Performative activism in the age of technology and social media

Isadora Li, page editor

The age of technology brings with it a new wave of societal pressures for today’s teenagers. Posting on social media has increased in recent months due to matters such as the bombing in Beirut, Lebanon and the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement reignited by the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Performative activism is used in order to appear concerned and genuine, when in reality it is simply an attempt at promoting one’s image on social media. Similarly, virtue signaling encases performative activism, organizing, and expressing personal opinions to demonstrate good intentions rather than advance causes. These tactics, mostly used by teens and influencers, undermine the true intent and power of grassroots activism.

Blackout Tuesday is a widely known example of performative activism. Its original intent was to show support to the BLM movement by stopping the release of new music, productions, and other forms of entertainment with celebrities including Rihanna and Britany Spears posting images of a black square with the tag “#blackouttuesday.” The goal was sincere, however, many used it as a way to show their support to BLM without any plans to organize and protest further. Additionally, the buildup of black screens under the BLM hashtag caused a media blackout which hid important details about donation sites, protester needs, and real-time information related to the demonstrations.

Performative activism and virtue signaling is a tool used by teens and influencers in hopes of gaining popularity by appearing passionate and knowledgeable. Commonly referred to as “clout chasing” on the internet, celebrities such as singer Madison Beer even went as far as to use a demonstration as a backdrop for a photo shoot. Among the most common of performative acts are Instagram Story posts; Many reposts are videos of racist attacks and information on the perpetrators of these acts. Others include information on how to go about educating the population about how to generate change. Depending on the material, the posts often are helpful in educating those searching for ways to deepen their understanding of occurrences such as racism, however what these posts can’t accomplish are changing the minds of those who hold opposing ideologies. In this way, solely posting videos of heinous acts is counterproductive and in some cases triggering, which is only perpetuated by public figures such as writer Shaun King who continue to spread traumatic material. Information related to action items are arguably the most helpful in spurring change and educating people on social media.

Increasing knowledge on current events via social media is an important first step, but real change is beyond what appears on the screen and involves commitment to the cause. Clout chasing motivates many of the larger names on social media to post information regarding modern events, but teenagers often post because they feel they have no other means to contribute. Some lack the means to donate virtually and have neither the license nor cars to coordinate donation pick ups or attend demonstrations. Despite this, there are lots of ways to support causes without donating or attending rallies. YouTube hosts an extensive collection of
“watch to donate” videos which raise donation funds through video advertisements, and contacting legislators via emails or phone is also an impactful way to advocate for an issue. While the impact of signing petitions is controversial, petitions are still a good way of determining public interest and are often efficient when they prompt the signer into additional action, such as contacting legislators. In fact, anyone older than 13 may create an official White House petition that is reviewed when it receives over 100,000 signatures within 30 days. 

Activism on social media platforms at first seems helpful, but a deeper look reveals ulterior motives. With a lack of genuine desire to further causes such as BLM, big names and teens looking for attention fail to grasp the purpose and importance of movements meant to create social change. The increase of social media use helps to spread useful information, but actual change is beyond a mere post. 

Many Edina students’ inherent privilege make them feel the need to post on social media to demonstrate their passion, but how many of them are honest about their desire to fight for what they’re posting about?