Social activism reduced to impersonal online performance in the digital age

By Emma Reilly

Elm Staff Writer

On June 2, 2020, millions of Americans flocked to social media to show support for the ongoing fight for racial justice. Though this fight has long been in progress, the issue saw significant re-amplification following the murder of George Floyd by the Minneapolis Police Department on March 25.

Months after the fact, it seems clear that social media’s role in advocacy is severely limited.

According to Forbes’ Paul Monckton, over 28 million Instagram accounts posted a plain black square under the hashtag #BlackoutTuesday on June 2.

These posts were striking in both abundancy and simplicity — but their impact was short-lived. After posting under the hashtag, some individuals and businesses suspended activity on their social media accounts for the rest of the day, according to Monckton.

However, a day of inactivity on Instagram or Twitter does little to assuage the decades of injustice and inequality racial minorities in America have suffered through.

This harsh reality was apparent to influential activists as the hashtag #BlackoutTuesday gained traction.

“When the social media posts die down, will the actions and people’s conviction for change die down too?” Black Lives Matter Co-Founder Opal Tometi said to The New York Times’ Nikita Stewart in an interview.

The captions accompanying businesses’ black square posts displayed a similarly worrying level of shallowness.

There was a “corporate rush to issue statements in support of diversity and racial equality on their social media platforms,” The New York Times’ Tariro Mzezewa said.

While the solidarity reflected by these posts and statements may have been genuine, many felt a distinct sense of disappointment.

“Many said … the statements are lip service,” Mzezewa said.

In some regards, these posts were counterproductive. 

Many individuals and companies tagged their black square posts with the #BlackLivesMatter or #BLM hashtags, even though the #BlackoutTuesday hashtag had no official affiliation with the Black Lives Matter movement.

By adding these hashtags to their posts, social media users were “reducing the power of the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag to spread information about the protests and wider justice movement,” The Guardian’s Laura Snapes said.

Additionally, businesses and influencers were able to profit off the #BlackoutTuesday trend.

“Instagram and other marketing materials are significant ways for companies to make money,” Stewart said. 

These complexities reveal how flawed activism through social media can be. Posts decrying racial injustice look good, they make companies money, and they soothe guilty consciences — but they don’t generate any amount of long-lasting, genuine change.

In a true display of performative activism, posts were made by people who “talk the talk but don’t walk the walk,” Mashable’s Brittany Levine Beckman said. 

According to Medium’s Petiri Ira, performative activism is characterized by actions that allow individuals to support a cause with little personal sacrifice. 

It doesn’t cost much to post a black square, take a break from social media for the day, and then move on. This is the type of short-lived interest prominent activists fear.

“Users of performative activism only act as ‘allies’ when it is convenient for them … they use it … to avoid backlash and criticism,” Ira said. 

While the sentiment behind the social media posts and statements making up the hashtag was there, there was a distinct lack of actual dedication to the cause.

Ira said that in order to make the shift to bona fide activism, individuals and companies need to “make actionable and effective steps towards change.” 

This can be done by confronting bias, encouraging dialogue, and joining or donating to activist groups. Individuals should strive to develop an interest in activism that exists separately from what’s trending.

Understanding that issues like racial injustice are ever-present and ever-evolving can do a lot to counteract the ineffectiveness of performative activism’s short-lived popularity.

Racial injustice didn’t start with the death of George Floyd, and it certainly didn’t end with #BlackoutTuesday or Black Lives Matter protests.

There’s still real work to be done — work well beyond the reach of our social media accounts — and true activism is the way to tackle it. 

Featured Photo caption: On June 2, 2020, millions of people posted a black square to Instagram in support of the racial justice movement — a show of activism that many called counterproductive. Photo Courtesy of Flickr.

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