Is performative activism impeding the progress of the civil rights movement?

Social media has always had its fair share of social justice and digital activism. Yet, for many, June 2020 was the first time that their own personal corner of the internet opened up to a flood of content educating people on “Recognising White Privilege” and “Tackling Institutional Racism”. Instagram, which was once recognised as an apolitical den of holiday photos, clubbing scenes and lockdown photoshoots, saw a huge shift in the type of content shared. Friends, influencers and brands worked to transform their platforms into a point of change. However, it is easy to question the authenticity of this uprising. Was the internet’s involvement in the Black Lives Matter cause influential or performative? 

The most recent and notable debate surrounding performative activism on social media came after the death of George Floyd last year. The world mourned and flocked to social media to flood feeds and newspapers with infographics, black squares and heartfelt captions expressing solidarity and recognition of their own white privilege. Books educating people of white privilege and anti-racism such as “Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race” and “White Fragility” sold out online and skyrocketed to No.1 bestsellers. Outside the bubble of the internet, protesters flooded the streets in solidarity of the Civil Rights Movement. 

The fact that people took time to educate themselves on the ongoing civil rights movement well into the 21st century, does seem to be something to celebrate. However, it also raises an important question – was social media the catalyst needed to encourage people to look inwards, or did it actually hinder the cause? 

Just days after the murder of George Floyd, the internet took it upon themselves to enact BlackOutTuesday; initially intended to be a 24-hour social media blackout in which people would step back and educate themselves on issues regarding Black Lives Matter whilst also showing solidarity with the cause. However, many people soon also began sharing black screens on their social media with a few reflective comments. Whilst initially well-intentioned, in reality, BlackOutTuesday was arguably more of a hindrance than a help to the cause. The surplus of black screens captioned #BlackLivesMatter, unintentionally flooded the tag with black squares, essentially erasing all the educational content that had been shared there. This meant that those actively seeking out information and guidance in the hashtag were met with empty messages of solidarity from strangers instead of information that may aid them in making real change. As BlackOutTuesday came and went, posts were removed and normal life on social media returned. However, it is difficult to know if people actually took the time on BlackOutTuesday to educate themselves. Movements like this can turn solidarity into a virtual trend, and leads us to question if people are posting to avoid appearing apathetic amongst peers who are posting and not because of actual care or understanding of the issue. 

This isn’t to say that a lot of the support for the Black Lives Matter movement on social media wasn’t well intentioned with a range of positive impacts. Using social media in activism is an easy and accessible way to educate people on issues the national curriculum unfortunately usually ignores. It provides digestible and understandable breakdowns of the complexities of racial injustice and activism and is a simple but effective way to explain issues to the average person. It is also a great way to spread awareness to budding activists looking to get more involved as it often provides information on how to protest, whilst also shining a light upon issues many non-black people may have been unaware of. The uproar on social media did lead to action being taken, as people donated to bail funds charities, purchased educational books, spent time reflecting on how to do better and fought for the arrest of Derek Chauvin. There is also evidence to suggest that social media had an impactful influence on the progression of the civil rights movement and fight for justice for George Floyd in June 2020 with NBC News reporting that “The Brooklyn Community Bail Fund received $1.8 million in 24 hours after a tweet encouraged others to give”. 

However, there is a dark side to social media activism. Whilst creating, sharing and resharing educational content is well intentioned, how many infographics can one consume before they become numb to the endless scrolling? What is supposed to be a movement for real social change can soon become the infographic olympics. The most popular and reshared infographics also tend to be aesthetically pleasing, pastel-coloured posts with minimal text. The issue can become impersonal and distracted as people are no longer sharing due to outrage but to involve themselves in the trend of resharing the most well designed infographics, which in turn just commodifies activism. Sharing a post intended to educate is a helpful start but posting online is not a substitute for personal and real-world action. Internet-based accessible activism is a dangerous stepping stone to people feeling as though they are making a difference without doing anything impactful which hinders the Civil Rights Movement further. 

It is also important to comment on the commodification of activism by large corporations. This type of performative activism is arguably the most damaging to the Civil Rights Movement. A company can post cute informative content and share educational books on their social media platforms but behind their slick social media strategy are other actions that speak for themselves. Spring 2020 saw corporations and performative activists turning ‘Black Lives Matter’ into a slogan and an advertisement to make money. Businesses such as Nike declared their intentions to make a $40 million commitment to the black community in the United States as their way of aiding the Civil Rights Movement, whilst simultaneously marketing overpriced, unethically made shoes to young black communities who are unable to afford them. 

The realm of performative activism is a complex web. On the one hand, social media was a driving factor in bringing worldwide attention to the murder of George Floyd and the fight against the institutional racism that has long been ignored in the police force. However, 18 months on from the sea of black squares and infographics it seems that these trends and fads had little benefit to the Civil Rights Movement as a whole. Despite this, is performative activism still better than no activism at all? 

Header Image Credit: Pixabay