Why turning to social media to support a cause you care about could be doing more harm than good
You’ve seen it. Since the infamous black square from last June’s #BlackOutTuesday, Instagram activism is becoming more and more common. Instagram activists focus on a myriad of international issues, from the fetishization of Asian cuisine to the overrepresentation of trans people in prison. Instagram activism can look like informational slides, shots of protests or signs, or even a simple hashtag. At least on my daily feed, it’s changing Instagram and how people use it, and while it might seem effective, it is just like the rest of Instagram: a performance.
In June, it seemed like Instagram activism had hit a new high as several Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests took place in the United States and Canada. My friends and family began using Instagram to share resources and information more than usual. But it wasn’t the first time in 2020 that our Instagram feeds were inundated with posts about one common cause.
Back in January, Instagram was inundated with dying baby koalas and footage of bright orange acres of forests engulfed in smoke. Not only were people posting about the issue, but many new accounts popped up, devoted to fundraising and awareness. Around the world, Instagrammers cried for Australia as its wildfires burned.
When BLM began making headlines only five months later, the world was a very different place. The pandemic has forced us to sideline practices that are normally essential to activism, which aims to bring people together with one common goal. But in-person protesting isn’t exactly easy to do right now. This may be why a black square (or lack thereof) became the symbol of one’s political engagement and wokeness this past June.
By early morning on June 2, almost 30 million black squares had been posted to Instagram in an attempt to show support for the movement, many captioning it with the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. Several people pleaded with Instagrammers to stop using the hashtag, as the resources and information that had previously been available through that hashtag was being buried deeper and deeper beneath pages of black squares posted by people unaware of why the black square had even started, or the effect their contribution had.
I never posted the black square. Maybe it was because my Instagram account had never been political before. Maybe it was because I had just started selling homemade cookies, and the absurdity of a politically loaded black square among shots of chocolate chips and fresh cookie dough was not lost on me. I was having daily conversations with friends and family about race, racism and political engagement, and donating a portion of my cookie sales to the LGBTQ Freedom Fund, but I wasn’t posting about it. To Instagram, I hadn’t done enough.
#BlackOutTuesday seemed to create more conflict, causing people to turn on one another either about their “silence” or their use of #BlackLivesMatter. Even I received a message from a follower I’ve never met, asking when I was going to “show my support.” My sister’s cake business lost followers, and rifts were caused between many friends of mine who couldn’t agree on their use of the black square..
It was the first time the world seemed to clue in that certain Instagram activism can cause just as much damage as the good it intends to create. While people thought that their participation would garner the respect of followers and represent their support of the BLM movement, it replaced years of BLM resources on the timeline and, along with them, the intended purpose of the hashtag as a whole. Not to mention, any posts about other deserving causes that day were also buried.
#BlackOutTuesday conveyed the message that the millennial saying seems to be true: if you didn’t post about it on Instagram, it didn’t really happen. Millennials like me are looking for validity and sincerity in a medium rooted in performance, in illusions of perfection. And we know it too, we’ve coined the phrase “Instagram vs. Reality” (the subreddit has almost 900,000 members) to remind ourselves of the very opposite notion: Instagram is not real life.
These issues are bigger than a five-slide deck about safe protesting or videos of forest fires. While Instagram activism posts that go viral can help with visibility, they reduce the events in question to the information provided. These posts, or decks, are informative but also incredibly aesthetically pleasing – they aren’t meant to look political. They are catered to appeal to everyone, including the apolitical Instagrammer who’s missing the carefree, heavily filtered brunch pics from back in 2010 when Instagram first launched. That Instagrammer might not be the type to do more than click like when their favourite makeup brand posts about a newsworthy cause.
Social media activism isn’t a bad thing. Throughout the pandemic, it’s proved to be a great way to be vocal about a cause you care about. However, the people who contribute to the virality of certain Instagram campaigns for nothing but their own best interests, and the ones who believe that a repost alone counts as allyship or solidarity, are slowing down efforts like BLM and distracting Instagrammers from BLM’s goal. Post about the cause you care about, but make sure that’s not all you do, and be aware of why you are posting it.
Campaigns have gone online because of the pandemic, but we have to make sure our social media activism lines up with our values in the real world. We shouldn’t be determining the morality of our favourite business based on its activism-related social media content, while wearing clothing with tags that read “Made in Bangladesh.” We must tread carefully and critically through the growing sea of performative activism. The tide is coming in.