If you have been on Instagram in the last year, you have most likely seen a trend emerge amongst Instagram stories. In between swipes of brunch boomerangs and selfies, Instagram stories have been revolutionized in a way to depict social issues.
Instagram activism varies, but all have a sort of formula that has led to their success. They usually have an eye-catching headline, a series of facts and resources for further learning, and of course – they are almost always aesthetically pleasing.
These trendy infographics gained traction during the rise of the BLM movement following the tragic death of George Floyd. During this moment in history, Gen-Z and millennials alike found a way to contribute to the cause by educating their friends and family – and this education took place through social media. Within a week, Instagram stories were a frenzy of pastel-coloured calls-to-action and beautiful art depicting the collective frustration of the Black community and allies alike.
For most people, this use of Instagram was a positive change for the platform. Now, almost a year later, and using your account for social justice issues is in a way, the new normal. Young people continue to repost educational resources or graphics about a variety of issues that they deem deeply important: conflict in the Middle East, the American Election, and political turmoil in South America. Teenagers and young adults alike shared resources to recognize their microaggressions and expand their knowledge of the current social climate.
But unsurprisingly, Instagram’s turn to politics is not beloved by everyone. The app usually used to stalk the Kardashians and post your TBTs is strongly divided amongst multiple lines. For one, addressing complicated issues that have centuries of history can be difficult to explain over a screen. This, coupled with the fact that any space that opens up to political conversations will rarely stay entirely productive, means that Instagram quickly became a platform full of debates and tension. Whether it was someone disagreeing with you on a political stance, or simply berating the use of social media accounts for such serious issues, the positive outcomes of the activism occurring on the app felt overshadowed by the controversy.
There are genuine concerns about online activism. Celebrities were quick to show their support for BLM, and yet their following actions fell flat. Many felt that simply reposting a powerpoint when you have millions of dollars you could contribute to a gofundme or the NAACP was just a marketing move. The #blackouttuesday trend in support for the movement was heavily criticized for not having a real outcomes. Humans so often forget how easy words are to speak out into existence — and how hard it is for these words to become concrete actions. And just like overlined lips and bucket hats, any trend that our generation sees a celebrity boast becomes our new normal. So it is expected that those more cynical see these pretty slideshows being posted in between selfies and disposable dumps as more of an act than true action.
Are people ridding themselves of actual social responsibility by reposting a “links to learn more” page? The sad reality is that the social pressure of being judged can outweigh actual passion about a cause, and we are left with young influencers posting about a variety of issues without ever reading more than the headline. In an age where our social media posts are taken as reality, it is a fair concern that naive teenagers may get in the habit that clicking “share to story” is enough. We are constantly finding ways to rid ourselves of moral guilt — are these infographics acting as checkmarks for which of your friends are woke, and which aren’t?
Moreover, there is a growing pressure to share — one that seemingly supersedes the requirement to truly care, or be educated on an issue. Critics complain that certain people take it too far, sharing stories that may not be 100% factually correct simply because they do not want their silence to be seen as disapproval.
However, I also want to appeal to the cynics out there who feel frustrated about the performative activism that arises out of these picture-perfect carousels; is it not a positive step in the right direction?
I would much rather have my younger peers grow up on Instagram that encourages education rather than ignorance. The mind behind the uber-popular account Soyouwanttotalkabout, Jess, has described her goal as wanting to simplify topics that are so complicated they feel inaccessible and incomprehensible to budding activists. Her account covers a variety of issues from racism to electoral politics, without making viewers feel like they need a 4-year politics degree to understand the topic at hand. What Jess is doing highlights how social media lends itself to accessibility —which is crucial for young people who are not fostered in environments where such issues as racism or sexism are discussed at length. This allows young people, who know there is so much that needs changing in our world, to recognize the deeply embedded and multi-faceted problems around them.
Moreover, to speak to the valid criticism that this trend forces young, uneducated people to make a public statement on complex social issues — we should also not be encouraging silence in the trade of seeking knowledge. I will be the first to say that no one should feel pressured to post anything on social media that they do not want to. On the flip side of this virtual coin, I also deeply believe that this culture of “staying out of it” is what has allowed so many issues to have a long life span. If you feel like you do not have enough knowledge to repost an issue… that may be a key sign that you could benefit from reading said issue.
So, there are two parts to this conundrum of whether or not to repost. On one hand, the pressure to take a stance on certain issues leads to uneducated people posting just to be “in” on a trend. And once again, it would be inherently ignorant of anyone to not give credit to the change that has been achieved through Instagram activism. The BLM movement gained incredible attention and while there is a long way to go in the battle against institutional racism, there was more pressure than ever on politicians to commit to racial justice. It is undeniable that this revolutionary use of social media for social change is a beacon of light amongst the fluff that Instagram is usually ridden with. You don’t have to make your Instagram political if you truly do not wish to, but you also cannot deny the pros that come with taking such action. So how can we reconcile our desire to share important issues with our friends and family while avoiding the slippery slope of performative activism?
Yes, you may feel like you understand an issue because truly, these Instagram accounts do a great job at outlining pressing topics. And yes, reading about these tragic news stories can be emotionally draining and time-consuming. No one is obliging you to spend every waking hour reading the news and browsing through history books. If you want to avoid falling into the trap of fake activism, the best we can expect our generation to do is try to educate ourselves on the stories behind the pretty pictures.
And maybe, just maybe, the quest for social change can effectively transition from our screens to real life.