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Social Media Sympathy

Updated: Mar 21, 2023

There has been a recent wave of social media sympathy for activism of all kinds. Everything from the explosion near the main port in Beirut, Lebanon to #endSARS, gets its own neat, aesthetically pleasing Instagram post for people to repost on their stories. In the end, it becomes more about being a part of the “crowd” – performative activism – and it doesn’t hold as much weight as it should. Take the Yemen humanitarian crisis, for example. You may remember the flood of social media awareness that took over in early August. It’s still going on – though many may not realize, because the wave of awareness for it has simply died down.

The same three informative posts were on almost every person’s Instagram story, posted without comment in a 3-second gesture of humanity – and that’s as far as the sympathy goes. Now, let me be clear: this isn’t bad. Raising awareness is always helpful (even if the same awareness has been raised in the same way 500 times over in a single person’s feed). At the very least, it lets people know that something is going on. Some – perhaps even many – of those people probably signed petitions, too, and I’m willing to bet a few had the generosity to spare a few dollars in donations. Thoughts and prayers for the poor, suffering third world country in Africa (or was it the Middle East?). Really, how did you get yourselves into such a mess? Anyway, hope it gets better soon!

(Before I go on, note that the term “third world” is extremely out-of-date and implies the unsophisticated nature of entire countries – according to, of course, the Western measure of development. The countries labeled “less developed” now were actually thriving for most of history; that is, until widespread European imperialism. Also, Yemen is the southernmost country on the Arabian Peninsula – yes, in the Middle East.)

The problem with this newfound social media sympathy is that this is as far as it goes. For many, a repost is purely to ease their guilt, and most of us have happily moved on and gone about our day at least once. There is no real education behind this. Again, in the context of the Yemen crisis, many simply assumed that these “barbaric”, underdeveloped countries had dug themselves into a deep hole. We, out of the goodness of our hearts, were helping them to get out of their own mess. There isn’t any research or informed consciousness behind social media sympathy – if there was, there would be a lot more outrage over the Yemen crisis.

If people did a little bit more digging, they would find that the catastrophe in Yemen is a little more related to us than we think. In fact, the violence and resulting humanitarian crisis in Yemen is U.S. sponsored.

The Obama Administration gave over a billion dollars ($1,000,000,000) in weaponry, over 40 million pounds of jet fuel, and military intel to the Saudi Arabian government. 100 million dollars worth of weapons were given to Saudi Arabia before Obama’s presidency, as well. Saudi Arabia then used this support to (questionably) intervene in the Yemeni civil war. The famine in Yemen is the result of a naval blockade backed by the U.S.; the lack of clean water, shelter, electricity, etc. is the result of Saudi Arabia bombing the country with American bombs and planes.

In April of 2019, President Trump vetoed a bill with bipartisan support that would have ended American military involvement with Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen. Trump thought it was an “unnecessary, dangerous attempt to weaken my constitutional authorities.” Consequently, the United States is currently supporting a genocide.

So. Now that we’re well aware that the Yemeni crisis is not exactly just an issue for other people in another land, what can we do? And for the news stories that come up on our feed – what do we do with those?

Keep doing what you’ve been doing. Raise awareness – but remember to remind others that it’s not just “someone else’s problem” that we’re graciously helping. Educate yourself about the issue, because there may be a pervasive systemic issue beneath it all. Even if there isn’t, it’s always nice to learn something! Donate, protest the U.S. government, call your representatives and leaders. We need to learn, in order to improve.

- Yunseo Chung


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