The Dark Side of Social Media Activism

On May 25, George Floyd was pinned to the ground and suffocated by a police officer. As a result of a video taken at the time and news coverage, thousands of people flocked to social media to voice their outrage. Since the release of the video onto Instagram, many users, accustomed to the
traditional light-heartedness of the app, have begun to use the app as an advocacy platform. Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement protests, the Lebanon explosions, the presidential election and Uighur Muslim camps, among many other human rights issues, have increasingly populated social media feeds. The main source used on Instagram to advocate for issues is infographics, posts that are intended to give quick facts about an issue. Such infographics are appealing, relevant and easily accessible for less informed users; however, they often exclude important information while also creating a culture of performative activism and peer pressure. While social media can be useful in raising awareness for pressing issues, users should take their activism beyond Instagram and look to other sources to find the facts.

Performative Activism

On June 2, a social media movement took over the feeds of many Instagram users. On that day, known as “Black Out Tuesday,” celebrities, activists and high schoolers alike posted black squares in an effort to raise awareness about the BLM movement while showing solidarity for the Black community. According to CNBC, by 8:45 a.m. on that day there were already 14.6 million Instagram posts tagged #blackouttuesday; as of Sept. 27, there are now a total of 22.2 million posts with that same hashtag. However, also as of Sept. 27, there are only 11.3 million signatures on Breonna Taylor’s Change.org petition calling for the arrest of her killers. If everyone who posted the black square instead redirected their efforts towards real, tangible actions, those in power would be more likely to see the impact of her story and be prompted to act. Social media, especially on a platform meant for creativity, is not an optimal way to communicate opinions to our political leaders. Following mainstream trends and advocating solely for current “hot topics” will not result in meaningful change; it only serves to further personal agendas.

While many students care deeply about the subjects they advocate for, others repost the graphics because “others are doing it,” hoping to be perceived as an empathetic person by their peers. One common issue in social media advocacy is performative activism, also known as “slack-tivism,” where people will advocate for the purpose of improving their social image, rather than furthering the causes they promote. Students who engage in these practices are not as likely to be genuine, and are more likely to become desensitized to disasters, viewing them as personal moral
dilemmas rather than widespread tragedy.

Although we cannot expect everybody to be thoroughly involved in every cause, performative activism cannot be effective if people only participate for their own self-gain. Being an “activist” by reposting infographics on social media is simply patting yourself on the back for minimal participation. Simply put, social media gives people an easy way out of true activism. Slacktivists, convinced that they are making substantial change, will likely not contribute in more meaningful ways such as signing petitions, donating money or holding tough conversations. In fact, more
people posted #blackouttuesday than people who signed George Floyd or Breonna Taylor’s
Change.org petitions. Using a pressing issue in order to further one’s own social standing is unfair to those who are most affected by the issue itself. Social media users should avoid both being insincere when operating online and using tragedies for their own personal benefit.

Infographics

Infographics are one tool used by performative activists. Often displayed in aesthetic colors, infographics are designed to display information in a way that teens will be able to share without disrupting the beauty of their Instagram feed. Rather than being solely informational, the info-graphics, usually displayed as an Instagram slide post with a cover and a breakdown of facts on each slide, are made in order to attract attention or followers. Yet infographics not produced by respected organizations or legitimate news sources often are not fact-checked; creators, with the
intention to raise awareness and encourage reposts, are less likely to focus solely on facts and sources when they are crafting covers that people will click on. Additionally, many infographics do not cite their sources; without citations, users cannot fact-check the bias and validity of the information, and such posts cannot be fully trusted, nor held accountable for misinformation.

To challenge the idea that infographics are the authority on all activism-related issues, some users have even created satire accounts. The success of such satire enforces the idea that social media users often blindly support any issue they come across without fact-checking information.
Accounts such as @annoyedteenager and @monday preach far-fetched ideas such as “ADAB: All Doctors are Bad” or “Wear a mask or you are racist.” This information is displayed in the same format as “real” infographics, but use unprovable, often silly facts. In a world full of “fake news,”
people cannot always make the distinction between what is real and what is satire, leading to the spread of misinformation through infographics.

The information we absorb, no matter the source, can determine people’s political actions. Some infographics prioritize aesthetics over accuracy, especially in failing to support ideas with sources, a practice which can misinform social media users and lead them to take stances on specific issues, or vote for certain candidates without full comprehension of the politics.

Peer Pressure

When certain movements are adopted by the majority of the community, staying silent can appear to be a form of disagreement or opposition to the mainstream cause.

Recently, the phrase “silence is violence” has been chanted at protests and spread across social media. With the notion that inaction equates with oppression, students may feel the need to publicly express their support or condemnation of a subject, but there shouldn’t be a moral obligation to do so. There are many reasons why a person would refrain from taking a public stance on issues, especially on a social media platform. Sometimes, a student may feel unfit to comment on the situation; other times, they may not align with the popular opinion, and would believe it is best to stay silent rather than offend their peers. Whatever the reason, it is not shameful to refrain from posting, as there are many other, often more effective, ways to advocate for a cause.

A Call to Action

Social media can be a double-edged sword; while it serves as a powerful tool to spread meaningful messages and give a stage to underrepresented voices in politics, it’s not always the most effective way to truly advocate. Careless infographics can easily spread misinformation, and there are far more impactful ways to make a difference, such as sending emails to political leaders, signing petitions and encouraging others to do the same. During a new wave of peer pressure and performative activism, students should be responsible in their online actions: they should avoid advocating for issues they do not care about and should do research on current events to avoid blindly believing anything they read on the internet. Only with a generation of socially responsible media users can social media activism begin to create real change.