Perhaps the most crucial byproduct of social media, amid many detrimental effects on our society, is online activism. Social media provides a platform that enables activists and social movements to grow on a mass scale, aiding to both social and political change.
However, as online activism has gained traction, a complicated expectation has arisen; an expectation that for every political incident, news story, or event, social media users must share their opinions, subjecting them to the judgment of the public. For teenagers, this expectation holds an even heavier burden. Asking a high schooler to weigh in on every political topic is a heavy expectation. Even for the average social media user, understanding how to curate a presence of digital advocacy is not an easy task.
When teens fall victim to these expectations, in an unauthentic way, they may find themselves up on a stage. As the spotlight is shining down, and the audience stares back silently, teenagers still can’t figure out what is wrong with their performance. They did what was asked of them, yet why isn’t anyone applauding?
Performative activists. This label is used to describe people who would rather put the time and energy into convincing the world that they aren’t racist, homophobic, xenophobic, etc, than work to disrupt the oppressive systems that are in place. While not limited to social media, a performative activist is a person who may exhibit concern and emotional investment towards an issue online, but complete indifference in the real world. As a result, people lose the ability to assess how they can continue to take action against the injustices they speak out for. For the performers, online activism has become just another way to boost social capital. At best, these actions are shallow, and at worst, harmful to the causes they claim to support.
On June 2, 2020, #blackouttuesday swarmed Instagram feeds. The goal of the event was for all allies to post a black square on Instagram to show solidarity with the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. The intentions of this trend were well-meaning, but the flow of black squares buried critical information about the movement. Resources and videos that organizations and activists had posted under the BLM hashtag were hidden beneath the black squares. The event became a way for performers to manipulate the direction of the spotlight and prove their dedication to “wokeness” rather than a day of reflection and education on the solutions to the systemic problems that face Black people in the United States.
When feeds are swarmed with empty posts, it becomes hard to weed out genuine and helpful activism. If these ineffective posts are the only ones you are exposed to, it can be hard to realize that more work needs to be done.
With that said, online activism can be a powerful tool. It can improve the efficacy of activist movements, spread previously unvoiced stories, aid in the organization of movements, and cultivate supporters. It can thrust issues into the national spotlight and help mobilize movements. But online activism has never been as simple as reposting or sharing a story on Instagram.
Finding a way to support an issue, without it becoming performative is a tricky line to walk. When Berkeley High School students are contemplating this quandary, the first thing they should consider is intention. If the intention is self-involved, it is performative. If the intention is to spread accurate information and resources in a way that benefits a movement, that would be deemed as genuine advocacy. BHS students need to practice self-reflection when working to differentiate these two actions.
Advocacy doesn’t stop once you turn off your phone, those issues don’t disappear as you mindlessly switch from Instagram to TikTok. Online activism is a crucial part of mobilizing movements, but without proper reflection, it can become just another way to exploit real-world injustices for personal gain.