Social media activism struggles to cause real change

On June 2, Instagram users around the nation participated in the #BlackoutTuesday in light of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, flooding the social media platform with over 10 million black squares. Some posts included a vow — to educate themselves and to fight against racial injustice — and others simply had a hashtag, most likely to emphasize a promise to stay silent. However, the outcome of #BlackoutTuesday was the polar opposite of what a social movement should accomplish.

The end result of #BlackoutTuesday was a far cry from what the two organizers, Jamilia Thomas and Brianna Agyemang, intended. The two black women, both a part of the music industry, initially posted under the hashtag #TheShowMustBePaused as a way to speak out against the music industry’s profiting off of black artists. Yet, the post wasn’t treated as a voice of protest, but rather a trend, and the intended message of Thomas and Agyemang was lost under millions of black squares. Furthermore, people started attaching #BlackLivesMatter to their #BlackoutTuesday posts, replacing valuable, informative posts with black squares and consequently undermining what BLM activists had actively tried to publicize months prior to June 2.

The BLM movement represents social change — to put an end to police brutality and to protest against racism. People in support of the movement have physically gone out of their quarantine bubbles to gather in public spaces in an effort to voice their opinions. This kind of involvement is extremely vital because when it comes to advocating for societal reform, a commitment to gathering in public is an important aspect of establishing a strong, durable campaign. 

Widespread accessibility to social media has been helpful in nurturing the BLM movement — petitions demanding social reform, recorded footage of brutality and statistical posts have all circulated in light of BLM. However, while social media has facilitated the spread of information and thus contributed greatly to public awareness of BLM, it has also indirectly promoted a culture of performative activism.

If anything, #BlackoutTuesday was a performative act in the way that people were able to “involve” themselves with the BLM movement without doing much of what the movement encouraged. A similar performative act was prevalent with the Instagram trend #ChallengeAccepted. The trend was initially started in Turkey after the death of Pınar Gültekin, who was murdered by her ex-boyfriend, in an effort to protest against continuous harassment faced by Turkish women. But as more people got involved with #ChallengeAccepted, the objective of the posts morphed into completely different: to empower and encourage women to take selfies of themselves and post on their respective Instagram accounts. The original meaning of the hashtag was completely lost, to the point where it was impossible to decipher whether the person was supporting the cause or was simply involved in another Instagram trend.

Social media grants people the ability to present themselves in a new light. Simply by posting snapshots of your life, people can easily manipulate the way the public perceives them. Consequently, it’s become increasingly more difficult to draw the line between genuine involvement and ego-boosting — did the person post because they’re in support of the movement, or was it all just for show? As the number of BLM posts seems to decrease by the day, I can’t help but wonder if part of the once-prevalent attitude towards social change was performative from the get-go. 

The simple task of posting and adding a couple of hashtags creates the illusion of involvement, and furthermore, the illusion of change. However, this is simply not the case. Whether or not someone posted a black square doesn’t dictate if that specific person is a genuine activist in the BLM movement. Likewise, posting a black square with little to no information doesn’t determine whether social change will occur. People on social media are always finding new ways to present themselves in a positive light — posting a black square for a day and recognizing themselves as active BLM protestors was no exception. 

Social media activism isn’t totally in the gutter. It plays a vital role in publicizing information and distributing petitions that help contribute to the movement. It’s important to note, nevertheless, to stray from slacktivism. In other words, don’t just post a petition and say you’ve done your job. For those who genuinely want to do everything in their power to help the movement, focus on the direct and tangible actions. Don’t follow what others around you do, but educate yourself and listen to the organizers who have had years of experience. Because when it comes to big movements like BLM, it ultimately boils down to what you do, not what a trend demands.

By Andrew Kim, Copy and Coverage Editor-in-chief
Photo courtesy of Destiny Trujillo