Wednesday, September 27, 2023
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Social Media Has Encouraged Misinformation and Performative Activism

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Social media is notorious for being the impetus of many trends in beauty, lifestyle and fashion. However, people rarely consider the impact of social media on social justice movements.

Social media activism” is usually achieved by the propagation of hashtags, brand campaigns and aesthetic infographic posts, according to Internet Matters. This form of activism became especially prevalent in 2020 with the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, but it dates back to the early 2010s with the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street movements. COVID-19 has been linked to the recent influx of social media activism. A University of Connecticut study showed that 70% of respondents’ social media usage increased during the pandemic. 

While the prolific use of social media has been beneficial in spreading awareness about social causes, it has also negatively redefined the meaning of activism. “Performative activism” causes users to participate in popular activist movements in an attempt to increase their social standing rather than out of genuine concern. With the constant resharing of infographics and posts, users often feel compelled to follow suit to fit in. This ignites a vicious cycle of the invalidation, exploitation and commodification of real-world issues and people. 

It has become an all too regular occurrence for social media’s fight for justice to die down as soon as the media coverage of an activist movement dies. The only people that continue fighting for the cause are those directly affected.

Using social media as a source of information regarding social justice movements promotes careless media consumption rather than independent research. This effect can be widespread, considering that 56% of Americans share or repost political articles on social media, and 53% of Americans obtain their news “sometimes” or “often” from social media. Americans gaining most of their news from social media during an influx of performative activism could lead to misinformation, a narrow perception of worldwide issues and a skewed understanding of what they should do to help.

The most prominent example is the black square trend that occurred during the BLM movement where social media users changed their profile pictures to a black square and posted a black screen with the caption “#BlackOutTuesday.” This well-intended effort to show support for the movement after the murder of George Floyd turned into a wide-scale activist performance with adverse effects. 

Rather than uplifting black voices and providing resources to aid BLM, this hashtag muffled them with 24 million black squares. Participating in this trend did more harm than good as it silenced activists and redirected attention away from vital information. A similar occurrence took place in 2021 with a blue square against antisemitism prompted by the Israel-Gaza conflict. It is evident that this poor method of activism is becoming increasingly popular. 

From June to September of 2020, support for BLM dropped from 67% to 55%. It was also around this time that users reverted their profile pictures to selfies and deleted the black screen posted months prior that disrupted their feed’s desired aesthetic. At the height of the BLM movement, users didn’t mind this contrast as it matched those of everyone else on the internet. When the trend began to fade, so did the original fervor that took the internet by storm.

The mindless reposting of a square requires substantially less work than critically researching a specific injustice. This logic also applies to the common Instagram story templates with captions reading, “[r]epost if you are against rape! I can see if [you] skipped.” 

Ignorant and harmful rhetoric invalidates real-world issues and dehumanizes the impacted groups. Promoting advocacy in this manner encourages inauthentic, performative activism, which discredits the issue as a whole.

Online activism also enables corporations to pose as allies to certain groups while actively hindering their progress. A 2021 Guardian article found that various conglomerates — Walmart, Amazon, Home Depot and AT&T — each donated over $400,000 to politicians who opposed the Equality Act that ensures the LGBTQ+ community legal protection from discrimination. Despite this, they still boast their Pride campaigns with various rainbow-coated products and profit from this exploitation.

All of this is not to ignore the fact that social media has been an impetus for widespread awareness. In 2014, many users’ feeds were flooded with videos of “the ice bucket challenge,” where people dumped buckets of ice water on their or someone else’s heads. The ALS Association did this to raise awareness for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. With the help of this trend, they managed to garner plenty of attention and $115 million in donations. 

Considering 90% of the U.S. population uses social media daily, this method is practical for giving a platform to the voices of those being actively affected by an issue. For example, the #MeToo movement spurred an abundance of attention toward the claims made by sexual violence survivors. This resulted in a widespread revaluation of gender inequalities and power dynamics in Hollywood and society alike. 

Since social media activism has the potential to invoke positive change, we must direct our focus toward preventing performative activism.

When speaking out against social injustices online, it’s vital to be intentional. For example, reposting the BLM black square could be a symbol of allyship, or it could be done for fear of looking like a bad person. The latter is counterproductive to activism as a whole. 

Generally, posts with resources tend to be more productive. Ensuring that an infographic reposted to your profile contains sources is a great way to fight the spread of misinformation. Helpful posts contain resources such as petitions, charities to donate to, templates of letters to write to government officials and protests to attend that spread a movement’s message. 

Additionally, finding daily opportunities to speak out on issues you are passionate about is another way to counter performative activism. This can be done through volunteer work, internships, writing essays or simply having critical discussions with friends and family on the matter.

True activism comes from a pure intent to challenge a specific injustice in the world. Social media rarely promotes authentic and intentional activism. However, being more mindful and acknowledging all the shortcomings of social media activism can result in a more conscientious and widespread impact on the causes we care about. 

Trista Lara is an Opinion Intern for the spring 2023 quarter. She can be reached at