Social media activism has seen a massive increase in popularity and relevance during the past months, starting in the summer of 2020. Given the undeniable power of online movements, this is overall a great achievement. Yet, online activism has many complexities, and we must question whether or not the way it has been used is really beneficial to the social justice movements themselves.
Social media activism takes many forms, one of the most popular being infographics. Essentially, these are posts packed with information and data on a topic. They are well known for being visually appealing and concise, effectively spreading mass awareness about their subjects. Thus, people who choose to stay out of politics or social issues are forced to acknowledge these topics when they are appearing everywhere on their feed.
Though the reposting of infographics has value, it leads to the widely recognized phenomenon of performative activism. The people who repost infographic after infographic are rarely the same people who participate in direct action such as attending protests, donating to non-profit organizations, or volunteering. The world of aesthetically pleasing and vague liberal media has lowered the bar for activism as a whole. When you repost an infographic on the current trending topic, it does little more than check the “be an activist” box on your mental to-do list.
The world of aesthetically pleasing and vague liberal media has lowered the bar for activism as a whole.
So, what does it mean to be an activist? When you repost an infographic, are you actually committed to the cause, or do you just want to look good? Google defines an activist as someone who campaigns for political and social change, but misses a key detail: real activism stems from a sense of responsibility, determination, and drive to achieve these things. Media “activism” has replaced this passion for social change with performativity. This decreases the amount of hands-on and direct activism taking place.
Another flaw of media-based activism is the lack of fact-checking involved. Some infographic creators do list their sources, but many don’t. With a new post trending each week, promoting possible misinformation does more harm than good.
As a solution, some suggest that instead we should educate ourselves on today’s battles with books or documentaries. These resources are fact checked and credible, and they go deeper than the surface of these complex topics. While we must educate ourselves in this way, infographics and published resources serve completely different purposes. Infographics comply with the standards of social media in that they are compelling and quick to read. Documentaries and books require more attention, time, and dedication. One cannot replace the other, because they are used in different contexts.
So, what is the happy medium? How can media based activism do more than spread awareness?
Media based activism and infographics shouldn’t disappear, rather they should serve as a segue to more direct action. This would look like more lists of petitions to sign, protests to go to, numbers to call, or places to donate. Accounts and posts that provide these resources already exist, and users on social media platforms should promote and amplify their content. For example, accounts like @bayarea.protests or @youthvsapocalypse on Instagram consistently share important information about protests and events for social justice issues in the Bay Area.
Another solution is to use these infographics in more direct and focused ways. Many online activists will spam their account or story with posts that address numerous unrelated topics. You might see a post focused on Islamophobia on one slide, then a post on abortion access in the next. As important as each of these issues are, focusing on one and delving into it deeply would be much more effective and educational for other social media users.
Instead of treating social injustices as trends and addressing them performatively, we can use the connections created by these platforms to expand the power of hands-on activism. No matter whether or not you identify as an activist, we must consciously use the power of social media to our advantage.