Activists on social media can seem more interested in amassing social capital than securing social justice, argues Charlotte Colombo.
“The revolution will not be televised”. Instead, the revolution will be a black square or a catchy hashtag. With nearly two thirds (64%) of young people in the UK seeing social media as a crucial means of achieving social change, it is clear that social media activism – or ‘clicktivism’, as it’s sometimes called – isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. But maybe it should.
These days, you can find an Instagram infographic for pretty much any social issue out there, with impassioned users urging their followers to “educate themselves”. The problem is that these same users scarcely take their own advice. They aim to make a social issue more attractive to their audience and to the algorithms that determine what content they consume. In doing so, they often strip a situation of essential nuance, which, particularly when coupled with misleading research (frequently referenced without citation), can lead to the spread of disinformation.
Recently, for example, countless social media users shared infographics about the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, which, as well as being factually incorrect in places, often perpetuated anti-Semitic rhetoric. The fact that users even feel the need to aestheticise these tragedies is problematic in itself because it encapsulates these activists’ own privilege and detachment from the situation – that same graphic design project for a social media activist is the painful, far-from-pretty reality for those going through human rights crises.
Sometimes, social media activism can go beyond spreading misinformation and can actually harm the movement that it purports to champion. On Tuesday 2 June 2020, Instagram users worldwide posted a black square as part of #BlackoutTuesday, which was an online protest organised initially by Black members of the music industry in response to the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor. That Tuesday, though, has been remembered for all the wrong reasons. As a result of millions of people tagging these empty boxes with hashtags like #BlackLivesMatter, posts made by community organisers with valuable information about protests and donation points were pushed down and made more difficult to find, meaning many of these valuable resources were essentially erased.
Alongside being actively detrimental to those trying to organise direct action, many critics pointed out that participating in #BlackoutTuesday was a prime example of ‘performative allyship’. This, in essence, is activism done to increase one’s social capital. As blogger Kristen Mae points out, “If you’re secretly hoping for a pat on the back for being an ally, you are guilty of performative allyship.”
On social media, our value is measured through the currency of likes, shares and followers. This makes it an ideal breeding ground for performative activism. While it might be cynical to assume that every social justice-themed post online is nothing more than performance, it essentially boils down to two questions. Firstly, is the user amplifying marginalised voices in the content they’re posting and sharing, or instead centring their own voice to preach about a matter of which they don’t really have any lived experience?
Secondly, does their activism start and end with social media? Sharing hashtags and petitions to show your support for a particular cause is easy – what’s more difficult is using what you’ve learned about on social media in the real world. It’s all well and good posting #BLM in your bio, but if you choose to stay silent when you witness racism day-to-day, there is an uncomfortable dissonance between the persona you’ve built up online and the person you are in your everyday life.
The truth is social media alone as a tool for activism will never be sufficient because it is inherently shallow. Almost everything on the internet is made up of a series of transient trends, meaning that activists can’t maintain the level of momentum needed to make effective social change.
Gazans remain oppressed. Black people are still killed by the police. Women continue to be sexually assaulted. The difference is that their time as internet ‘fads’ has passed, so keyboard activists remain silent.
And that silence? It’s deafening.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of EachOther.
About The Inspired Source Series
This series is part of our work to amplify the voices of aspiring writers that are underrepresented in the media and marginalised by society. Each piece examines a human rights issue by which the author or their community is affected. Where possible, authors outline a position on how we might begin to address the issue. Find out more about the series and how to send us a pitch on this page.