Instagram, when it was founded almost exactly a decade ago, was intended for the sole purpose of curating and sharing the parts of your life that could be captured through a camera lens. However, over the past several months, the fundamental purpose of Instagram has evolved from a platform where you simply share what you are doing to one where you also share what you choose to believe in. We have entered a new epoch in Instagram culture — where Canva graphics enumerating why you should care about [insert socio-political subject] are just as common, if not more so, than selfies. And, for the most part, I think that is extraordinary.
This shift on Instagram was catalyzed at the end of May, when the murder of George Floyd made national news, and the dire need for large-scale antiracist education and literacy was made clear as ever. With public education systems having proven themselves incapable of addressing this need, countless young activists took it upon themselves to create and share satisfactory educational resources. Instagram was the primary avenue through which these resources were shared, and via features like Instagram Stories, many of them went viral.
I, personally, have gained a lot from the activism efforts that take place on Instagram; I have saved countless posts containing antiracist resources that I regularly reference, and I have signed petitions and donated to funds that I frankly would not have heard of without the platform. On a larger scale, the petition demanding justice for George Floyd is approaching 20 million signatures as of Oct. 24, and the petition for Breonna Taylor is approaching 11 and a half million. This level of engagement on Change.org is unprecedented — Floyd’s petition currently stands as the most signed one on the site — and the successful use of Instagram as a tool for mobilization rightfully takes a lot of the credit for this.
It is phenomenal that we are recognizing how our Instagram accounts are legitimate platforms that we can utilize to drive a more educated, compassionate and empowered generation. However, since this collective recognition happened so quickly, the sort of “social media activism” that Instagram now hosts possesses several flaws that inhibit productivity and have the potential to deeply harm the very movements that we are trying to contribute to. Through this article, I hope to not only articulate these flaws, but also suggest possible steps that can be taken to dissolve them.
Firstly, we must acknowledge the platform’s proclivity toward spreading misinformation at an alarmingly high rate. It is well understood that social media platforms have always favored short-form, attention-grabbing content. Because of this, the resources that social media activists develop are generally light on text, with large headlines, simple graphics and a bright color scheme. However, unfortunately, this “criteria” for what an activist’s post should look like in order to go viral sometimes leads to the extreme oversimplification of complex issues, failure to consider certain situations in the correct context or even complete misrepresentation through hyperbole. Several “call-to-action” type posts have also been exposed as scams; many take the form of “Like this post and we will donate X amount to charity,” but do not name specifics and never post proof of their donations.
We know firsthand how an inaccurate understanding of the world can harm society; attempting to remedy the information gaps and misrepresentations perpetuated by our institutions was a huge reason why social media activism was deemed necessary in the first place. Therefore, we should be careful not to engage with isolated examples of inaccurate information, as this could quickly delegitimize Instagram as a platform for activism. The incredible traction Instagram activism has gained would be horribly stunted if everything shared on the platform, especially by young people who do not already have an established following, was automatically deemed untrustworthy. To avoid this, it is essential that everyday users of the app only repost resources on topics that they have a sufficient understanding of outside the app. This way, factually incorrect or oversimplified information will not be rewarded with high engagement, and content creators will practice higher levels of discretion. It should also be common practice to provide citations for facts presented in educational posts; this way, at least some of the skepticism from viewers about misinformation can be quelled. Avoiding small inaccuracies will also be invaluable in guaranteeing that people can not invalidate an entire post by “straw-man”-ing one minor blip. A great initial filter to go through when deciding whether or not to repost something is to look into who created the content, and where they stand in relation to the groups that they are trying to advocate for. All of the inaccurate or misleading information I have stumbled across on Instagram has been created by someone who is not a part of the group that is directly affected by the post’s topic (for example, a post I recently read incorrectly describing the accessibility to birth control pills in certain states was written by a cisgender man).
There are also posts that are created under the guise of “activism,” but are not productive and simply capitalize on the attention-grabbing nature of Instagram. Examples of this include hackneyed quotes drawn in an “aesthetic” way, or perhaps a black blank square under the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag. These posts are effectively useless, and do little more than distract from resources and efforts that are actually productive. When the “Blackout Tuesday” trend took place in early June, the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag was flooded with blank black squares, and users who normally found antiracist resources through this hashtag were unable to for a very long time. After this trend was recognized as harmful, people tried to reverse its effects by encouraging others to use the #BlackoutTuesday hashtag instead of the #BlackLivesMatter one. This was extremely helpful; however, a lot of damage had already been done. It is instances like this when the disingenuous intentions of some social media activists start to harmfully dilute the impact of the entire movement. Instagram, for many people, has always been inherently performative; it is a platform that is designed to let you curate an ideal life projection, after all. Nothing on the platform is immune to this performativity, activism included. However, I do not think that this is a reason to write it off entirely. Instead, this is another issue that can be mitigated by fending off the trigger-happy nature of that “Post to Story” button and thinking intentionally about the effectiveness of a resource before sharing it with your network. Because the nature of Instagram is inherently multiplicative, and many of the solely “performative” Instagram activists only repost content that the people they follow repost, this could be an easy way to avoid the virality of unproductive content on Instagram, and shift the spotlight onto the resources and voices that are a better use of people’s attention and energy.
This brings me to my last point: the energy that you can allocate to movements is limited, and social media is not always going to be the best place for it. During a year that has been as tumultuous as this one, bad news in the world has been largely inescapable. Major news outlets surprise us every day with new stomach-dropping headlines, and now our Instagram Story feeds are also largely dedicated to outlining various issues in the world and what we should be doing to solve them. The social media fatigue that can result from constantly being fed this information is completely justified, especially when there is an expectation to repost and share some of this content yourself. Many of my friends, including ones that are not necessarily at the forefront of these activist movements, have cited feeling burnt out, like there is too much to learn, and in need of a break from social media.
This is a difficult situation. On one hand, everyone has a certain responsibility to use their platform, no matter how small, to help amplify marginalized voices and educate their peers. However, at the same time, people interact with social media in different ways and it is unrealistic for anyone to post about every single issue that is worth learning about. I do not think that not posting about something means you do not care about it, just like how I do not think that posting about something means you do care about it. The core responsibility that everyone has is to cultivate a general understanding of the various systemic injustices in the world, and conduct themselves in a way that actively works to dismantle them. This does not have to include posting on social media. In fact, a lot of this work is quiet: reading up on topics that you do not fully understand, correcting someone when they use problematic language around you or donating to funds that you hear about if you have the financial capacity to do so. We only have so much energy and if the activism on social media is going to result in an unusually high “energy spent” to “productivity” ratio, then I encourage you to conduct your activism through a different avenue that will be more effective. What matters is doing the work for the movements that you care about and educating yourself and others; Instagram can be a tool you use to do that, but it does not have to be. Especially if you think engaging in a certain type of activism is not going to be sustainable for you in the long run, I encourage you to find an approach which you can honestly commit to for a long-term journey of advocacy and education. True systemic change takes a lot of time; engaging in short term or incidental activism alone will never be enough.
Social media is an exceptionally powerful tool and its utilization by activists has, for the most part, been extremely effective in education and mobilization. However, we must exercise extreme caution as we decide how the culture of Instagram activism will evolve from here. That is the only way we can ensure its momentum is sustained.