What is performative activism?
Performative activism refers to feel-good measures in support of a cause that have little practical effect other than to give the ‘activist’ a feeling of satisfaction that they have contributed to the cause.
It thereby requires minimal personal effort from the ‘slacktivist’. It includes things such as liking posts or pages on social media, reposting pre-existing content on stories or a charity organization’s request for support, signing internet petitions, wearing a ribbon, or even joining an organization but not actively contributing. It is also referred to as slacktivism – a combination of the words ‘slacking’ and ‘activism’. This was initially coined in 1995 by Fred Clark to refer to small activities by young people to affect society on a small personal scale. However, the term has developed a negative connotation to criticize online activism that lacks real commitment to a cause.
How social media plays a role in performative activism…
There are approximately 3.96 billion social media users worldwide, nearly double the number of social media users in 2015. The average person has 8.6 accounts on various social networking sites.
Recently, social media sites have taken up a more political and social context, revealing a rise in conversations about social and political issues such as MeToo, BLM, LGBTQIA+, StopAsianHate, climate change, gun violence, march outs, and more. Social media has become the forefront of so many movements even in countries that do not have freedom of speech. Thereby helping to create extensive communities to fight injustice. Social media has revolutionized activism in ways previously unthought of and given rise to a greater facilitation of civic engagement and collective action. It is a great platform for spreading a wider range of ideas, perspectives, and experiences. However, this has also led to a considerable amount of performative activism.
It’s trendy to go to protests…
Online ‘activism’ has now become a part of mainstream culture. It is considered being “woke” to go to protests and marches and to post pictures of oneself and their sign. It is now expected of every person to post or repost infographics on their stories or like several posts speaking about each specific issue. However, a mere hashtag or story repost is not a movement and frequently does not facilitate true change. The obligation to either “use your platform” or get “cancelled” leads to an abundance of performative posts. However, many times this dilutes the message instead of benefiting the cause by transforming it into a “disingenuous and passive protest that is usually limited to reposting digestive quotes and viral videos.”
So, is slacktivism causing more harm than we realize?
Pros of Performative Activism
The most evident benefit is that performative activism is the easiest way to spread and access information. An increasing number of people are becoming more progressive since the access to information and the ability to spread information has increased exponentially. Regardless of the size of one’s platform, everyone can participate in sharing information. It serves as a call for action and to show social solidarity for oppressed groups. A study published in 2015 studied how social media is a critical periphery in the growth of social protests.
Cons of Performative Activism
It is clearly discernible that performative activism is composed of inadequate efforts which tend to substitute for more substantive actions rather than supplement them. It is now possible for people to seem concerned over issues merely by liking a post which requires minimum effort and support. This gives rise to the question of whether this actually accomplishes anything or if the person has even actually read and understood the cause. Engaging in online activities that seem to support a cause but not being educated about the issue or carrying out actual productive actions in addition to reading the posts is insufficient.
With so many people posting on social media, a lot of the support for issues ends up feeling impersonal and ingenuine. It is far too easy to post or re-share something and then look away from the problem. As social media activism has grown, it has diffused individual responsibility to take action, leaving the real work to committed individuals who are personally affected. It also desensitizes us to brutal violence through the viral videos that are spread, sometimes without trigger warnings.
A novel occurrence is the creation and circulation of Instagram infographics. These make use of strategies borrowed from consumer marketing with aesthetically pleasing colors and graphics, while providing information in a concise manner. They serve as an important tool to introduce people to social justice issues and in a way humanize serious matters without triggering anyone. However, this also leads to a further set of issues regarding whether people actually read them and go ahead to educate themselves beyond. It also leads to the question of whether such serious and tragic issues should be produced in an “aesthetic” package.
What role do corporations and influencers play?
Another important thing to address is the phenomenon of “influencers” and corporations faking activism. Over the last year, we saw several influencers setting up “impromptu” photoshoots in the middle of protests and rallies. Such actions come across as attention-seeking and shallow. It is disheartening to reduce such significant civil rights and humanitarian issues to an opportunity to get content and likes on Instagram. With corporations, it is not uncommon to find corporations making limited-edition merchandise or to change their social media handles in support of different causes. While it is obvious that these are essentially money-making businesses, it is definitely disheartening to see movement taglines written alongside other sponsorships, raising the question of “what are the intentions of these businesses?”
A study about the nature of slacktivism conducted by Kristofferson, Kirk, et al. studied the effect of the social observability of an initial act of token support on subsequent prosocial action. Researchers asked people to either join a Facebook group, accept a pin, or sign a petition for a charitable organization. They were then asked if they would like to donate or volunteer. It was inferred that the more public the initial depiction of support was, the less likely they were to offer their money or time. The ones who confidentially signed a petition were more likely to contribute than those who joined the Facebook group. This can be attributed to our tendency to be liked by others to be seen as inherently good. To our brains, others seeing us support a cause is essentially the same as actually supporting a cause. This plays into a rather interesting phenomenon called symbolic self-completion.
How can one turn slacktivism into activism?
When engaging in online activism, it is easy to pass on real opportunities to help, and settle for easier options. Performative activism is a complex issue that is harmful and dismissive of serious issues, but activism online has the potential to create change if done properly.
- Online activism can be used to initiate important and difficult conversations surrounding social issues.
- We can use social media to advertise or spread news of campaigns or charities which can increase civic engagement.
- Instead of talking about how much you don’t like social evil, talk about why you care about the cause and why others should too.
- Social and political issues are bigger than any of us and sharing your perspective and contributing to the conversation is a lot more beneficial than spewing or reproducing the same random information for the sake of seeming woke.
- To avoid spreading misinformation on social media, ensure any infographic or content that you share has been reviewed and is from reliable sources
- To go further, one can join or start an organization that supports your cause. Really put yourself out there and volunteer your time and money selflessly to see long-lasting improvement.
- The most important step one can take is to self-educate. Read books or articles, listen to podcasts, watch video essays, take classes about the cause, and listen to the people who are most affected, to get more informed about the issue you care about. Then, take action.
- Consider your own personal beliefs and values and self-evaluate your stance on important issues to tackle any internalized bias we may hold.
- Even taking small steps and allowing ourselves to participate, learn and be held accountable is beneficial and these are the attitudes that we must bring into social situations.
To conclude, while online activism is a powerful tool, it becomes an issue when people post to appease their conscience and then relapse into a state of “I’ve done my part.” It is important to not stop here and continue to educate ourselves and be mindful of the little things in our everyday lives that go against our morals. All these things are capable of greater change than a single post or phase on your social media.
Written by Madhumitha K.
Edited by Tiffany Leveille
Graphics by Rachel
Further reading about corporate activism:
Further reading about symbolic self-completion:
Study- “The Critical Periphery in the growth of Social Protests”