Social media tricks us into thinking we’re ‘activists’

by hani thapa ~

© Pippa Kane 2020

The current state of our society has been nothing short of chaotic this past year. ​That* ​thing has magnified the cracks and chasms that have existed for far too long, veiled by the flimsy guise of progression.

Something I’ve been grappling with recently is how social media, namely Instagram, has created a very low standard for activism or rather what we think is activism. Following the murder of George Floyd, social media became an extremely useful source of information on the history of systemic racism and the enslavement of Black people. Users shared petitions, anti-racist books, documentaries, charities and Black-owned businesses to support. There was an overwhelming amount of information available and I personally learnt a lot about systemic racism during this time. Brands, celebrities, and influencers were among those proclaiming their virtue by acknowledging their privilege, armed with phrases such as “we see you, we hear you, we will amplify your voices.” As the momentum slowed down, their accounts swiftly returned to normal programming but not without a disclaimer defending their actions, confirming they will be “doing the work” behind the scenes.

Then came the black square. Hashtags that were previously a resource of anti-racist materials became flooded with useless black squares once again silencing the voices of Black people. I was guilty of this too. Ashamedly, I removed the black square from my feed and realised that this action was merely performative allyship. It signalled to people in our networks that we cared about Black lives without having to be introspective and interrogate our racist behaviours and thoughts. This constant sharing of anti-racist resources, and triggering videos of police brutality to raise awareness, has led many to believe that it is the pinnacle of anti-racist work. But if the line is drawn there, do we have much of a meaningful social impact or just a buffer for our personal guilt of being complicit in an oppressive system?

That’s not to say raising awareness isn’t important; it is vital because it can inspire action. But what I have realised is that social media deceptively seems like a microcosm of society. It feels like everyone is on your wavelength and shares your values and beliefs. But ultimately, saying a few words on Instagram to condemn racism does little to dismantle the structures of racism and afford more rights to BIPOC. We need systemic change. We need those brands to turn their words into action and create a working culture of inclusivity, with diversity across all structures of business. They may donate to charities but if they don’t hire BIPOC in positions of power, if they don’t create safe working conditions for BIPOC employees in the supply chain, does anything really change? We need look no further than our own backyard, with Black people twice as likely to die of Covid and the infuriating inaction of the government to protect them, to see there is much progress to be made.

Don’t get me wrong, it certainly feels different this time. The momentum has been palpable, we just need to keep it going. The discourse around racism is starting to feel less like a taboo, with more people challenging the status quo and feeling empowered to take action. We must do the introspective work too, despite the discomfort, and hold the monopolies of power to account to follow through with their promises.


Illustration by Pippa Kane