Over the last decade activism has slowly moved from the ‘IRL’ to the online. The last year has seen both an unparalleled rise in political discontent and historic restrictions on the ability to organise in person. As a result, the years-long trend towards online activism has accelerated exponentially. If you’re a person who has used the internet at any point in the last year, you’ve inevitably seen black squares, Instagram infographics and links to petitions posted on social media — you may have even posted some yourself.
While in-person activism is irreplaceable, the potential of online activism can’t be under-stated. The power given to us through social media:- the ability to reach thousands of people across the world in minutes without leaving your desk is incredible — that is, if used correctly. There has been some genuinely impressive online organising that has taken place over the last year, but too often it has felt as though many people’s attempts at online activism have done more to virtue signal than they have to change minds.
The now infamous black squares are a perfect example of this. Originally used within the music industry as a symbol to show that an artist was abstaining from releasing music on June 2nd 2020 in solidarity with Black people killed by police, the black square quickly became co-opted by the masses. Millions posted the solid black square under the hashtags #BLM and #BlackLivesMatter. Soon, these hashtags — which had been used to share information about how to help the movement — became overwhelmed with black squares; making it harder for people to find the information needed.
While many undoubtedly posted the black square, and/or BLM-related infographics, with good intentions, many others did so performatively; as a way to signal their ‘wokeness’ without having to actually go out of their way to help the Black Lives Matter movement. Meanwhile, some on social media who proclaimed themselves as “activists” in support of BLM, showed a startling lack of willingness to do anything of significance to advance their cause. When well-meaning, but largely uninformed, social media users would ask good-faith questions about racism, police brutality and, injustice in general, a common retort would simply be “Google it”. The rise in fringe conspiracies over the last year shows how incredibly dangerous this approach is: when people are left to simply “Google it”, they often fall into rabbit holes of misinformation and bigotry.
As useful as social media can be to share helpful resources, change minds and organise mass-action it can easily be used to replace genuinely helpful activism with lazy virtue signalling
The most frustrating thing however about the last year of online activism is how much the bar has been lowered for celebrity activism. In the wake of the Derek Chauvin verdict last week, many high-profile celebrities began to share an infographic from the ‘@soyouwanttotalkabout’ Instagram account. The five slide Insta-graphic re-stated the charges Chauvin had been found guilty of, included a commitment to “never stop saying” George Floyd’s name and added “This is not justice. This is accountability. Chauvin is where we start. The whole system is next”.
There was nothing inaccurate or misleading in the Insta-graphic (which is more than you can say for many such graphics), but it was hard to see celebrities sharing this post without thinking “really? Is this really the best you can do?” In comparison to what could be done if these celebrities dedicated some of their resources and enormous wealth to the cause of racial justice, the sharing of these graphics felt so meaningless. It seemed less like a genuine attempt to help and more like a lazy way to maintain a façade of concern.
This ultimately is the danger of social media. As useful as it can be to share helpful resources, change minds and organise mass-action it can just as easily (if not even more easily) be used to replace genuinely helpful activism with lazy virtue signalling. The response of many on social media after the George Floyd killing — to post Black squares and angry Tweets and BLM hashtags, but then to quickly move on with life as normal — is emblematic of this. Rapper, and activist, Killer Mike expressed this best on the anti-racism anthem ‘Walking In The Snow’, released just days after the Floyd killing, when he said “The most you give’s a Twitter rant and call it a tragedy / But truly the travesty is you’ve been robbed of your empathy / Replaced it with apathy.”