Students start social media project for political healing

In the aftermath of a polarizing election, several USC students are using social media to help heal the divide. Ryan Williams, Andrea Juarez, Daniel Luo and Angie Mendoza created the 65 Days Toward Unity social media campaign to foster a sense of unity in the school community amid an abundance of contrasting political views.

The campaign was launched on Nov. 15, a week after Republican President-elect Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in the general election, and will last until Jan. 20. Williams, a senior majoring in bassoon performance; Juarez, a senior majoring in communication and linguistics; Luo, a graduate occupational therapy student; and Mendoza, a senior majoring in psychology and NGOs and social change, operate a Facebook page and Twitter account for the campaign. There, they ask daily questions, post suggestions for random acts of kindness and share post-election articles and events. Both the questions and daily acts of kindness are designed to be general and unrelated to politics, so that anybody can participate comfortably.

“[The goals of the campaign are] to promote the safety and respect of everyone, to engage followers in random acts of kindness and daily challenges that encourage self-reflection, to provide a safe space for open communication and the sharing of events and ideas and to inspire a culture of empathy that lasts beyond the 65 Day Movement,” according to a statement released by the 65 Days Toward Unity team.

Mendoza, who operates as the head of the campaign, said she was inspired to begin the online efforts after witnessing anger-driven discussions on social media and on campus between Clinton and Trump supporters.

“What I’ve been seeing is, when people disagree with each other, they start calling each other names,” Mendoza said. “Instead of making judgment calls, the conversation needs to be, ‘Okay, you disagree with me. Let me try to understand your point of view so we can make a compromise.’”

Karen North, a professor of communication and the director of the Digital Social Media program at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, said social media may have contributed to the alienation of certain voters during the election and masked the magnitude of Trump’s support.

“There was such heated debate, and anger and hostility on social media, [that] a lot of people did not admit to the pollsters or their friends who they were voting for,” North said. “Therefore, the information we were using to predict what our world would be like on Election Day was flawed.”

The 65 Days Toward Unity team hopes to address this issue of alienation on both sides of the political spectrum in part by selecting and sharing articles that try to provide insight into different viewpoints. Since the campaign is run by students with fairly liberal viewpoints, Mendoza said the team is careful about being nonpartisan. 

“If we have an article that presents a certain view, when we share that article we pose it in a more open-ended way,” Mendoza said. “We show that it’s not us agreeing with one side, but rather us asking ‘what do you think about this?’”

While students have said that they appreciate the efforts of the 65 Days Toward Unity team, they also think it will be difficult for the campaign to genuinely change behaviors and mentalities.

“I think it’s an amazing idea,” said Gabby Fernandez, a junior majoring in broadcast and digital journalism and narrative studies. “But I think it’s a little optimistic to believe that everyone will follow through.”

Mendoza also said that transforming ideas online into a sustained movement will be a challenge. Right now, the campaign is focused on building momentum and gaining followers. Mendoza’s goal is to eventually set up a Facebook group so that their followers can organize concrete plans for social change.

“This group will serve as a space for our followers who have agreed to communicate peacefully and respectfully to come together and come up with an idea for how we can ensure that everyone’s voices are heard for elections to come,” Mendoza said.