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The Paladin

Furman University's Student Newspaper

The Paladin

Furman University's Student Newspaper

The Paladin

When Virtues go Virtual: Unmasking Activism’s Theatrical Side

As activism becomes increasingly digital, do we have the right motives behind our reposting? 
Claudio Schwarz \\ Unsplash

What does posting on your Instagram about a political issue really do for the cause? 

Sometimes we fail to ask ourselves this question, as we seek instead to know, “What will reposting this graphic tell others about me?”

In an increasingly polarized world, we seem to witness more and more activism over social media for various causes, many of them with noble objectives. But many who repost and create graphics do so on behalf of themselves, in pursuit of back-patting from their peers rather than helping the causes. 

As with much of our posting on social media, we are often motivated by the social approval that we believe can come from posting the right kind of political content. We want to be seen as engaged rather than detached from issues others seem to care about.

Lauren Ashe writes in Vox Atlanta, “In a world where ‘being woke’ has become both a trend and a competition, many people feel inclined to show off their so-called wokeness in order to present a better version of themselves to the public, ultimately hoping to falsely paint themselves in a more positive light.” 

Many say performance activism mostly manifests on “social media wherein a person or an organization may be posting about a current issue but doesn’t follow through with meaningful action,” according to YouthFriendly

While this issue extends beyond social media, these platforms have enabled us to simply click a few buttons and feel satisfied that we have advocated for a certain issue. It gives the illusion of speaking out to others but avoids the discomfort that makes activism noble and impactful in the first place. 

“Social media invites us into an unrealistic social realm,” writes Paladin Opinions Editor Audrey Enghauser.

Another explanation for the increase in social media activism is that these platforms thrust conflict at us, creating a sense of urgency to form opinions on each issue and share them online. But this type of engagement with justice issues is surface level — simply reposting infographics seems to save us from strategizing how to take bolder, tangible action. 

79% of Americans say the statement “social media distract people from issues that are truly important” describes these platforms very or somewhat well, while 76% say the same about the statement “social media make people think they are making a difference when they really aren’t,” writes the Pew Research Center

There is no question of whether social media has a detrimental effect on our willingness to take stronger action for causes, so the question is how we avoid becoming performance activists. 

Recognizing these effects is key. In posting and calling it a day, we minimize the good we can actually do for these causes. It lures us into a sense of security and productiveness that is not effective in actually helping the causes we claim to support.  These causes can even lose credibility in the eyes of others when they recognize our self-righteous motives for posting.

In order to avoid performative activism, we first must identify our motive.  Are we posting and speaking for social clout, or because we genuinely believe it can help and raise awareness? We can rarely persuade friends, much less strangers online, by repeating what we heard or read online. Social media gives us a false sense of security in this perception that we are experts on topics we had not even heard of before seeing a little post. 

This is not to say social media is not effective — it is. “Eight-in-ten Americans say social media platforms are very (31%) or somewhat (49%) effective for raising public awareness about political or social issues, according to the survey of U.S. adults conducted July 13-19,” writes Pew Research Center. We have seen success in increased awareness and action from movements like the #MeToo movement or #ArabSpring due to social media. But the key is action, and I am willing to bet that most who simply post feel satisfied with their effort and do not pursue more.

Companies rebrand for certain months like Pride Month to support groups but once the month is over, they show their true colors. It is easy to criticize them, but are we not similar in simply trying to advertise our political uprightness without changing our own behavior?

 I would ask the reader to consider when they last had an in-depth discussion generated from their post of a black square or an infographic on the various conflicts globally. This insufficient activism is not restricted to online spaces — many go to a physical protest with the primary motive of taking pictures and posting them so that others see their “activism.”  It is time to consider motive: Are you using a  political issue to make you feel better about yourself? 

Lastly, ask if social media is the best way to be informed about and advocate for the issue.  By simply echoing a brief statement we have read (and often feeling as though we suddenly know all about the subject), we are usually contributing to echo chambers rather than creating real discourse. 

Depending on what the cause is, there are almost always more effective ways to act than just posting. We must engage in discourse and be involved in our communities in pursuit of the causes we truly believe in, and do so out of a desire to create change rather than protect our own image. There is a fine line between effective activism and performative activism- we must do our best to not be performative and advance our causes rather than drag them down with the weight of our own egos.

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