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Internet users often miss the message of what they share. 

The current political climate in the U.S. is defined by heightened partisanship. Media bias is prevalent and pernicious, and content posted to social media platforms tends to alienate certain groups and unintentionally detract from the cause it represents.

Because content that’s interacted with the most tends to yield the highest monetary returns, content creators are encouraged to post attention-grabbing content at the expense of credibility. Beyond the influence of money in the media, those with sincere hopes to influence public opinion are also inclined to cater to the interests of media consumers looking for interesting content to interact with. Unfortunately, what tends to make content interesting is inflammatory language that raises emotions and pits different groups against each other.

The recent TikTok trend of posting videos related to a purported “National Rape Day” to take place April 24 reveals much about online activism. It’s a clear example of how social media platforms and the internet as a whole value political content that acts as clickbait over content that’s actually conducive to positive reform. Another example of this is the highly controversial phrase “All cops are bad”— or “All cops are bastards,”— which detracts from the issue it’s meant to represent, again with the use of inflammatory language that pits groups against each other.

April 24 TikTok trend

In mid-April, posts originating on TikTok condemning a “National Rape Day” circulated the internet. It’s unclear when the idea of a national rape day came to fruition, although Know Your Meme purports that “jokes and posts about a ‘national rape day’ date back to at least 2010 on Twitter.” The trend allegedly began in response to videos made by a small group on TikTok planning to make April 24 a national day to rape women. Claims of these original videos are unsubstantiated as, across the entire internet, there's no evidence of them ever existing. TikTok even launched an investigation to find the original content making these plans and couldn’t find anything — the rumor was spread entirely by those coming out against the idea.

This situation shows how focusing on the level of interaction online content receives is problematic. Instead of promoting meaningful policy change during Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Month, this trend shifted the public’s focus to an event that doesn’t actually exist.

The online discussion about April 24 was also a recent example of how trendy content overshadows real issues, but it certainly wasn’t the only instance of this.

‘ACAB’ and BLM

“All cops are bad” or “All cops are bastards”: One of these two phrases comes to mind when a person reads the acronym “ACAB.” There’s an important distinction to make here, but the reality is that both use inflammatory language that shifts attention away from the underlying issues.

“All cops are bastards” is what ACAB was intended to stand for, and the message it aimed to convey was that all cops are children of a corrupt system of law enforcement that disadvantages marginalized groups of people. This interpretation of the acronym doesn’t set out to villainize cops as individuals. However, the negative connotation associated with the word “bastard” makes it easy to understand why some would take offense to the acronym and see it as being synonymous with “all cops are bad.”

In response to the outcry that “all cops are bastards,” police officers — backed by their friends and families — responded with a new phrase: “Blue Lives Matter.” Of course, the acronym for this is BLM, which enraged Black Lives Matters protestors who took the new phrase to be an erasure of their cause, aimed to overshadow and silence their movement.

The bottom line is this: Catchy phrases aimed to grab the public’s attention and influence public opinion tend to detract from the cause they represent by polarizing issues.

Avoiding Polarization

About a decade ago, Eli Pariser coined the term “filter bubble” to define a situation in which algorithms skew the variety of information we’re shown online in favor of content we like. The issue of filter bubbles has fostered a hateful, close-minded environment on social media platforms that impacts how people interact in the real world.

One major effect of filter bubbles is that existing in a digital echo chamber in which one only hears their own views reflected back to them encourages them to create and repost content which only appeals to those in their own social circles and can be derogatory toward people with differing opinions.

Before posting, one should consider their audience. People are likely to enjoy a post that aligns with their own views, even if it includes inflammatory language, because any negativity would be directed at others with differing opinions. 

As for the viewers who haven’t come around on a cause or have opposing viewpoints, posts can come across like a direct attack and put them on the defensive. To truly have an impact with online activism, stances need to be voiced in a way that invites others into the conversation regardless of where they stand on an issue.

If a post uses hateful language that targets certain groups of people, it’s unreasonable to believe that the post will inspire anyone to change their ways. Content like this will only draw attention to itself and away from the issues it’s meant to combat.

Alex Davis is a freshman business management and media arts & design double major. Contact Alex at davis8aj@dukes.jmu.edu.