Since protests broke out in June following the death of George Floyd, social media has been one of the main ways in which people have expressed their ‘support’ for the BLM movement. But does spreading awareness online, or criticising those who do, achieve anything of note in the long run?
After George Floyd was killed in May, mass protests erupted in Minneapolis, spreading throughout the whole of the USA and many other countries. The issues of police brutality and racism were brought to practically every social media user, with the hashtag ‘black lives matter’ being used on Twitter 8.8 million times on the 28 May. (Pew Research Center, 2020)
Infographics— short, 10 slide posts— spread like wildfire as a means of educating the viewer on a certain social issue, as well as urging them to help in different ways. This all seems innocuous enough; however, people reposting these seemingly well intentioned infographics have come under fire recently. But why?
Journalist Ernest Owens described performative activism as making ‘cheap symbolic gestures’ that centre ‘around [the person posting] instead of the issue’. It has been likened to surface-level activism, which seeks to boost the image of the person posting, rather than making a true impact.
This was perfectly demonstrated during a chain post challenge that began to circulate in June, tagging ‘10 friends that wouldn’t break the BLM chain’.
Prominent celebrities participated in the challenge ranging from Kim Kardashian to Kris Jenner- all claiming in one way or another to be amplifying a cause and creating connections.
While this challenge was most likely created with good intentions, it failed to spread any awareness, and in my opinion trivialized a serious issue into nothing more than a meaningless trend. It also created a pressure on those tagged to continue the chain, as if a repost proved their support for the movement, and no repost solidified their complicity— when this may not have been the case.
Back to the infographics: how effective are they? As shown in the post by @patiasfantasyworld, they have also come under fire for acting as a way for people to relieve ‘white guilt’, which is defined by Oxford Languages as ‘remorse or shame felt by a white person with respect to racial inequality and injustice’. This may be true, and someone reposting something purely due to guilt would suggest that they are trying to prove themselves to their audience.
But perhaps infographics are capable of achieving more than pacifying ‘white guilt’. Their primary goal is to educate the viewer in some way. Most encourage further research and ‘action’, whether that be signing a petition, emailing a local representative, or donating to a cause.
I think that during a time when news stories pass by so rapidly, using social media can be useful in keeping issues at the forefront of public consciousness. Realistically, a single infographic will probably not change someone’s opinion on a crucial issue, but it may have the potential to push them into thinking differently, and could be used as a starting point for them to find out further information. The question is whether someone carries the values they present on social media through to real life, which is where real change is more important.
So, is posting something better than nothing at all? Does social media make activism inherently performative? After writing this, I still don’t have the answers— but I believe intention and consistency between social media and real-life is important.
Ultimately, the arguments that arise from the issue of performative activism are inconsequential. The countless injustices detailed in each brief post continue day by day. Perhaps rather than attacking someone for posting— or not posting— a slideshow on Instagram, we should focus on the policy makers that allow these things to continue, in order to see real life change.