These YouTubers are using their platforms to tackle politically important issues

It’s a tricky business, trying to change the world. Living in the Internet age can make it either challenging or helpful for a social movement to gain legs. Even with something as simple as a hashtag, you can make serious social change. #MeToo, a term coined by American activist Tarana Burke, became a global movement because women began sharing their stories of sexual harassment and sexual assault. It pushed people to begin confronting ugly truths about how prevalent sexual harassment is, especially at the workplace.

But for every successful movement, there are many others that still struggle for attention. There are so many causes out there straining to be heard about — not because theirs aren’t as worthy, but because there is simply so much to fight for. It makes the idea of fighting for a cause feel meaningless, when we know it’s unlikely to make waves.

This is not the mindset that YouTube wants to foster. They want every person with a desire to change things for the better to really go for it, and use their talents to make it happen. The world’s most popular video-sharing website is using its clout — and the influence of its many famous creators — to spark change in every part of the world. YouTube started Creators for Change, a global program that aims to amplify positive voices on YouTube who are tackling social issues and promoting awareness, tolerance and empathy on their own YouTube channels. The 2018 group consists of 147 ambassadors from 16 countries with a combined audience of 44 million viewers.

Local context: A panel on the regional trends surrounding hate speech, extremism, and intolerance includes Tirmizy E. Abdullah (center), Coordinator for Peace Research, Institute for Peace and Development in Mindanao at the Mindanao State University-Marawi.

There really is strength in numbers. Each one of these YouTubers has followings of their own, and they all tackle a variety of social issues: from cyberbullying and harassment to fake news and racism. YouTube decided to bring all these creators together in one place — Bangkok, Thailand — for the Creators for Change Summit. Held last Nov. 16, the Summit’s message was further strengthened by the participation of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and social change agency Love Frankie, which have partnered with YouTube to help creators strategize their content to create a lasting social impact.

 

The summit brought up not just why it’s important to use a platform like YouTube to change the conversation, but also the hows of making it happen.

 

The summit brought up not just why it’s important to use a platform like YouTube to change the conversation, but also the hows of making it happen. Spoken word poet Yasmine Lewis from YouTube channel Bankstown Poetry Slam began the summit with a powerful performance called “If They Can Pronounce Shakespeare.” In it, she talks about how immigrants in English-speaking countries often have to Anglicize their names in order for locals to pronounce them properly. (Too often, here in the Philippines, we have Chinese and Korean friends who give themselves “English” names like Susie or Pearl in order to be understood.) But in that same poem she argues, “If they can pronounce Shakespeare and Dostoevsky, Kafka or Tolkien… then they can pronounce your name.”

Rhyme and reason: Spoken word poet Yasmine Lewis performs “If You Can Pronounce Shakespeare” at the opening of the Creators for Change Summit.

The entire poem is available on YouTube, by the way, and is a short but simple message that speaks volumes: you are entitled to take up space in this world — you, in your entirety. The kind of prejudice that stems from being different is an issue that cropped up in the summit a lot, and is tackled in such wonderful, amazing ways. On his YouTube channel Beni, YouTuber Nadir Nahdi tackles his third culture background (he identifies as British Muslim) through a beautifully shot film. In “Finding Nenek,” he flies to Indonesia in search of a grandmother he’s never known, and discovers much more about himself and his family than he imagined.

There are also YouTubers who use humor as a means to bring social issues into the spotlight. Mythos Labs, a production company based in Boston, partners with comedians to produce videos that combat violent extremism. The CEO Priyank Mathur is a former counterterrorism officer at the US Department of Homeland Security, and he wanted to use powerful narratives — through humor — to combat potentially dangerous stereotypes surrounding terrorism. During the summit, they presented a short film about a regular office worker who’d like to quit ISIS, shot in the same deadpan mockumentary style of The Office.

Third culture kid: YouTube creator Nadir Nahdi using his platform to reframe the way we understand prejudice and stereotypes.

Violent extremism is an important issue, even here in the Philippines. In Mindanao, Marawi continues to be a war-torn city, and its residents are still unable to return to their homes. “We are IDPs, or internally displaced persons. I consider myself an IDP,” said Tirmizy E. Abdullah during a panel discussion on regional trends related to hate speech, extremism and intolerance. Tirmizy, a coordinator for Peace Research at the Institute of Peace and Development in Mindanao at Mindanao State University, says IDPs continue to be excluded from the rehabilitation plan in Marawi.

“The case now in Marawi is that of the state occupying the land of the people. And this land is not ordinary land. This land has something to do with the identity of the people. Like the phrase, ‘Kung hindi kami makakabalik, eh di sino pa kami?’ It’s very disempowering,” says Tirmizy.

He hopes that his YouTube platform will help more people see what is really happening in Mindanao, particularly in Marawi. He worries that if people continue to be displaced, they will be even more vulnerable to violent extremism — whether as victims of it, or by becoming convinced to take part in it.

Laugh and learn: Using humor to combat extremism was the topic of a panel discussion with (L-R) Terence Chia and Haresh Tilani of Ministry of Funny and Priyank Mathur of Mythos Labs.

“We want YouTube to raise the voices of the IDPs, the stories of the IDPs. Because they are being marginalized by the kind of narratives that are prevalent in the country,” said Tirmizy. “An example is, ‘It’s your fault, you deserve it, because you are coddlers of the Mautes.’ During the height of the Marawi siege, when the people of Marawi evacuated to other cities — especially in non-Muslim cities — they were discriminated (against), because of this idea that — even our President is saying this — Maranaos are coddlers of the Mautes. So the residents became afraid, because they think we are Maute protectors.”

 

What the Creators for Change Summit proves is that social movements don’t always have to be the kind of change we see on a global level, but the kind of change that is lasting.

 

Tirmizy’s story, and that of the people of Marawi, makes it more important than ever to use whatever platform, whatever influence we have, for positive change. It is no longer enough to know and be aware — by using a powerful medium like YouTube, starting new conversations and challenging old ones might actually make an impact. What the Creators for Change Summit proves is that social movements don’t always have to be the kind of change we see on a global level, but the kind of change that is lasting: change can be in how we speak to each other more kindly, or how much warmer we can be to our neighbors. And YouTube’s many creators have proven that kind of good work has already begun. The rest of the world will simply have to join in and continue it.