In fact, social media activism is not activism at all.
After the murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, social media platforms were flooded with outrage and calls for protest. Floyd’s murder was representative of continued systemic racism and police brutality in the United States, and due in part to the lockdowns effected by the pandemic, many took to social media to voice their opinions, using Floyd as a symbol of racial justice. Initially, it seemed like the day of reckoning for police brutality had arrived. However, while the original intent may have been to bring attention to Black Lives Matter and call for social change, it is clear that this recent of wave of social media activism actually did not accomplish much in reality.
At first glance, social media outlets seem like the perfect place to spread awareness and share information about relevant social movements and political issues, but any teenager or twenty-something that’s been on Instagram or Twitter knows that it is not so simple in practice. What began online as a call for social change, quickly devolved into virtue signaling and performative activism. A prime example of this is Blackout Tuesday.
On June 2, 2020, countless people posted black squares to their Instagram with the hashtag #BlackoutTuesday. The idea was conceived as way to show solidarity with Black Lives Matter by interrupting the typical social media feed and offering an opportunity to reflect. However, among non-Black people, the post became more of a signal to their followers that they were, in fact, not racist or anti-Black, regardless of whether they actually understood the stakes and goals of the movement or supported it in any way. When you have so many people posting black squares with hashtags and Instagram stories with infographics about racism out of sheer fear of being considered racist for not doing enough, all you get is an echo-chamber of virtue signaling, not motivation or momentum for actual change.
I am not saying that social media is not a useful tool for disseminating information from legitimate organizations and political activists, but I fear that the current culture surrounding activism on social media is dangerous and leads to greater complacency. When so much emphasis became placed on what you post on the Internet regarding social movements, people viewed it to be sufficient and necessary to repost a graphic about “What You Can Do to Help End Racism” but not actually do anything else. It seems as if that was enough to convince your followers that you were not racist, instead of actually taking steps to educate yourself on how to become antiracist. This distinction is crucial to Ibram X. Kendi author of How to Be An Antiracist, for he claims that saying you are not racist “signifies neutrality: ‘I am not a racist, but neither am I aggressively against racism.’” Being antiracist means actively supporting policies that create racial equality. “Not racist” is a cop-out that refuses responsibility for the racist ideas we hold.
When you consider the average person’s Instagram account, they likely interact mostly with people who share opinions similar to theirs. We live in an era of extreme political polarization, and this fact is especially evident online. If you post an Instagram story about racism in America, people who see it are either your friends who already agree with you or that one conservative relative who always disagrees with you. More often than not, it is just someone who doesn’t care and won’t even read it.
As it stands, then, mere social media activism is not real activism. In order to be a useful tool for political change, social media activism must be supplemented with real action, such as organizing a protest, fundraising, etc. Broadcasting to your followers how not racist you are, therefore, is not activism in any sense. Tackling issues like racism that require revolutionary action with social media posts is a complete folly. No real progress will be made if we are content with sharing something online and keep carrying on with our lives as usual.
As individuals it can be overwhelming to think about the seemingly insurmountable task of addressing the deep-rooted issues in our country, but we are not helpless in the face of capitalism or systemic oppression. Grace Lee Boggs tells us that “We want and need to create the other alternative world that is now both possible and necessary. We want and need to exercise power, not take it.” We need to do more than post on social media if we hope to create change. If we are going to take our society’s problems seriously, then, as adrienne maree brown, a student of Lee Boggs, teaches us in Emergent Strategy, we have to “get really good at being intentional with where you put your energy, letting go as quickly as you can of things that aren’t part of your visionary life’s work.” Social media activism is not worthwhile when it effectively amounts to performative B.S. We do have the power to do more, and we must.
To go beyond performative social media activism, a.k.a., there are many things we can do. We can engage our community in tangible ways by finding local organizations and get involved in them. We can make the effort to educate ourselves on the real American history that is not taught in school. Let us not fall into the trap of performative social media activism and get distracted from the need for real action, for we have to be revolutionary as individuals if we hope to effect change on a societal level.