Many people take part in activism through social media posts, simple clicks, and donations. Do these really count as activism in society?
by Sriya Gundlapally
Mahatma Gandhi once said, “you may never know what results come of your actions, but if you do nothing, there will be no results.”
This statement increasingly applies to our society with each day; performative activism is becoming more popular, especially with the youth on social media. Performative activism, also humorously dubbed as “slacktivism”, is a form of activism in which an individual solely “raises awareness” and does nothing to physically support the cause. Rather, they may be invested in becoming more popular or having increased social capital. According to this general definition, performative activists seem selfish. However, could this form of activism actually lead to change? Or does it always just end as a trend?
Performative activism mainly takes place in social media, sometimes with even celebrities participating. One example of this are tweets about Black Lives Matter. A few months ago, there was controversy regarding tweets from some celebrities such as Jennifer Lopez and Lea Michele due to the standard including POCs but not truly supporting the cause. There are people who believe that performative activism has helped garner more support and awareness for certain issues. However, some may argue that awareness might not be enough to garner substantial change.
And that’s where the trilemma lies. Does performative activism through simple actions actually allow for positive change?
Performative Activism Is Helpful:
There are several examples of performative activism mainly being ones that went viral on social media. The Ice Bucket Challenge that went viral in 2014 for ALS, the nervous system disease called amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, awareness, and funding for research is a perfect example of how performative activism has had a substantial positive impact. According to a Cornell University blog from 2017, the challenge was able to successfully raise 115 million dollars and credits social media for most of it. Participating in the ice bucket challenge increased public morale regarding the cause, which, consequently, helped further spread awareness. However, several people argue that the dumping of ice water lacks a direct connection to helping the ALS cause, but there is a correlation seen through the funds received; more people participating in raising awareness increased the amount of money received. This money was then able to help fund research to help patients with ALS. Clearly, performative activism has the potential to raise money when widespread.
Last year, the Black Lives Matter movement became a trending issue again, after many years of silence. News regarding the violent attacks on George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and many others was spread on social media. There were tens of millions of posts regarding the cause, however, in the midst of all of this, it made it difficult to monitor who actually cared about the movement. For example, Black Out Tuesday was a social media trend in which people all over the world posted black squares to, in theory, show support for the movement. However, how many people actually supported the movement and did more than just post a pointless black square?
But, it is a fact that this form of activism helps reach a larger audience. Performative activism helps spread the word as more people post information, reaching many more people. Moreover, even if the individual who actually posted about BLM may not have been interested, there is a chance that at least one of the multiple people who saw the post is able to connect and take further action. This means strength of supposed slacktivism is that more people have the likelihood of supporting a cause. After all, social media in modern society has a large impact on the thoughts and actions of people.
There are many campaigns mainly through social media including Change.org. There are hundreds of thousands of signatures for a variety of causes. Despite many of these signatures being from individuals who simply clicked on a few buttons, the impact of these petitions is apparent in the increased awareness or even new legislation. For example, TripAdvisor, an administered digital platform, had more features for reporting sexual violence. Performative activism has such benefits that are possibly overlooked.
Performative Activism Is Not True Effort:
Some causes have received the attention and acknowledgement but failed to receive support and actual help later on. For example, the Black Lives Matter movement was possibly seen as a trend by many since we don’t see many people talking about it, despite the severity of the situation. If the public really cared about the movement, the movement would still have the same importance on social media. Additionally, with the AAPI movement currently being in the spotlight, there may be a perceived “fade” in the trend once people find another cause to post about. It is not true activism if support is intermittent the individual is not passionate about eliminating such issues.
Furthermore, people may lose what the true meaning of the simple action they do is. Actions like the previously discussed posting of a black square for Black Out Tuesday means nothing if the person doesn’t know why they are doing it. Therefore, it is understood that certain conditions have to be true in order for performative activism to be of true help. First, people should include the reasoning behind their posts. Posting without context may leave some in confusion rather than the desire to help. Second, the act should be widespread. There are many campaigns and movements that may not get the necessary help because there wasn’t enough public awareness or support. Performative activism is, therefore, not the only driving point for true social change. Activism that takes more time and effort also means that the people are more inclined to either have previously been in support or have given new support to a cause.
It can take more than just performative activism to elicit change. A practical method would be to bring awareness through performative activism and then use other modes of activism such as peaceful protests and definite donation drives and links in order to physically support the movement. The most support would come once people are knowledgeable about the issue. Therefore, the best way for performative activism to be integrated into society is through using it as a first step towards educating the public, which is easily possible through social media. With use of social media for performative activism, much information can be conveyed within minutes, and as more people take part, there is growth for a stronger movement to bring change.