely unstigmatized industry that can operate openly and which parents are often happy to help their teens in purchasing (and in purchasing related products that reduce wear and tear).

In short, a lot of the economic and political situations that The Other 98% theoretically educates people about are all the reasons why that discrepancy exists. But their caption for the picture didn’t cite any of the sorts of articles that I’ve dropped links to in talking about the disastrous state of sexual politics or the economy in the United States. It didn’t even reference any of that. Instead, it simply noted, “You know who you are” putting the teens stuck between a rock and a hard place on the spot for their failure to overcome those challenges.

And, in a couple of twisted ways, ignoring all of those issues worked. Twenty-four hours after having posted that image, it had received just shy of 31,000 likes and more than 20,000 shares (although it’s important to remember not every share was positive). While their post generated more than a few critical comments, it also brought out a horde of anti-condom men who reproduced every age-old jokes about how foolish condoms are imaginable, not to mention scores upon scores of comments about how materialistic or short-sighted teens (or more broadly “young people”) are nowadays. Reading it was like tapping deep into the subconscious of the audience of Two and A Half Men, and finding nothing but anger of the baby boomer and entitled cis male varieties.

(I should share some blame for giving them this much free press – just like the hundreds of comments criticizing the original image could be chastised for “feeding the troll”. But sometimes, you have to feed them if for no other reason than that they’re getting attention regardless of what you do.)

We’re only a few days into 2014, but that’s eons of time giving the frequency that The Other 98% posts images or articles. But only a few others can hold a candle to how many likes and shares and other measures of attention that particular image has generated. For the most part, they’re empty slogans comparing “stupid people” to jellyfish and skin-deep atheism-affiliated internet activism. It seems like views have become the overwhelmingly focus of this once-promising, online-focused, discussion-creating group, to the exclusion of much in the way of politics. The idea of blending news and a meme-studded internet culture was cool (and kind of like what we do here at Velociriot!) but there’s ways to botch it… which I think we just saw The Other 98% do.

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