Besides disrupting the normalcy of millions of lives, the tumultuous events of the past year have changed the importance of social media in terms of spreading news, information and voicing opinions. Among the usual memes and selfies, Instagram feeds are now littered with screenshots of political tweets, videos of police violence and colourful infographics tackling racism, homophobia and more. In a way, we’re witnessing the dawn of a new wave of internet activism, pejoratively known as “performative activism”, that is seemingly becoming the internet’s default response to any tragedy or major world event.
While the majority of people participating in internet activism don’t have bad intentions, posts are often empty and disingenuous; it’s almost a puzzle to distinguish between spreading impactful awareness and simply reposting something just because your friends have already done so. Even worse, in many cases, the people posting #BlackLivesMatter are those who sing the n-word while listening to their favourite song or are those who engage in casual racism towards minorities every day.
Teenagers, especially, adopt a herd mentality, not understanding or caring about what they’re reposting but patting themselves on the back for a modicum of decency. All too frequently I’ve seen “BLM chains” on TikTok, and what are essentially chain letters on Instagram, urging people to repost or duet a video if they’re not a racist. Not only is this “activism” insincere, but in many cases, it trivializes movements and drowns out the voices of those actually suffering from the oppression firsthand.
Celebrities, as well, fear being cancelled for not participating, public opinion forcing them to speak out and “spread awareness” rather than any sort of organic participation. Take 16-year old TikToker Charli D’Amelio for example, whose profile picture has been “Black Lives Matter” since early June. Trolls on social media “dare” her to change it, and of course, she would never risk cancellation by replacing it, though she hasn’t posted anything else related to the movement in months.
Celebrities participating in important movements, donating, and genuinely spreading awareness can be powerful, but those have become rare instances, replaced by insincere posts of 3-10 words that do basically nothing. In some cases, influencers even gain “clout” and fans, people applauding and worshipping them for their surface-level activism. This further incentivizes celebrities to create what are essentially meaningless PR statements anytime something bad happens in the world.
Corporations similarly profit off their own genre of performative activism. This isn’t always as blatant as the direct commodification of movements (the sale of “Don’t Shoot” t-shirts is a wonderful example), but is often masked as commendable participation in activism (Berkeley Political Review, 2018). In reality, it’s only being used to hide issues deeply ingrained within their corporate culture.
Take, for example, Walmart, who declared that they will no longer lock up beauty products commonly used by people of colour. Internet giant Amazon has placed a one-year moratorium on their facial recognition software, ‘Rekognition’, which is gravely inaccurate in identifying people of colour and is also sold to U.S. police departments. As disturbing as it is that both of those situations even existed in the first place, Amazon and Walmart’s changes are both relatively positive. However, those applauding the corporations for their acts seem to gloss over the fact that Walmart allegedly still maintains the same inhumane child slavery practices as it has for the past 15+ years (Retail Dive, 2019), and Amazon has still not addressed the white supremacist merchandise that was sold on their website (the Action Center on Race and the Economy, 2018) or the appalling working conditions in their warehouses.
When corporations with systemic racism, homophobia or misogyny are called out for their wrongdoings, putting out a few hollow-hearted statements, making one or two surface-level pledges, and continuing their behaviour has become industry standard. Pretending to support important movements as a way to absolve themselves of their corporate sins and continuously churn profits has become the norm.
It’s powerful and necessary for us to unite in the face of tragedy and oppression, but disingenuous performative activism at any level, whether personal, celebrity or corporate, only hurts the marginalized groups that it’s supposed to be helping.
For activism to be genuine and not merely performative, you have to understand the “why” behind a social media post. You can’t simply repost the same things as those around you, let alone congratulate yourself for doing the bare minimum. You have to hold your family, your friends and yourself accountable and recognize that, by themselves, your hashtags aren’t really helping anyone at all.