In times of injustice, our civil liberties serve as our only true tools of defense. With our freedom to assemble we take to the streets to protest, with our freedom of speech we hollar “No justice, no peace,” with our freedom of the press we report on the good, the bad, and the ugly without remorse.
On social media, another outlet for these social justice crusades for which there is no real precedent set by those before us, activism holds new challenges. Performative activism, or activism that is done to improve one’s standing in the eyes of peers rather than to aid a cause, is prevalent on social media platforms. Users can broadcast their support for a cause with the click of a button without being held to any real world commitment.
While ingenuine activism on social media is problematic, it should not outshine technology’s irreplaceable role as an agent for spreading information. Online activism can be valuable if the content that is being shared is productive and meaningful.
The killing of George Floyd spurred waves of activism in the name of the Black Lives Matter movement worldwide. At the start of the movement, individuals flooded Instagram and Twitter with support. Some critics accused users of posting to ease their own white guilt or gain the approval of online peers. They voiced the concern that people would neglect to carry on the action off-screen.
These concerns are extremely valid. We use social media in hopes of bettering our social capital, or the network of connections that we have with peers. As a result, we assume that broadcasting our involvement with social and political issues will improve how others perceive us. By doing so, engaging in proper political awareness is reduced to something as trivial as following the latest trend.
In June, #BlackoutTuesday swept through Instagram, a collective action in which users posted a blank black square to show support for the BLM movement. Twenty eight million black squares flooded Instagram for days after, drowning out important information and resources posted under popular hashtags like #BlackLivesMatter. On Tuesday morning, the BLM articles, videos, and donation sites that had dominated Instagram for weeks were flushed from my feed.
#BlackoutTuesday was started with good intention: to symbolize solidarity for the BLM Movement. It was somewhat successful in doing so, as the simplicity of the “challenge” led to its virality. As activist Feminista Jones said on Twitter in June, it took the Black Lives Matter hashtag seven years to accumulate 11.9 million usages on Instagram as of June 1, but the tag gained millions of uses on Blackout Tuesday posts the following day. The problem is that this essentially silenced years of useful information in a matter of hours. In the nature of social media, the hashtag became another internet trend and did more harm than good.
It’s been five months since Floyd’s death lit the fuse for the BLM movement and although the spotlight has decreased, the action is still ongoing. While some social media users have kept up their online activism, for the most part Instagram’s feed has reverted back to “normal.” Which begs the question: how much of the online buzz came from true allies of the BLM movement rather than performative activists? How much of it was just sizzle and no pop?
There is a fine line between performative social media users and those who have truly taken advantage of their platform to spread important information on a cause. Ultimately, the decision to project one’s involvement in a cause for the world to see is something that deserves neither praise nor condemnation. If done right, it is simply a valid agent for activism. For example, Twitter also saw BLM related trends in June; one viral Tweet asking users to match donations for the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund raised over $1.8 million in just 24 hours.
The most important action to take, whether you are posting about a movement or not, is self reflection. If you are posting, you need to ask yourself “why?” Am I posting to influence how others view me or to truly further this cause? And most importantly, is the content that I’m posting actually helpful in advancing this cause?
Post petitions, post links to donations, post educational articles, amplify black voices, and promote protests. All of these measures, no matter how small they may seem, are helpful and appreciated. As long as you are posting them for the right reasons and engaging in the movement off-screen, your actions are not performative.
If you’re an active social media user and you find yourself choosing not to post about a given social cause, you should also ask yourself why. Is it because I don’t want to be judged by those who disagree with me? Do I find supporting this cause to be too controversial an opinion to broadcast publicly? If you find yourself answering ‘yes’ to either question, you have to consider if you can validly call yourself an ally to the movement. Ask yourself, have I been doing my part to aid this cause in the real world, even if I haven’t posted it for all to see? If your answer is yes, that’s all that matters.
We’d be foolish to say that social media should not be valued as a tool for social revolutions, as it allows us to stay informed and connected like never before. Because of this access to information, we live in an age where ignorance has to be chosen. Just the same, we’d be foolish to assume that those who don’t take to social media are remaining silent or indifferent. If there’s one thing our generation should know it’s that social media inherently fails to project the whole picture.
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