AUSTIN, Texas—Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) may not generate the same attention as our current tweeter-in-chief, but he embraces social media just as much. When serving as mayor of Newark, New Jersey, Booker gained a reputation for regularly interacting with constituents on Twitter. And today, as a US senator, he continues to post across a variety of media. Booker’s been doing Facebook videos from his office at nearly a weekly clip since early December, and so far the senator finds the platform unparalleled when it comes to generating a response.
“At times, I see [Facebook videos] as more valuable than a speech on the senate floor,” Booker told a capacity crowd during his keynote at the 2017 South By Southwest conference. “These are videos I put up for an audience to explain policy. In the senate, there are maybe 14 people watching me on C-SPAN, plus my mom makes 15. But my last Facebook video got something like one million views.”
Ostensibly, Booker’s speech served as the kick-off for the interactive portion of SXSW. But he often took the opportunity to touch on what he viewed as pressing political issues of the day: everything from the dangers of Jeff Sessions for a criminal justice system that’s overly reliant on incarceration to the broken US food system (where tax dollars fund ads for food, fund campaigns telling you not to eat those foods, and then fund health resources to combat problems caused in the first place by government-supported foods). No matter the topic, Booker kept coming back to an overarching message about the need for love at this time of great division.
When he did talk about tech, Booker spoke of innovation as a double-edged sword.
“While I’m big lover of tech, I’m not a big lover of separation becoming more convenient,” he said. “Today, it’s easier to separate, to be in a bubble, than ever before. This creates a dangerous reality. I really do worry, even for myself, that when I go home at night and feel like I need some spirit, I just turn Rachel [Maddow] on, and that charges me up again. I have to remind myself I can’t only listen to the stuff that excites me. I need to turn over to FOX and to PBS to see what other Americans are consuming and to see news beyond America’s borders.”
That reality doesn’t make social media inherently bad in Booker’s eyes. In conversation with Google’s Senior Counsel on Civil and Human Rights, Malika Saada Saar, the duo brought up an equal amount of positive change. Social media has accelerated a corrosive effect on public discourse through anonymous online harassment, but it also took conversations about police brutality far beyond communities of color through live and shareable video. Black Lives Matter started as an online love letter, the Women’s March started as a Facebook post, and many Muslim citizens were recently welcomed back to the US with cheering crowds because of viral campaigns. For Booker, all these initiatives prove these tools are essential for social good.
“Social media, like all tech, are neutral platforms,” Booker said. “The power is determined by who engages with them and uses them. In the past, we’ve seen radio and TV used for despicable things—Father Coughlin, McCarthy—if these platforms are ceded to those forces, they’ll pervert them and use them. But if activism embraces tech, they can be powerful forces for good on planet Earth, too.”
Anytime digital activism is a topic of a discussion, the same question inevitably comes up: Does slacktivism, which is often viewed cynically, actually have any real world impact? This question came up during a light, closing Q&A (where Booker artfully deflected questions about a 2020 presidential campaign and didn’t answer anything particularly contentious). The senator took issue with criticisms of online activism.
“Why do we see them [online versus real-world activism] as separate?” he said. “When I hear that, I challenge people to look at their last 10 posts on whatever social media platform—do they reflect your values? Are you being an agent of social change? I’ve looked at data, and the most influence I have as a politician is within my circle of friends and two degrees out. So we all have that power—don’t disengage your life, be a social media activist, but please also do activism in a real way, whether that means being a mentor, volunteering at a soup kitchen, or going to a rally.”
With that sentiment in mind, Booker finished by challenging himself to practice what he preaches. He analyzed his recent social posts and noticed they were all domestic-based despite real tragedies occurring elsewhere, such as possible famine threatening millions in Yemen and South Sudan.
“If people want a society that is more loving, more compassionate, in which we don’t have bubbles, I try to say this to myself so I’m not just preaching,” he said. “Nothing is going to change unless I do something. No action is done in vain no matter how small; it ripples into the world.”
Look for upcoming comments from Booker on those threats soon—you’ll be more likely to find them on a Facebook page rather than a C-SPAN stream.