Your Instagram Story Is Not Enough
After social media forgets, what are you doing to fight for Black lives?
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
― Martin Luther King Jr., Letter from Birmingham Jail (1963)
There is no denying the importance of social media in modern activism. Some praise it as a “liberation technology,” creating new channels to spread awareness and organize in a decentralized model that is not limited by geography. Since Instagram and Twitter were created, they have been the core instruments in monumental social movements including but not limited to the Arab Spring, Black Lives Matter, and #MeToo. By sharing opinions and videos, social media platforms have turned traditional news media on its head by giving a voice to civilians.
However, as social media activism has abounded and more people have begun to participate in the platform ecosystem, it has mutated into a form of disingenuous and passive “protest” that is usually limited to reposting digestible quotes and viral videos. The word slacktivism was coined in 1995 by Fred Clark to refer to grassroots social activism on an individual and personal scale, particularly by young people. In 2020 it is a negative term, used to criticize online activism that is not backed up by real political commitment.
But what does it mean to be truly committed to a cause?
It’s too easy for people to share viral moments on Twitter or Instagram and think that they have done their part.
On May 25, 2020, George Floyd died in police custody after four (now former) police officers used excessive force to arrest him under suspicion of forgery, a nonviolent crime. The footage of the incident exploded on social media, leading to hundreds of protesters on the steps of the Minneapolis Police Department the following day. George Floyd was an unarmed Black man. Just a few weeks earlier, footage surfaced of another extrajudicial murder of an unarmed Black man. On February 23, 2020, Ahmaud Arbery was murdered by two White men in Georgia who had supposedly mistaken him for a man wanted for a series of break-ins in the area.
When senseless acts of violence like these are circulated on the internet, there is usually an outcry on social media lasting anywhere from a couple of days to a few weeks at most. The day the George Floyd video surfaced, showing a police officer continuing to brutalize him as he cried for help, social media erupted. The footage was shared and reposted thousands of times and people across the globe shared their frustration, grief, and anger online.
But — what about what is not shared on social media? Even among the stories that were, how many do we remember after the initial frenzy? And, more importantly, after social media forgets, what are you doing to fight for what you believe in?
Viral videos of brutal violence seem to surface every week on social media. This has had the effect of desensitizing social media users to seeing Black bodies on the street, so often that for many it is easy to scroll past them and never think about them again. Of course, pictures and videos have been some of the most effective tools of civic activism throughout history. Martin Luther King Jr. acknowledged that the success of the civil rights movement was in large part attributed to White Americans being able to see the brutal violence that African Americans faced in the fight for equal rights on live TV.
But, in 2020, the oversaturation of these depictions has made it too easy for people to share them on Twitter or Instagram and think that they have done their part. It is all too easy to click “post” and then look away from the problem and the ways that you contribute to it. Scholars have noted that as social media activism has grown, it has diffused individual responsibility to take action, leaving the real work up to committed individuals who are personally affected.
A post on social media — particularly one that disappears in 24 hours — is a low price to pay in the name of a cause you care about.
This is the crux of slacktivism, particularly among middle- and upper-class American liberals. To an extent, these people share the same political and cultural values as their followers. If you believe that police brutality is wrong and are vocal about it on social media, chances are that most people who follow you agree. Whether by choice, algorithmic recommendations, or a combination of these two, people on the internet tend to follow and be followed by people who agree with them. So what exactly can be accomplished by reposting an Instagram story? Your followers have probably already seen the video or quote you’re about to post on their timelines over and over again. And repeatedly seeing the graphic violence of police brutality will likely do more harm than good.
To be clear, there is nothing wrong with expressing your opinions on the issues that you care about online. As mentioned earlier, one of the most valuable effects of social media has been its ability to rally people all over the world around issues they care about and have led to real and effective forms of social activism. However, before reposting quotes and articles all over social media, individuals should reflect not only on what else they can do to support the causes they care about but the ways in which they can change their behavior to reject the systems that enable injustice.
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For some, the decision to fight for justice is a matter of life or death. This much has been clear throughout history if we consider the hundreds and thousands of unnamed activists that have put their bodies on the front lines and died fighting for their rights in the United States. In contrast, a post on social media — particularly those that disappear in 24 hours — is a low price to pay in the name of a cause you care about. The volume of social media posts that someone shares is not an accurate measure of their commitment to a cause.
Continuing to use racialized violence as the model for this phenomenon, it is uplifting to see how many non-Black people are passionate about this issue (at least, on social media). But the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and countless others do not exist in a vacuum. They are the outcomes of a deeply ingrained racial hierarchy that permeates every facet of American society, teaching Americans of all races through fearmongering, respectability politics, and coded rhetoric that Black lives are less valuable than their counterparts. It is this hierarchy that needs to be dismantled, and a simple post on social media just isn’t going to cut it.
Do not portray your commitment to a cause on social media without backing it up in person. Practice what you preach.
The first step in converting slacktivism into real activism is an acknowledgment of how you, as an individual, enable various forms of racism, both big and small. Have you informed yourself on the history of racialized violence in the United States and how it continues to be perpetrated through police brutality and mass incarceration? Do you speak up when your friend makes a casually racist remark? Do you listen — really listen — to Black people’s voices, rather than just amplifying your own? And, of course, this does not only apply to racism but every form of discrimination and prejudice toward minorities.
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After reflection, the second step is to find ways to support the causes you care about in a more meaningful way. Awareness is important, but sharing and re-sharing the same content to people who have already seen it is not an effective form of activism. Engage in off-line activism by attending protests and sit-ins. Support Black businesses and artists. Speak up against microaggressions. Acknowledge and unlearn the prejudices that many of us have been taught by our environments. These actions are more difficult, but that is what makes them more meaningful.
The purpose of this article is not to discourage activism on social media. In fact, a 2015 study showed that the success of social movements is in some ways dependent on “activating the critical periphery.” But if you are able to contribute in more meaningful ways, do so, in addition to your Instagram post. Do not portray your commitment to a cause on social media without backing it up in person. To put it as a familiar idiom, practice what you preach.
According to Mapping Police Violence, there were only 27 days in 2019 that the police did not kill someone. Black people represent 24% of these people despite being 13% of the American population. Most of these people did not get a social media campaign demanding justice for their murders. Those that did should not have died in the first place. Find ways to challenge the systems that support state violence and institutionalized racism. And when social media inevitably moves on to the next viral news story, do not forget their names.