“Why aren’t we talking about this?” It feels like every time I open Instagram, at least one person’s story has an Impact infographic or news article about a trending national or global crisis paired with that caption. The thing is, people usually talk about pressing issues. The reason we feel that an issue is not being talked about enough is that it hasn’t yet become part of a trend on social media where people repost popular infographics, feel they’ve made a positive change and then don’t talk about it again when the popular outrage eventually dies out. The crisis becomes one of many that follow this trend.
As we all know, social media breeds an environment of trends. It feels like ever since 2020, activism has become a trend of its own. We all remember the widespread outrage that followed the murder of George Floyd, leading to an online uproar in support of the Black Lives Matter Movement. This quickly became a trend, as I’m sure we can all recall #BlackOutTuesday — the posting of a black square meant to amplify black voices, yet managing to drown them out with about 24 million black squares. Between June and September of 2020, support for BLM dropped from 67 percent to 55 percent, which suggests that BLM was seen as a phase or a trend, for many people who voiced their support online.
Don’t get me wrong — using social media as a platform to spread awareness for pressing issues and inform others is certainly a step in the right direction and can begin important conversations and effectively unite people over social justice issues. In 2020, about one-third of social media users reported utilizing social media platforms to show support for a cause, look up local protests and encourage others to take action.
Social media can be a great way to make people care about social justice movements. Treating social justice movements as mere trends, on the other hand, is not. Performative activism is rampant on social media, and rather than amplifying the experiences of people suffering, it uses them as a means to follow a trend, taking away from the actual issue at hand. 76 percent of Americans agree, saying that social media makes people believe they are contributing to change when they really aren’t. Furthermore, trending activism on social media may encourage people to post about social justice issues that they associate with but are not very knowledgeable about. This makes it easy for people to believe that they are making a difference by reposting a heavily circulated infographic. However, real progress requires much more.
Activists devote their lives to raising awareness and influencing change. Obviously, it is not reasonable to expect every single person who posts an infographic from Impact to be organizing protests and GoFundMe pages. That being said, genuine social media activism is supported by concrete actions and measurable commitments to change. Nonprofits on social media can utilize fundraising campaigns, promote events and share stories. When done correctly, activism on social media can be a powerful tool to inspire change. Without offline actions, however, posting an infographic is not actually making a significant contribution to the cause, and seems to make people think they are making a difference that is more significant than it truly is.
Furthermore, the issues that are often spread around like trends are heavily oversimplified, stripping complex social justice issues of their significance by reducing them to a few short slides on an Instagram post. To develop an informed stance about the true depth of a crisis, it is important to have a grasp on the political, historical and cultural standing of the issue, which takes time and is certainly much more difficult than reposting an Instagram story. (4) It is easy to take a stance on an issue that is summed up by a few bullet points, which only takes away from the real-life implications and experiences of impacted people.
Another noteworthy observation is that we don’t really confirm that all the information on infographics is legitimate. Sometimes they do include sources, but how many people actually fact-check an infographic that takes mere seconds to repost? There is certainly a potential for misinformation, as controversial topics may entice people to spread information that may be skewed, censored or altered by people from different political parties and opposing sides of a given issue. Social justice issues being perceived as a trend would only further this, as spreading infographics like wildfire only spreads misinformation in the same way.
When it comes down to it, there is no real way of knowing whether someone who posts an infographic on their story is participating in performative activism. This is why it is important to remind ourselves that real change requires much more. Cycling through social justice issues as if they are trends is counterproductive and does not promote substantial changes. To combat social justice issues as trends, we must reflect on the reason why we are reposting that infographic that has been circulating on our peers’ stories.
Molly Rudden is a sophomore majoring in philosophy, politics and law.