What does Instagram activism do, anyway?

What does Instagram activism do, anyway?

What does Instagram activism do, anyway?

Is sharing Instagram graphics an important way of organising and educating, or an exercise in performative wokeness?

Instagram, the land of brunch photos and fitness bloggers, has not always been a political platform. But, in the last year, with the increasing online visibility of the Black Lives Matter movement, the app has seen a boom in infographics, artworks, and slideshows sharing quotes, resource lists, and bitesize chunks of information about important social justice and political issues.

In many ways, this trend is an immensely positive one. Infographics, famous quotes, artworks, and lists of resources are an excellent means of putting complex social and political issues and ideas into simple, easily digestible terms for those who feel alienated by highbrow academic texts and scholarly jargon. Eye-catching images and graphics can coax people into conversations that they might otherwise not be having — mobilising them around a cause and encouraging them to get involved. Sharing posts becomes a statement of solidarity, a way of pressuring others into helping out, and an act of advocacy. They are a tool for both education and organisation, and their ability to reach a huge audience is invaluable.

However, problems can arise when sharing Instagram posts becomes the full extent of one’s political action. You share an infographic or a quote in pretty pastel colours, and then you forget about it. You’ve done the bare minimum, and your work is done. Critics have called out this kind of ‘performative wokeness’ or ‘performative allyship’ as a lazy way of showing that you care about an issue without actually putting in the work to challenge it.

I think we are all guilty of this — I know that I am — and the peer pressure associated with social media doesn’t help. There is an expectation of digital activism from others — an implicit pressure to share posts about pertinent social and political issues. Not sharing anything can be taken as evidence that you don’t care, that “nobody is talking about this”, even though you may be reading up on it, or discussing it with friends and family, or taking part in other forms of activism that you aren’t documenting online. You are required to broadcast your ‘wokeness’.

As a result, sceptics have criticised the way that issues like Black Lives Matter have almost become a meme, because there is a pressure for social media users — especially popular influencers and brands — to speak out, even when it’s obviously not genuine. Sharing posts can make people look good — and feel good about themselves — but it isn’t always accompanied by any thought or action beyond that.

This kind of post-sharing-as-activism can backfire. For example, the #BlackOutTuesday movement saw the #blacklivesmatter hashtag overtaken by black squares that swallowed up important posts sharing resources or information. The act of posting a black square — and then moving on with your day — was paraded as a symbol of one’s solidarity and allyship, whilst actually damaging the movement it claimed to be in aid of. People looked good, but they didn’t necessarily do good.

As such, it’s our responsibility to critically engage with the things that we share online, making sure that we are more intentional with our digital footprints. What are we contributing to the cause by sharing this? Are we sharing as a sign of solidarity? Are we doing it to educate and to encourage others to take positive action outside of social media — and intend to do so ourselves? Are we doing it to spark constructive dialogue? It’s important that we try to ensure that our sharing is an act of authentic allyship, rather than something we’re doing either to look good, or because of peer pressure.

Whilst a critically important starting point — so long as they aren’t harmfully oversimplified or misleading — informative graphics must not be seen as the endgame for advocacy and activism. I can speak for myself when I say that I am trying to make sure that I take other forms of action alongside sharing things online — things like donating to relevant causes, carrying out more in-depth research and reading, and political lobbying. Expressing outrage and solidarity is easy. Making conscious offline efforts to make a difference is the hard part. But it’s these conscious efforts that will see real change.

At JAN Trust, our use of graphics is designed to educate and inform as an accompaniment to our advocacy and campaigning work. The Instagram account for our Another Way Forward™ programme is designed to share important facts about issues like extremism, hate crime, and gang violence — with the intention that it will spread awareness and encourage young women and girls to tackle these problems in their own communities. Our hope is that reading these graphics will not be the extent of our followers’ engagement with these issues, but that they will feel empowered to use them as a resource for pursuing positive change.