June 13, 2020 by Firinne Rolfe and Julia McDermott
Social media activism is not a one-size-fits-all situation. There are numerous ways individuals can express their opinions and advocate for change using social media platforms, although it is unclear how effective they can be.
The recent protests reveal the multifaceted role of social media in political activism. In the wake of yet another killing of an innocent, unarmed black man by a white police officer in the United States, waves of uproar shot through social media. Soon, Instagram was flooded with countless heartwarming and inspiring ‘How to Help’ and ‘Black Lives Matter’ posts. Then came #blackouttuesday, where social media users posted black screens in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and in an effort to silence superficial posts and highlight activism. But how many people who posted black squares actually knew why they were posting it? We both posted one. It seemed like we were doing the right thing because we were also signing petitions, speaking up in our everyday lives, and educating ourselves about ingrained racism and oppression in our society. After all, this was the true intention behind #blackouttuesday.
It is easy to overthink when trying to decide whether to post something or not. Many questions arise: Why can I preach when I’m far from perfect? I know a bit but what if I don’t know enough about what I’m talking about? WHY am I doing this? Some are paralyzed by the fear of taking part in performative activism, activism with the purpose of increasing one's social capital rather than furthering the cause, that it turns them away from posting about social issues because they don’t feel ‘worthy’ to address them.
On one hand, a meaningless repost is just that, meaningless. Social media activism should not be a way to show the world that you’re a good person. We often shy away from reposting important activism posts because we’ve already seen them on a million other stories. What difference is our one post going to do? What will it accomplish other than show our values to our followers?
On the other hand, at least it’s something. It may accomplish 0.0001% of the end goal but it’s better than nothing. Maybe one person will get informed. Maybe one person will sign a petition. And that makes a difference, even if it’s a small one. In addition, social media movements would not be movements if no one is reposting. In some ways, a mass of black squares seems to accomplish very little, especially when they come from people who don’t understand the point. However, a feed full of black squares sends a message of solidarity. And that message matters.
A movement cannot set sail with only one person at the helm. Every single person involved must do their part to contribute to the bigger picture. That being said, in order for social media activism to have an authentic effect, it must be done with legitimate intentions. Individuals cannot simply post for likes and for respect from peers.
There are many ways we can work toward change and all of them collectively contribute to the final goal. The protestor yelling in the streets is important. The person spreading petitions is important, as are the people signing them. The government official who must work within the system is important. The voter is important. Maybe even the people who post are important, even the ones who are not sure what they’re doing. If people do truly care about the issues they post about, there are a million steps that are needed to create true change beyond Instagram. Instead of worrying about what people posted about and why, we should focus on the other ways to facilitate change. If you take one thing away from this article, let it be that every action counts -- no matter how small. However, do not let your pursuit of positive attention come between the true meaning of your actions. Go that extra step and do the work.
Julia McDermott ('21) and Firinne Rolfe ('21) are Senior Editors at SPR and Politics Club's 2020-2021 heads.