Instagram virtue signaling

Photo courtesy of Allie Ghisson, Student Publications

This year has been a nightmare. At the start of the year we all knew that there would be a high-stakes presidential election, but none of us were prepared for the realities of 2020. An unprecedented global pandemic, a movement against racist structures and police brutality and nationwide protests for women’s rights, environmental protections and a million other things have made this year feel like a decade.

Each time yet another unprecedented catastrophic event took place, the 24-hour news cycle went crazy, and so did everyone’s social media feeds.

How many times this year have you scrolled through posts and stories with phrases like: “There’s no planet B” in front of a cute cartoon earth frowning; or “now that I have your attention go vote” beneath the photo of a carefully posed naked celebrity?

At some point activism became an aesthetic and social currency instead of a means of change.

There is not anything inherently wrong with posting infographics and informative PSAs on your feed. But really what’s the likelihood that someone following you on Instagram will change one of their fundamental opinions based on your repost of a cute infographic with the cursive words “Wear a mask!” surrounded by flowers? At what point are we all just virtue signaling?

It has been proven that people don’t even change their minds when presented with statistical facts, science and subject matter experts’ opinions.

The thing is, social media can be a great tool for organizers of protests and movements. Blackout Tuesday was a protest from within the music industry, organized by music executives Jamila Thomas and Brianna Agyemang.

“We will not continue to conduct business as usual without regard for Black lives,” Thomas and Agyemang wrote on their Instagram, “Tuesday, June 2 is meant to intentionally disrupt the work week.” The intention was to halt operations in their industry for a day to show their importance, and pay tribute to George Floyd.

But, as many noted on Jan. 2, 2020, when Blackout Tuesday occurred, the #BLM and #BlackLiversMatter hashtags, which have been used by the movement to spread information, were now full of random accounts posting black squares on their feed to make sure everyone knew they weren’t racist. Few who “blacked out” their Instagram knew the original purpose of the movement or thought about the real impact their action might have.

The real issue occurs with this social media virtue signaling takes the place of actual civic engagement. It is extraordinarily easy to post a black image on Instagram and tag it “#BLM” But how many people who participated in this movement showed up to the local protests in Atlanta against police brutality?

Another issue with social media activism is that it often takes place in echo chambers. There is no real dialogue, no real risk and no real outcome. Those who don’t agree with your story promoting Medicare for All will swipe through and forget about it, then move on to the next one of a cute puppy or an influencer’s selfie.

I just want to reiterate: there is nothing wrong with showing support for a cause, a movement, a charity, a politician or any of the above on your social media accounts. I definitely do it.

On Earth day this year, sitting at my home in quarantine, I made an Instagram post with aesthetic pictures I’d taken from all over the world — my caption said something about “treating her better.” Cool, I got some likes and felt like I showed the world I cared about the Earth, but did my actions reap any actual benefits? No. I could have joined in a climate protest, called my local representatives or donated to a sustainable non-profit. Instead I hit “post” from my couch and felt like I was doing my part.

As 2020 ends and 2021 begins, I hope that we can leave this social media activism and the façade of wokeness and social progress in the past and aspire to take part in real-world activism and to take real action.