Why we feel pressure to 'take a social media stand' on Ukraine and other causes — and why it's OK not to, according to psychologists

·6-min read
As the Ukraine crisis continues, psychologists explain why we feel pressure to speak out on social media. (Photo: Getty Creative)
As the Ukraine crisis continues, psychologists explain why we feel pressure to speak out on social media. (Photo: Getty Creative)

In the week since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine, there's been a flood of social media posts of people speaking out, running the gamut from celebrities pledging their financial support (and offering up the odd poem to Putin) to TikTok creators bringing their Gen Z followers up to speed on the latest geopolitical crisis. As brands, influencers and everyone in between chime in, our feeds have become a heady mix of the good, the bad (or disinformation-spreading) and the just plain bizarre. The pressure to post is strong — but is it helpful, or meaningful?

It depends, Azadeh Aalai, an adjunct psychology professor at New York University specializing in the psychology of social media and social behavior, tells Yahoo Life. Thanks to social media and a non-stop news cycle, everyone is "experiencing this catastrophic global event in real time," she notes. The uncertainty can leave even those who are thousands of miles away from the conflict feeling helpless and unsure of what to do or how to process what's happening. Going online to offer support can feel like a natural next step.

"I think a lot of it is coming from a good place of just [offering] community and wanting to be part of the conversation," Aalai suggests.

Media psychologist Pamela Rutledge agrees, telling Yahoo Life: "The situation in Ukraine is a powder keg on a global scale. People want to ‘have a say’ about things that can ultimately affect you, whether you’re an expert, influencer or neither. People also get emotionally triggered by dangerous events. Taking a stand is validated by the number of celebrities and influencers from all over the world speaking up."

But many of those same celebrities and influencers have also been criticized for wading in to share what journalist Tyler McCall has called "meaningless platitudes." (Though, conversely, stars who haven't used their platforms to speak out — including Kim Kardashian, whose since-deleted luxury handbag giveaway on Instagram was met with a chorus of commenters urging her to donate the money to Ukraine — have also been called out.)

According to Aalai, some of the backlash stems from the noise, and lack of nuance, that can arise when people with no expertise on a subject start spouting their opinions online. At best it's "information overload," she says; at worst, it risks spreading disinformation. On Twitter, for example, news from the front lines and analysis from trusted experts are sandwiched between unvetted posts shared by neighbors, co-workers and old classmates, including those who typically use social media to share vacation photos or funny memes rather than activism. It's democratic, yes, but also disorderly.

"There's no room for nuance ... or acknowledgement of expertise," Aalai points out. "So it's kind of like this sense that everyone has an equal voice or that everyone is free to share their opinion, which clearly they are — but at the same time, most of us really don't know enough to post an opinion."

Aalai adds: "People are so accustomed to broadcasting their thoughts about everything." She cites a recent, recurring Twitter complaint to the effect of the "same people who've been acting like they're experts on the vaccine are now all of a sudden experts on Ukraine and Russia and foreign policy."

Rutledge, director of the Media Psychology Research Center in Newport Beach, Calif., says that the same factors that have made the Ukraine crisis such a dominant part of our lives have also fueled the pressure, and compulsion, to broadcast our own reactions to it.

"Social media has changed the flow of information and public discourse, detaching it from geographic boundaries," Rutledge explains. "Thanks to social media, almost everyone is exposed to events such as the invasion of Ukraine, at least at a superficial level. There is, therefore, an increasing recognition of global events and how they might ripple out and impact individual worlds. After the pandemic, social unrest and political challenges of the last few years, speaking up is a way of mattering and, thanks to the interactivity of social media, being heard."

Aalai adds that some might also use their social media to show "that they're on the right side of history" as a form of "hashtag activism." She draws a parallel to the black squares that surfaced on Instagram to support the Black Lives Matter movement in the summer of 2020 — a gesture that, however well-intentioned, could ring hollow if not backed by action, such as financial support.

"Unfortunately, a lot of that stuff kind of translates to virtue signaling," Aalai says, "where it's like you're trying to cultivate an image that [says] 'I'm on the right side of history' or 'I'm against this' or 'I'm promoting this activism,' but that's the extent of what the individual is doing. So it's kind of just a performative act of solidarity where individuals are posting support or whatever it is for the cause of choice in the moment, but there's not really any on-the-ground work or anything else that the person is doing in their lives that kind of reinforces that position. So it comes off as just this attempt to essentially package or present one's image in a certain way that's presumably positive."

Essentially, our grandchildren are more likely to ask what we did during this time rather than what we posted on Instagram Stories. That's not to say that sharing a screenshot of a signed petition or retweeting a verified donation link — all the more powerful if an actual donation goes along with it — is to be at all frowned upon. Amplifying an important cause is a worthy effort, but so is taking the time to digest, learn and listen.

"I think there is a lot of pressure to live our lives online and these spaces don't really offer room to also say, 'Well, I should listen' or 'I need to learn' or things like that because they're just not built for that kind of moderation," Aalai says.

Adds Rutledge: "While there is always a sense of peer pressure when 'everyone' seems to be doing something, a media-literate approach says that you should use critical thinking to evaluate the information and decide for yourself how you can best address the situation — if it needs addressing. You should not feel obligated to take a social media stand any more than you should feel obligated to post any other opinion or event because it is trending."

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