Digital era makes activism easy

With the hectic schedule that comes with being a college student, it may seem nearly impossible to stay informed with current social and political affairs.

In between the looming deadlines, club meetings, a full-time job and making time for friends, it may seem trivial to stay up to date on what is happening in the country and around the globe.

The fact of the matter is, college is the time in one’s life where it is essential to stay informed. Whether a freshman or a senior, the real-world is right around the corner and the reality is, social and political injustices happen daily.

As the younger generation, it is seemingly our job to shape the future of the country and ultimately the world. While these issues are not necessarily controllable, there are steps that can be taken towards inciting change.

Luckily for us as college students, there is already a built-in communal space that exists on campuses, making it extremely easy to organize and take action towards a certain topic of interest. Not to mention that this is the last time in most’s life that such an environment for collaboration and connection takes place, so it is important to take advantage of it.

While not everyone is going to organize a protest or coin a hashtag, there are ways to get involved that take little effort, especially with the rise of the digital age and online activism. Getting involved is now as simple as a Google search or joining a Facebook group.

In fact, research shows that college students and adults alike prefer using social media as a platform to discuss social, political and environmental issues and also believe that online activism is efficient.

The 2014 Cone Communications Digital Activism study found that 75 percent of millennials utilize social media to talk about what they care about compared to 52 percent of adults.

Additionally, 62 percent of respondents were “more inclined to support social and environment issues in a variety of ways, including volunteering, donating and sharing information, first after liking or following an organization,” and 58 percent felt that tweeting or posting information about an issue is an effective form of activism. 

Dr. Corinne Dalelio, assistant professor of Communication, Media and Culture at Coastal Carolina University explained some of the various ways one can get involved online.

“The internet makes everything easier, including being an activist,” said Dalelio. “You can sign an online petition and sometimes those organizations will have a local chapter in your area that you can meet up with. Meetup.com is also a great resource. A lot of activist groups get on there and organize rallies and protests. And of course, the usual Facebook and Twitter—all of those are used in different ways for activist purposes.”

Hashtag activism is another way to be a part of a movement that is easy, fast and risk-free. This type of activism uses hashtags on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook to bring together likeminded people about a specific political or social message.

Recently, hashtag activism has been used in the Black Lives Matter Movement, the Women’s March and the delete Uber scandal—just to name a few.

The Women’s March grew out of a single Facebook post from a woman in Hawaii and now has 1,297,995 Instagram posts under #WomensMarch. Additionally, within 24 hours of #DeleteUber being created, 200,000 members had deleted their accounts. From the response that these movements generated, it is easy to conclude that social media and hashtag activism are successful tools for inciting change if used correctly.

While staying informed and getting involved are both important, Dalelio emphasized that it is essential to be diligent about uncovering the truth about any issue of interest.

“Using the tools on the internet to seek out information and to seek out truth is important, not just to seek out points of view that support what you already believe but to look for facts, for people who do fact checking, primary sources and for people who were there,” said Dalelio. “Because we, in addition to being in an increasing activist kind of era, we’re also in the decreasing truth kind of era. If it is something that you are really passionate about you should look for the truth with every resource that is available to you.”

United against an unconstitutional ban

A week after President Donald Trump signed an immigration ban, U.S. judges from at least five states have ruled against the executive order, barring all federal authorities from enforcing it.

The order banned all refugees from entering the United States for 120 days, Syrian refugees indefinitely and citizens from Iraq, Iran, Syria, Somalia, Sudan, Libya and Yemen—all predominately Muslim countries—for 90 days. If enforced, this order could affect more than 20,000 refugees, in addition to thousands of students across the nation.

Following the lead of U.S. District Judge Anne Donnelly from Brooklyn, New York, who ruled in favor of two Iraqi men who were being held at the John F. Kennedy International Airport, judges from Massachusetts, California, Virginia, and Washington state issued similar orders.

On Friday, Feb. 4, Judge James Robart of Federal District Court for the Western District of Washington temporarily blocked the immigration ban from being enforced. Robart’s order allowed those from the seven listed nations who had previously been authorized to travel, and all vetted refugees, to enter the U.S.

The White House promptly released a statement following the court order, pledging to file an emergency stay of the ruling to reinstate the president’s “lawful and appropriate order.”

“The president’s order is intended to protect the homeland and he has the constitutional authority and responsibility to protect the American people,” said the statement.

On Sunday, Feb. 6, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco rejected the request submitted by the Justice Department to immediately restore the travel ban. The court said that they expected a response from the Trump administration by the following day.

With the constant battle between the courts and the administration, many are left questioning the legality of the ban.

The Anti-Discrimination statute of 1965 outlaws the discrimination of a person based on “nationality, place of birth, or place of residence,” which Trump’s order inherently does, according to the judges that have ruled against it. Of course, Congress could choose to amend or repeal the statute, like it can with any law.

Another argument highlighted by the recent court orders is that the ban violates due process and equal protection under the Constitution. Due process states that all people, even illegal immigrants, are entitled to certain legal rights before the government can force them to leave. Equal protection requires the government to treat all people equally regardless of race, alien status, nationality, etc.

Because of how quickly this order was put into place, many argue that there was no opportunity for affected individuals to practice their right to due process and make their case. Much more troubling is the question of whether the order violates equal protection by intentionally discriminating against Muslims. 

Trump has denied accusations that the order is a “Muslim ban,” based on the argument that the seven countries that were chosen have been home to conflict in the recent years and present a significant terrorism threat to the U.S. The order also cites the changes to the visa waiver program that were made by Obama administration in 2015 that placed those persons who had recently visited any of the listed seven countries under greater scrutiny before being permitted to enter the U.S.

The president’s argument is flawed, however, due to the fact that he has openly prioritized Christian refugees. The order does this by stating that once the 120-day ban is lifted, preference goes to those of “a minority religion in the individual’s country.” Being that the order specifically applies to seven predominately Muslim countries, it is clear to what the “minority religion” is. In fact, Trump told the Christian Broadcasting Network that he planned to prioritize Christian refugees, mere days before signing the order.

More far-reaching than due process and equal protection combined, is the U.S. Constitution’s Establishment Clause, which enacts the separation of church and state and declares that the government cannot favor one religion over another. While due process and equal protection can only aid those persons who are already in the U.S., if it is decided that the order violates the Establishment Clause, a court could easily rule against the ban entirely.

Following the court rulings, the U.S. State Department and U.S. Department of Homeland Security have taken immediate measures to reverse the ban.

The New York Times reported on Saturday that the State Department’s Director of Refugee Resettlement Lawrence Bartlett sent an email stating that steps are currently being taken to rebook travel for refugees, including those from Syria.

A State Department official also told The New York Times that until a new order is issued in the courts, the Department “will go back to vetting refugees, booking their travel and bringing them to the United States.” The arrival of these refugees is expected to begin as early as this week.

‘Global Gag Rule’ counterproductive to its purpose

As one of his first acts as president, Trump reinstated a Reagan-era policy that prohibits United States funding for global health providers who perform or discuss abortion as a family-planning option.

The global gag rule, formally known as the Mexico City Policy, was first enforced under the Reagan administration in 1984 and has since been reinstated by every Republican president.

This time, however, the policy extends to “to global health assistance furnished by all departments or agencies,” as stated in a Presidential Memorandum released on Jan. 23.

Activists fear that this far-reaching policy could affect various nongovernment organizations (NGO) that provide lifesaving treatments outside of family planning, such as those that distribute bed nets for malaria, provide childhood vaccines, combat ebola and Zika, etc.

According to analysis from PAI, a global health NGO, the gag rule impacts over $9 billion of U.S. funds, compared to $575 million when George W. Bush reinstated the policy in 2001.

The U.S. funding of abortions in foreign countries as a method of family planning has been outlawed since 1973 by the Helms Amendment.

This means that, in reality, the global gag rule prevents women from accessing basic sexual and reproductive services, like gynecological exams, H.I.V. prevention and contraception. Instead of curtailing the rate of abortion, research has shown that when the policy is in place the rate for unsafe abortions actually increases, especially in rural areas.

After Bush reinstated the policy in 2001, a study conducted by Stanford University found that there was a surge in abortion rates in 20 sub-Saharan African countries. In developed countries, the rate remained relatively unchanged.

The study stated that, “If women consider abortion as a way to prevent unwanted births, then policies curtailing the activities of organizations that provide modern contraceptives may inadvertently lead to an increase in the abortion rate.”

With the World Health Organization (WHO) estimating yearly that 21.6 million women experience an unsafe abortion and 47,000 die from related complications across the globe, it is evidenced by research that the rates will only increase due to the reinstatement of the gag rule.

Director of Women’s and Gender Studies Dr. Ina Seethaler expressed her discontentment about the policy’s repercussions.

“…The global gag rule is clearly attempting to prohibit women to become informed about all their reproductive choices,” said Seethaler. “As the numbers of deaths that will likely result from this policy show, this decision was not made with women’s and children’s health in mind but to take away women’s bodily autonomy. It’s a political and ideological decision that condones putting women’s lives at risk.”

Because the U.S. is the world’s largest bilateral family planning donor, when the rule is instated organizations like the International Planned Parenthood Federation and Marie Stopes International (MSI) suffer greatly.

In a statement released by MSI, the director Marjorie Newman-Williams explained that the gag rule is counteractive.

“Attempts to stop abortion through restrictive laws—or by withholding family planning aid—will never work, because they do not eliminate women’s need for abortion,” said Williams. “This policy only exacerbates the already significant challenge of ensuring that people in the developing world who want to time and space their children can obtain the contraception they need to do so.”

Seethaler echoed this statement, stating that “the only way to prevent unsafe, ‘back-alley’ abortions is to legalize abortion.”

“Legal abortion, provided in a medical environment like at a Planned Parenthood, is safe, in fact, in many cases safer than carrying a pregnancy to term, especially in countries with high maternal mortality rates,” said Seethaler.

MSI also estimated that there will be “2.1 million unsafe abortions and 21,700 maternal deaths under Trump’s first term that could have been preventable.”

MSI typically receives $30 million per year in U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) funding, which provides 1.5 million women in over 12 countries with family planning services.

But if they are unable to find donors, the organization will be forced to cut these programs.

“Abortion is a fundamental right for women and also very necessary public health intervention,” Maaike van Min, MSI’s London-based strategy director, told Reuters. “Aid is under pressure everywhere in the world and so finding donors who have the ability to fund this gap is going to be challenging.”

A decline in family planning programs can also lead to an increase in the risk of the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.

According to a policy review conducted by the Guttmacher Institute, in 2001, the Lesotho Planned Parenthood Association went from receiving 426,000 condoms to becoming ineligible for shipments, even though the organization does not provide abortion counseling. At the time, one in four women in the country were H.I.V. positive.

Recently, the Executive Director of the association Lerotholi Pheko told The New York Times that he was fearful of “a hit to his operating budget.”

“If we are not able to increase the income we get locally, it would mean that we would have to downsize,” said Pheko.

Another program that could face serious losses is The Family Life Association in Swaziland, an area that has one of the world’s highest H.I.V. infection rates.

The association, which receives a quarter of its funding from the U.S., provides abortion information to women infected with H.I.V. when necessary, even though the land-locked country only allows abortion in cases of rape and incest. If and when this occurs, patients are typically referred to adjoining South Africa, where abortion is legal.

Executive Director of the Family Life Association Zelda Nhlabatsi also expressed her concern to The New York Times about the possible negative outcomes that could arise from the newly reinstated policy.

“Our organization could definitely be affected, including our H.I.V. services, and you can imagine how detrimental that could be for a small country like Swaziland that’s been heavily affected by H.I.V.,” said Nhlabatsi.

Although the policy is in effect, Seethaler explained that there are various ways that any concerned citizen can aid in supporting the cause.

“If you want to support reproductive justice globally, including in the U.S., you can call your political representatives and voice your concerns,” said Seethaler. “You might also consider volunteering at organizations in the U.S., like Planned Parenthood, who are collaborating with other organizations overseas. Keep educating yourself about this topic. Women’s and Gender Studies courses are great ways to learn more about reproductive justice, why it is so important, and what we can do to support human rights.”

If interested in donating, visit the DKT International Family Planning and HIV Prevention at http://www.dkinternational.org/ and/or Planned Parenthood Global at https://www.plannedparenthood.org/.

Fighting the fake-news phenomenon

Economists Matthew Gentzkow and Hunt Allcott define fake news as stories “that have no factual basis but are presented as facts.”

During the 2016 Presidential Election, Facebook and Twitter were plagued with a plethora of these fake stories, mostly containing pro-Trump and/or anti-Clinton rhetoric.

“Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Donald Trump for President, Releases Statement.” “WikiLeaks CONFIRMS Hillary Sold Weapons to ISIS…Then Drops Another BOMBSHELL! Breaking News.” “IT’S OVER: Hillary’s ISIS Email Just Leaked & It’s Worse Than Anyone Could Have Imagined.”

These sensationalized headlines, likely created by teenagers in Velles, Macedonia, were meant to act as clickbait, drawing readers to the fake-news websites.

By selling ads, these teens were able to bring in thousands of euros a day while living in a city where the average salary is 350 euros per month. By deceiving the American public, they successfully brought a “Digital Gold Rush” to the small city.

Some even argue that they had a large hand in swaying the presidential election in Trump’s favor, like Assistant Professor of Communication, Media and Culture Dr. Wendy Weinhold.

“I don’t know how a huge amount of fake news distributed with the intent to inform people with falsehood couldn’t have an influence,” said Weinhold. “If all it did was give people, whose minds were already made up, information that they could use to influence other people…and put just a seed of doubt in other people’s minds, then I don’t know how it couldn’t of had an influence.”

A Buzzfeed analysis concluded that in the 3 months leading up to the election, “the top-performing fake election news stories on Facebook generated more engagement than the top stories from major news outlets such as the New York Times, Washington Post, Huffington Post, NBC News, and others.”

The analysis found that the top 20 fake stories generated 8,711,000 engagements while the 20 top true election stories generated 7,367,000 engagements. From the numbers, one could easily conclude that fake news was, at least, a serious problem throughout the election.

President Obama thought fake news to be a serious enough issue to mention in his farewell speech, calling fake news a threat to democracy.

“Increasingly, we become so secure in our bubbles that we start accepting only information, whether it’s true or not, that fits our opinions, instead of basing our opinions on the evidence that is out there,” said Obama.

Customizable news has been a prevalent issue since Google News began allowing the ability for users to select preferences and is even more serious now with social media.

On Facebook and Twitter, users are able to, literally, pick and choose what they want to see. By giving the user the ability to add specific friends or to follow certain people or organizations, these social media sites are making it increasingly easier for the public to personalize their news.

“We had our local newspaper that arrived at our doorstep and we would have a conversation about it,” said Weinhold. “The really important thing was, these people…didn’t always agree with you…But today, particularly via fake news, we have the opportunity to surround ourselves with a bunch of people who agree with us and aren’t necessarily the best informed…There are huge consequences and huge costs to that kind of shifting of information and newly formed coffee shop online.”

Although fake news is extremely concerning, especially to those in the world of journalism, a recent study conducted by Gentzkow of Stanford University and Allcott of New York University found that, although the fake news stories favoring Trump far outnumbered those favoring Clinton, they did not have a “significant impact on the presidential election.”

The paper entitled, “Social Media and Fake News in the 2016 Election,” combined a 1200 person post-election survey, new web browsing data and a database the researchers created, that contained election stories that were declared fake by prominent fact-checking websites during the three months prior to the election.

Overall, the research found that television was the primary source for receiving political news and that the political impact of social media is overstated. According to the study, only 14 percent of Americans reported utilizing social media as a primary tool for gathering campaign news.

“In summary, our data suggest that social media were not the most important source of election news, and even the most widely circulated fake news stories were seen by only a small fraction of Americans,” the research states. “For fake news to have changed the outcome of the election, a single fake news story would need to have convinced about 0.7 percent of Clinton voters and non-voters who saw it to shift their votes to Trump, a persuasion rate equivalent to seeing 36 television campaign ads.”

Regardless of if the circulation of fake news influenced the 2016 Presidential Election or not, the issue is a serious one and should be viewed as such.

Fortunately, Facebook and Google removed the ability for ad-revenue in November of 2016, leaving many of those who once created the fake news without an incentive. Facebook has also planned for new policies and algorithms that will help to filter out the obviously misleading stories.

Hopefully, we, the American people, were able to learn from this election cycle and will know to be more skeptical next time around.

In the mean time, Dr. Weinhold explained that it is in the citizen’s hands to aid in debunking falsities.

If you’re going to be a good citizen, if you are going to be well informed, you have to do some work too,” said Weinhold. “It’s not just the journalist that has to do the work of informing, investigating, but you as the audience member, you as the citizen of the democratic nation that you are lucky to call home, also has a responsibility to be sure that you know who is informing you. The internet makes information extremely readily available but it also puts a lot of responsibility on each of us to do our homework as well.”

Bernie Sanders’ bird encounter inspires new trending hashtag

Bernie Sanders’ surprise winged visitor at his rally in Portland, Oregon last Friday has social media buzzing with a catchy new hashtag.

Watch the video below:

Moments after the bird made its appearance on Sanders’ podium, #BirdieSanders was already trending on Twitter.

Sanders’ campaign also took advantage of the unique situation by tweeting out a new image the following day that depicts the Democratic presidential candidate’s profile smiling back at a green bird that is flying in front of him with the word “TOGETHER” in the top left corner.

With how controversial the 2016 presidential race has been, a light-hearted moment like this was not one to be ignored by social media.

Sanders’ supporters seemed especially eager to spawn a new, more gentle and princess-like persona for the candidate.

Many took the internet to create memes that depicted Sanders’ as various different characters, including some popular Disney Princesses

The artist who produces the webcomic The Oatmeal, Matthew Inman, created a meme specifically for those Bernie Sanders fans who also share the love for Disney movies.

Artists were not the only ones to create retweet-worthy memes.

Many everyday Twitter users saw an opportunity to be creative and funny while also promoting Sanders’ campaign.

As if the coincidental rhyming, perfect timing and symbolism was not exciting enough, the location has fans of IFC’s show “Portlandia,” especially amused.

The popular sketch-comedy show, starring Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen, featured a sketch titled “Put a Bird On It,” in the first episode.

In the sketch, the actors insist that every thing is better if you “put a bird on it,” and after last Friday’s rally, Sanders supporters seem to agree.

Watch the sketch below: