Avoid performative activism

Photo by Blake Israel

Whether it’s mass incarceration, the climate crisis, systemic racism, xenophobic immigration policies or health disparities, we live in a time of instantaneous access to news and information that often leaves us concerned about the current state of public welfare. 

Civil unrest and political turmoil are inundated into our communities on a national and international level. The Palestinian struggle for liberation, questioning the forced secularization of France and resisting Iran’s oppressive political regime are just a few examples of movements shaped by conflict and delivered by collective human action. 

As of September, 33 million Pakistanis have been displaced by floods consuming entire villages in the Sindh and Punjab provinces. I’ve seen many of my acquaintances on Instagram posting neatly designed infographics claiming to divulge essential information about the climate crisis in Pakistan. Many of them probably can’t point to the country on a world map, and odds are that most of them didn’t fact check any of the information found in the graphics. 

Cursory glimpses on a social media site trivialize the struggle of 33 million people. In a guest essay published in the Opinions Section of The New York Times, author Ibrahim Buriro recounts his village being consumed by floodwaters and his entire community becoming displaced in a matter of days. Buriro urged global leaders to consider giving reparations to Pakistan to compensate for the climate consequences suffered by Pakistani citizens at the hands of global superpowers, who produce sizable chunks of greenhouse gas emissions, when they meet to  collaborate during the 2022 for the United Nations Climate Change Conference. 

Buriro’s piece captures the subtlety and context missing in the aesthetic Instagram infographics consuming my feed. It creates a cathartic space for a young activist to share his lived experience in a climate crisis, and his testimony creates actionable items that demand the attention of world leaders. 

The fatal flaw of performative activism is its lack of nuance and its inability to allow conflicts to coexist. Revolutions and movements do not follow a strict start and stop timeline, whereas on Instagram, it seems that we follow a one week schedule for caring about any specific social justice topic. 

It’s partially related to living in an information revolution, but it’s also contingent upon the fact that posting on social media cannot be equated with exhibiting true solidarity for a cause. 

Performative activism and its primary manifestation in social media reflects privilege. Simply reposting an Instagram infographic or liking a post with a popularized slogan associated with a particular movement are not the progressive actions for change people seem to think they are. Instead, they halt meaningful dialogue and create a sense of moral superiority, without cultivating true understanding and support for a movement. 

Social media activism also highlights the privilege that many of us have for being physically removed from a space of conflict. 

Until tangible outcomes and change are enacted through online activism in global issues, it’s difficult to understand its relevance past anything more meaningful than performative. 

In an information revolution, how do we keep from normalizing conflict and crises? How do we shoulder the burden of acting in solidarity with every civic movement? 

One of the main avenues to facilitate conducive discourse is by supplementing information found on social media with articles presented by reputable news outlets. The other is by engaging in conversation with people who belong to communities that are a part of the movement. 

Amplifying their voices and creating spaces where their knowledge and insight is valued will allow all of us to gain a deeper understanding of the cause and come up with more actionable ways to showcase our support.