Social media can be a powerful tool to spread awareness of critical issues, from climate change to Black Lives Matter. In recent months, however, I’ve questioned the intention behind some people’s social justice-related posts. Are these trends merely performative, or are the folks sharing them also doing behind-the-scenes work to make a difference?
According to Forbes, over 28 million people posted a black square on Instagram in June with the caption #blackouttuesday in response to the killing of George Floyd. Since then, many teens have turned to social media to express their support for the Black Lives Matter movement and to encourage others to do the same. There have been countless memes, videos, news updates and images shared across social media platforms with the hashtag #blacklivesmatter. I personally can’t help but wonder how effective these strategies are with respect to actually changing the hearts and minds of people who don’t support racial justice.
Spreading awareness is, of course, the first step to solving a problem, but I don’t believe reposting an image or a video is a very effective way of helping these causes. Social media seems to have filled the role of advocacy that previously involved gathering facts from reputable sources and self-reflection followed by political action. While I’m sure many people sharing these sentiments online are also doing real work, like donating to Black-led organizations and having difficult conversations with family and friends, I also know there are many who simply post to Instagram and do nothing else. This performative activism helps no one; in fact, the insincerity of it can be just as callous and dangerous as injustice itself.
I recognize social media can be used appropriately as a tool for organizing protests, rallies, meetings and providing people with links to places they can donate. However, I would caution people not to use social media as their primary news source because anyone can say anything on social media whether it is or isn’t true.
I also believe social media is ineffective in solving real world problems, in part because it gives these problems a lifetime only as long as our attention spans. Social media was designed for surface entertainment, not substantive issues like social justice. I’m concerned that BLM will lose momentum because it will fail to outlive the formula engineered by app makers for entertainment purposes. Racial justice does not — or, at least should not — pertain to entertainment, so I think we should abandon these platforms as the grounds for voicing opinions about these types of issues.
I would also encourage people who post about these issues online to make sure they’re also challenging their own privileges and ideals when no one is watching. Ultimately, it’s best we work to address injustice in the real world, not strictly on our screens.
Politicians are not viewing teens’ Snapchat stories or Instagram posts. If we want to change the legal and political systems that oppress people of color, we have to do it in part by changing laws. We have to draft bills and hold politicians accountable for enforcing laws that have already been enacted. The recent protests have built a good foundation because they showed politicians that their constituents feel strongly about ending racism.
Now that we have their attention, let’s use it for what we have been campaigning for on social media: justice. It’s time to log off and take action.