Instagram Activism: A Catalyst for Change or a Response to It?

June 2020. It was the month following an innocent Black man’s death at the hands of police officers. In the heat of the summer and a global pandemic, the beginning of a political and cultural awakening took place on a global scale. In the United States, George Floyd’s murder incited nationwide protests against police brutality and underscored the necessity of acknowledging the systemic racism in America; through an intense racial reckoning, the U.S. could push for progress towards racial equality. Political figures like Joe Biden, a presidential candidate at the time, called for “racial justice,” while companies like Estée Lauder pledged to increase their percentage of employees of color. Despite variations in content and approach, a powerful conduit emerged through which groups and individuals alike could publicly engage in the national conversation about race: social media.

 As tensions rose and the nation became increasingly conscious of entrenched racism in the U.S., it seemed inappropriate to resume mundane online activities, be they filtered photos of one’s iced coffee or #OutfitOfTheDay. To resolve this issue, activists and well-intentioned individuals alike turned to Instagram carousel posts. The carousel feature, launched in 2017, allows users to include up to ten images (or slides) in a single post. Instagram infographics often take advantage of the carousel, including an eye-catching title page followed by informative slides. These posts intend to educate users on relevant social issues and often include suggestions for how individuals can support a given cause. A visually pleasing or striking design serves to draw a passive user’s attention to its important subject matter. The more users post visually appealing images, the more they are promoted in the Instagram algorithm. In theory, these posts are an easy, effective way to inform large numbers of people on relevant topics and ultimately make a positive impact.

However, with a heightened consciousness of racial tensions produced by Floyd’s tragic death, social media became a stage on which Americans could prove their commitment to social justice. Instagram carousel infographics were widely circulated by users anxious to demonstrate their dedication to the Black Lives Matter cause, often out of fear that they would otherwise appear indifferent. It was easy, however, to repost these infographics without taking steps to tangibly impact Black Americans through means such as donating to nonprofits or supporting Black-owned businesses. In other words, sharing carousel posts allowed the self-gratified to feel like they were making a difference without exerting much effort. 

This trend was in effect before, and continued after, the murder of Floyd. Instagram accounts like @impact and @so.informed continue to share infographics designed by independent artists that  seek to inform their followers on issues related to social justice of all kinds: racial equality, LGBTQ+ rights, women’s health, and more. During the outbreak of violence in Israel and Palestine in May 2021, for example, users took to social media to voice their support of the marginalized Palestinains, reposting infographics. 

However, said users’ Instagram feeds soon settled comfortably back to the depiction of rose-colored realities. Months later, Palestinians continued to endure discrimination under Israeli occupation, but there were no longer Instagram stories to pressure worriless Americans into feigning concern over those affected by the conflict overseas. In moments of great political distress, activism carousel posts flood young people’s Instagram stories, while in moments of peace, many users silently “like” said posts and proceed with their day-to-day activities.

Some social media users argue that though they are performative in nature, Instagram infographics are beneficial; spreading awareness for topics leads some users to actively educate themselves further and support the specified movement. Thus, though the number of users that take action is likely smaller than the number that shares said infographic, the proliferation of these posts is ultimately preferable to passivity. Other users argue that such posts liberate docile companies and individuals alike from accountability for their inaction. Users can reflexively share infographics without absorbing the information or taking action offline and still feel that they have adequately contributed to the movement and successfully maintained their image of “wokeness.”

The difference between well-meaning social media users and those who hope to refine their online image through aesthetic social media infographics is not found in the action of posting, considering that the act of posting on social media is itself performative (i.e., in order for one’s online presence to exist, one must present an image). The difference lies in the impact of the infographics we share and our intentions when posting them. We as social media users must ask: are aesthetically pleasing Instagram activism posts a catalyst for change, or simply a self-serving response to a world in which engagement with social justice issues is increasingly advantageous?

Meme that pokes fun at those who believe posting eye-catching infographics online is an adequate form of activism. 

Before you share infographics and insert your identity into that arena of activism, potentially out of self-interest, take a moment to listen to activists and those suffering. Follow Black creators and writers like Brittany Packnett Cunningham or Ijeoma Oluo, who articulate the Black experience in ways that few brief, aesthetically pleasing infographics can. Prioritize developing your understanding of the experience of those affected and learning how you can help over preserving your own image. Donate to specific causes you resonate with such as the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Police Accountability Project or support Black-owned businesses.

And if you are going to repost an infographic, acknowledge that awareness for social justice issues is only the first step towards social justice. After acknowledging the first step towards paving a just path, consider ways to financially or physically support marginalized communities. First and foremost, though, be conscious of what information you share and be willing to take that next step.

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