2020 seemed like the worst possible year to be stuck inside, a year limited to living vicariously through screens. From the national awakening surrounding pervasive systemic racism in the United States to the most important presidential election in recent history, this year brimmed with potential for grassroots-organized activism. While the COVID-19 pandemic did not prevent all in-person activism, be it marches or sit-ins, most action regarding social justice went virtual, along with schools and workplaces. Instagram in particular became a breeding ground for this “slacktivism,” a term to describe the widespread sharing of posts to encourage education or action on a certain topic, all on one’s computer. For the tech-savvy Gen-Z, labeled “iGen” by Dr. Jean M. Twenge, the emergence of activism through social media should come as no surprise. Even before the global pandemic, social media was the stage that demonstrated the political passions of this generation, a tool to disseminate messages about causes worth believing in.
However, social media is also the realm of buzzwords and misinformation. While valuable for its ability to disseminate information, social media cannot be the beginning and end of all activism. Instead, social media should serve as a launchpad for political activism; an area to spread and gain awareness of current national and global issues. But simply reading and reposting on Instagram does not qualify as activism; it is essential that these activities are followed by specific and directed actionable items in order to effect change. “Slacktivism” on Instagram is not a detrimental force in-and-of itself, but it should serve to accompany and reinforce rather than replace more tangible forms of activism.
Online activism on Instagram holds enormous potential due to the combination of low interaction cost and high visibility. Scrolling through Instagram stories and encountering posts about social issues and movements in a passive manner is tantalizing. To the user, little effort is required to reap the rewards of information about current events and the discourse of those they follow. The user may not feel they always have to go far out of their way in order to learn something important, as Instagram may be a part of their daily routine.
Accounts like @soyouwanttotalkabout or @attnwhitepeople are effective at promoting this culture of low-investment, high-visibility information consumption. Such accounts condense information on a single topic, like wearing a mask or federal death row, into an organized and appealing post that can be engaged with for about a minute before being reposted to one’s story. Additionally, the repost feature is helpful for disseminating information and identification for missing persons, dispersing the call for help over a wide user base. Ideally, the ease with which Instagram can broadly spread summaries of important issues would promote a higher level of engagement with activism, acting as signals for what issues are worth paying attention to.
In addition, Instagram can act as a starting point toward simple action steps. Among the information reposted, users can often find links to petitions, articles, or donation sites that related to the topic discussed. The program Linktree freely provides any user the ability to create a single platform that offers direct links to any petition or GoFundMe page. These Linktrees can then be made available to other users.
Widely read and respected journalistic publications like @guardian and @nytimes will often include links to articles where the reader can glean a more in-depth view of a certain current event (see the Guardian account bio for an example of a Linktree to numerous articles). Instagram can be more than scrolling through or reposting information; if used properly, it can be a gateway to making more tangible steps in social activist causes. While the surface-level engagement of repost culture can be useful, infinitely more impactful are the opportunities to become an active contributor to a cause, rather than a passive observer. Instagram lowers the access barriers to contributions by streamlining various means of active participation on a single platform, saving users the work of randomly diving onto the internet in hopes of finding the same sources.
However, lower participation barriers to online activism on Instagram is inevitably followed by lowered expectations for what truly qualifies as activism. Undoubtedly, mass reposting of informative summaries on current events raises general awareness, which is certainly beneficial. But raising awareness on an issue should not be conflated with taking action on an issue.
Widespread visibility is the main feature of social activism that takes place on Instagram; thus, a user who reposts something they found informative immediately gets the satisfaction of contributing to this visibility. This spectacle of visibility creates a culture of performative allyship, where activism begins and ends with a post. By simply sharing posts and signing a few petitions, users may feel they have “done enough” activism by indulging in all the options that Instagram bestows upon them. At a glance, a lower level of participation consisting of easy action items like sharing articles or signing petitions is a beneficial aspect of Instagram slacktivism. Yet this shallower level of activism becomes dangerous as it is normalized by the repost culture of Instagram and sets a suboptimal norm for what should be considered true activism.
Because “slacktivism” on Instagram is centered around spreading information through reposting, the platform is ripe for performative activism. When a user sees a majority of their followers sharing a certain post about a recent current event or hot-topic social issue, they are likely to share this post as well in order to appear in the norm. While the reposting of information or articles in and of itself is not necessarily detrimental, the corrupt motivation of creating a “woke” façade when reposting halts the social activism process in its tracks. Not every repost about current events or donating represents a user who is an actionable supporter or follower of the causes about which they are spreading information. This isn’t to say that all reposting is done disingenuously, or with the sole intention of following a trend.
The ultimate concern raised by the murky intentions of reposting is the automatic positive assumption bestowed upon anyone who reposts on important issues. A form of value signaling arises from reposting, creating the notion that the user who reposted on a certain issue is a passionate and knowledgeable follower of that cause. Instagram users may be fooled into believing that every person who reposts petitions or donation links has already taken the action steps they are providing. They potentially see their own further participation or donation as unnecessary, since clearly the cause has many supporters thanks to mass reposting. Performative activism then becomes a vicious cycle, inflating the apparent number of those who are taking action on a cause and potentially diverting from true action steps.
So what does the ideal look like in terms of online activism?
Reposting articles, petitions, or donation links is not inherently evil, but the act of reposting alone cannot be chalked up to activism. It is not enough to simply act as a megaphone; change is made when people actually use their voices to speak up on issues that matter. Using Instagram to share information and action steps on issues that matter to the user is an effective way to demonstrate values, but values alone do not cause change: action does.
So, after—or ideally before—reposting an article, make sure to read the entire thing. Take care to actually sign petitions instead of simply scrolling past. Consider giving a donation of any size to GoFundMe pages that go toward supporting unjustly incarcerated people of color or families who have lost a loved one to police brutality. Look into donating to larger organizations who advocate for equity, such as the NAACP or Black Lives Matter. Educate yourself by doing your own research, reading books, and watching documentaries (Many colleges offer access to documentaries for free through their libraries or Kanopy, an online streaming service). Support authors of color and try to shop with businesses owned by people of color in mind. When the threat of COVID-19 begins to recede, consider attending organized marches or sit-ins.
“Slacktivism” has its purposes, especially in terms of increasing visibility for important issues and acting as a gateway for easy action steps. But if we allow Instagram activism to make us lazy, to limit action on current events to this platform alone, we risk conceding our ability to effect true change.