As Black Lives Matter protests became more frequent this past summer, social media activism became more popular and played an important role in spreading awareness about social justice issues. At the peak of the outrage surrounding the murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Ahmaud Arbery, many rushed to Instagram and flooded their stories with colorful infographics.
Although at first glance these posts may seem productive and helpful, in reality, they are just aesthetically pleasing, watered-down versions of the truth. Do we really need to be spoon-fed the news of police brutality and racism through an aesthetically-pleasing infographic? It almost seems insensitive to turn the brutal murders of Black Americans into Instagram-worthy posts that are shared and never thought about again.
Reposting BLM infographics on Instagram stories has become somewhat of a trend. A handful of viral infographics were reposted by hundreds of thousands of users, reiterating the same information over and over again. It seemed like this was done in the name of virtue signaling rather than meaningfully contributing to the conversation.
Many others were well-intentioned and posted with the goal of spreading awareness about the protests and police brutality. Those who repost infographics just for appearances aren’t contributing to productive activism, though. When people are motivated to post about a certain issue just because it's what everyone else is doing, their ‘activism’ loses its value.
During this peak in social media activism, if someone didn’t post on their story, they were often judged for not speaking up about important issues. But those who did post are not necessarily following the anti-racist advice they tout. We can’t infer from an Instagram post whether or not that person is being actively anti-racist and confronting everyday racism, so we shouldn’t try to. Posting about social justice issues on Instagram definitely can (and should) be part of your activism, but it shouldn't be all you’re doing.
“Blackout Tuesday” is a perfect example of empty social media activism. Although it started as a well-intentioned movement to amplify Black voices, instead the flood of black squares blocked out important information and peer-pressured people into posting more meaningless content.
As our feeds were filled with nothing but endless black squares and hashtags, valuable information about BLM and the voices of Black creators were effectively silenced. This day was supposed to be about amplifying Black voices, but it quickly drowned out the voice it initially sought to emphasize and the focus turned to the white ‘allies.’
The best way to put a spotlight on certain communities or groups is not to speak over them, and that’s exactly what this movement did. What was most disappointing about this trend was that even as information was shared by BIPOC asking people to not post the black squares, others continued to post. This lack of awareness showed how many people posting weren’t watching the videos or reading the articles about the blackout. It’s easy to post a picture with a hashtag and move on with your day, but the real work that needs to be done is confronting everyday racism.
Activism should be about raising awareness about the issues you care about to bring more attention or outrage. It shouldn’t be posting about issues you don’t feel connected to just because that’s what everyone else is doing. Your activism should be genuine to who you are and what you care about, and just because you may not post about your advocacy and work, does not make it any less valuable.
When used well, social media can be a great tool to spread awareness and bring attention to marginalized voices. However, we need to go further than posting an infographic and moving on with our day.
If you read something in a story that piques your interest, do your own research and learn more about it. We can’t expect complex social issues to be explained in a short Instagram post, so we shouldn’t rely on them to give us the full picture. If your primary source of news is Instagram, you should at least be aware that you’re getting an incomplete version of the story.
These posts aren’t all bad, some form of awareness is better than nothing. However, most people don’t go further than posting on their story. Social media is all about appearances and projecting the best version of yourself, and we shouldn’t let activism be swept up in this charade. Going forward, we need to focus more on actionable steps and encouraging people to create tangible change instead of just clicking through infographics on our phones.