The University of Toronto’s Student Newspaper Since 1880

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on email

Opinion: Online activism must stray away from performativity

After the 2020 BLM protests, it’s important to verify information found on social media
Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on email
ISABELLA CESARI/THE VARSITY
ISABELLA CESARI/THE VARSITY

In the beginning, social media was meant to bring people together to communicate and foster creativity. However, especially after last summer, these intentions have shifted. Political and social issues that are urgently in need of solutions are posted on social media to reach a larger audience. As movements such as the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests take over the globe, we must consider who is genuinely outraged and committed to change and who is simply trying to keep up with appearances. 

As popular culture tends to dictate what is morally correct and incorrect, it sets a standard that everyone feels a pressure to adhere to. The weight of the world lays heavier on people’s shoulders as the internet gives members of society free rein to assess others’ involvement in social causes based on their own personal moral scales. 

In the wake of this summer’s events, social media followers bombarded influencers and companies across all platforms with messages about current issues in order to ultimately determine if the person or company aligned themselves with the movement. Some would say that cancel culture has incited this way of thinking. To prove their support, all the companies or influencers had to do was take a few seconds to hit repost or retweet and a few minutes to post a black square and a couple of hashtags.

In June of 2020, in light of the BLM movement, I took the time to truly think about what those around me were doing to make change in society. Many posts seemed to be very passionate but lacked the correct information and proper resources to educate more people. 

Many just reposted infographics filled with information about the movement onto their stories. However, many of these kinds of posts did not include sources for reference, which made it difficult to verify if the information was correct and reliable. Overall, this undermined the benefit of the posts, as those who took them at face value were not able to discern between what was true and what was false.

As detailed in an Instagram post from writer and sociologist Eve Ewing, explainer posts and graphics can “oversimplify complex ideas in harmful or misleading ways.” The lack of accountability behind viral infographic posts inadvertently opened up pathways for misinformation as well.

For those that didn’t want to critically engage with the injustices occurring around them, being asked to make a few posts on social media presented itself as an easy way to get recognition while doing the bare minimum. Performance is an inherent aspect of social media, and these influencers and companies were now given the opportunity to perform solidarity. 

I asked my peers questions like, what is your intention in posting a black square? Many said it was to show their support for BLM, but an overwhelming number said that they were doing it because of others and that they felt a sense of guilt and peer pressure.

The spread of misinformation has done more harm than good. An article published by CNN analyzed the situation with the help of experts, and it showed that the hashtags #BlackLivesMatter and #BlackOutTuesday caused a problem in the relay of important information. Everyone who posted a black square also used the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter, burying actual information about the movement. 

Those who were properly informed used the correct hashtag. Those who used the wrong hashtag only validated the idea that society’s perception of them mattered more than true and genuine intentions. Societal norms have dictated how we are supposed to act and respond since the beginning of time. To cause real change that is not performative, we must act outside of social media platforms, not just post a picture and believe that our debt to society has been paid. 

The solution to this problem is for people to actively research the issue and make sure that what they are reposting is not harming the movement by spreading false information. What can you do that’s better than just reposting or retweeting a tweet? Reading articles, signing online petitions, contacting your local organization that supports the cause, and internalizing the information you find so that you can cause change not only online, but also in person.

We must use the verifiable information we learn and act upon it. This can truly change the way society fights social issues, and could help us transition away from the culture in which issues that affect people every day become overnight internet sensations that we forget about months later. Instead, these movements should be long term and put in place for the betterment of society.

Victoria Santana is a first-year social sciences student at Victoria College.