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Social Media Activism : Performatism or a new age for activism?

many counties including the UK and Wales experienced protests following police violence. Source: Katie Crampton (via Wikimedia Commons)

By Izzy Morgan

It’s been a turbulent year so far in terms of activism on social and political issues. The divide between those throughout the political compass has never been greater. The use of social media activism (labelled ‘clicktivism’ by many critics) is more prevalent every day. But how much does it really affect the issues we are trying to solve?

Is it simply another trend for the politically disengaged to latch onto in order to show a semblance of social conscience or is it truly as altruistic in its intentions as some may claim? 

From black squares on Instagram to viral Twitter threads, is the new ‘normal’ of activism simply a ‘story’ to be replaced by the next issue 24 hours later? 


Black Lives and Black Squares

The argument for whether social media is a more disruptive influence on social causes is perhaps most evident in the recent Instagram ‘takeover’ of #BlackoutTuesday which aimed to disrupt the flow of ‘normal’ social media posts and promote attention to the Black Lives Matter cause. 

The movement started in the music industry under the tag #theshowmustbepaused attached to a black square and then progressively became viral. The current number for posts tagged with #blackouttuesday is over 24.9 million, albeit many posts have been removed and many posts aren’t of black squares anymore.

Whilst this might seem like a good thing for the Black Lives Matter movement to be drawing large numbers of online participation, many activists had a problem with it.

It was said by some prominent figures in the Black Lives Matter movement that the act of posting a black square on Instagram was actually counterintuitive to the messages they were trying to promote. It was filling up the #blacklivesmatter tag with black squares instead of an insightful outlet where many people go to be educated on news and issues relating to the movement.

Celebrities also came under fire for not posting a black square such as Piers Morgan as throughout the day posting a black square suddenly became synonymous with supporting the cause itself. 

On the other hand, big names such as Emma Watson were targeted for posting more than one black square which some claimed was an attempt to not spoil her Instagram “aesthetic”.

Within a few days, debates began to question the efficiency of posting a black square on Instagram as a sign of standing with the movement if the majority were to just delete the post a day later. Activists on Twitter called it “performative” and reminiscent of chain challenges on Instagram. It could be said, however, that it brought widespread attention to the issue at hand and encouraged people to actively discuss the social movement.

The most damning figure for the argument that the campaign didn’t enact any real change or inspire more activism is that on the day of Blackout Tuesday, there were reportedly over 28 million black squares posted on Instagram. At that point, there were only 12 million signatures on the Justice for George Floyd online petition, which has only risen to just over 18 million since.

So why is it that so much of social activism engagement takes place online? 


Real Change or Clicktivism?

Research from the London School of Economics suggests that some of the factors involved include the fact that it allows activists to spread their movements and goals more easily; it increases the possibility of transmitting audio, text and visual discourses, and is instrumental in facilitating debate.

It also suggests social media works to create a transnational network where messages are not constrained by institutional or national divides.

Potentially, more engagement with these issues online could be understood by the theory of low investment politics. It’s based on the idea that the regular person is far more likely to get involved in little acts that require small amounts of effort which will set them back minimally in time or money which could be seen to be reflected in the #BlackoutTuesday. It suggests that social media activism is something which is now easily achievable for the average person. 

It is this argument which has brought about notions of ‘clicktivism’ from many critics. Some of whom argue that social media activism is pointless at best and counterproductive at worst.

There are many, however, who will contend these arguments by alluding to the notion that the whole point of social media is to distribute and receive messages in whatever their form and the purpose of many apps like Twitter and Facebook is to create a new public sphere where people can share information and leave their own echo chambers. This would suggest that social media is the ideal place to promote social and political discussions as its capacity for education is huge. 

However you view the debate on social media activism, it cannot be denied that a direct result of it has been hundreds of thousands, if not millions more people have been increasingly educated on the issue of Black Lives Matter in particular. It has inspired far more social and political engagement in real life with the organisation of protests and the subsequent media coverage. 

There is certainly a lot more to be done in real life to solve the social and political issues our society is facing. There is no argument, however, that whatever the future brings, social media and its use by the global community will be a major instrument in affecting change.

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