Performative activism: how not to go about social media advocacy

by Charlotte Siohan, Staff Writer

In the era of social media, it has become increasingly common for users to utilize their platforms in offering support for various movements and causes. After the tragic death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer, many people turned to social media to spread awareness for the Black Lives Matter movement, and it seems that this has become a pattern in recent years. Following tragic events or situations, social media platforms become flooded with resources and messages in reaction to injustice or hardship. While the vast majority of users shedding light on important issues are well-intentioned and eager to make change, some users take advantage of these issues to promote their own platforms under a facade of allyship which is hugely ingenuine.

I first became disillusioned with the efforts of public figures to spread awareness or positivity during the coronavirus pandemic. Actress Gal Gadot enlisted the vocals of many fellow celebrities in a collaborative cover of John Lennon’s “Imagine”, which came across as painfully tone-deaf and insensitive despite its effort to be moving. The wealthy Hollywood stars in the video clearly had a disconnect with the economic hardship that many faced and continue to face amid the outbreak, as they sang “imagine no possessions” in their million-dollar homes. Some may think the figures were showing compassion and empathy for those struggling during a difficult time, but in reality they have no authority on these issues and should not feel compelled to lecture or provide a false sense of security as they are in a place of extreme privilege and wealth. 

When I had the displeasure of watching this video myself, I wondered if it was all for publicity- instead of quietly opening their wallets to support those facing economic instability, Gadot and her friends, who were mostly weak singers, posted an obnoxious video on Instagram. It became an instance of performative activism that greatly opened my eyes.

Recently, a PSA video of similar distaste spread over the internet showing celebrities supporting Black Lives Matter and denouncing racism, for the campaign #ITakeResponsibility. While the cause is important and their intentions seem solid, the video of celebrities in black-and-white evidently reading from a script over somber music lacked authenticity and awareness. I’ll commend the stars for spreading a meaningful message opposed to performing a cover of a song, but the video truly missed the mark regardless. These celebrities have massive platforms and instead of using them to share their own words and thoughts on racism and police brutality, they read off a dialogue that was seemingly written for them without their own personal voices being expressed. Again, a donation to a good cause would have been more considerate, instead of manipulating a dark situation into an opportunity to perform and feign morality.

Performative activism is a disease plaguing not only celebrities and influencers, but many social media users across the board. According to Pew Research Center, 53 percent of U.S. adults in 2018 engaged in political or social-minded activity on social media that year. This could mean they took part in a group on social media that supported a specific cause, encouraged others on social media to take action on important issues, looked up information for protests or rallies on social media, or engaged in other similar activities. I can only imagine that this percentage has increased since 2018. I am confident that many of these people engage in these activities with genuine support and care for issues and movements around them, but in general social media has transformed how we engage in activism. It is effortless to use a hashtag or repost a picture to appear woke, but users must understand that doing so is not enough to support a cause and is not a sign of honest support. 

It has become clear that some users promoting a movement on social media do not continue that support in their daily lives or through their actions. Videos have circulated over the internet of protesters posing for pictures and holding up signs, then promptly leaving and going home to post. On the other hand, some activists protest, donate, or sign petitions to show support, and remain silent on social media. This is where social media activism becomes complicated. 

Personally, I fear that if I do not use my social media accounts to show allyship with certain causes, people may falsely jump to the conclusion that I don’t care. But if I do post, I worry that I am making a movement into a trend and being performative. So, do I post, or stay silent?

I faced this dilemma on June 2. On this day, known as Blackout Tuesday, users posted black squares on Instagram to show solidarity with those protesting for Black Lives Matter in response to the death of George Floyd. It was originally planned as a day for the music industry to be silent on social media and not release any music as well. I chose not to post that day in solidarity with the movement, but I did not post a black square. I had seen some artists and activists claim the black squares were performative and counterproductive, and drowned out important posts with information regarding protests. In an effort to not be performative, I feared that I was at the same time not doing enough. 

This made me understand the complexity surrounding performative activism. Performative activists take away from the meaning of a movement and hinder its growth. Social media is naturally performative, but this is no excuse for making important movements into trends that come and go depending on when they are most relevant. Performative activism has such a negative connotation that it has made users like me afraid to post my support in fear of appearing fake. There is only one solution: stop worrying about how you come across on social media, and start taking action in real life. Whether you choose to post or not post, do not equate posting with supporting. They are not the same.