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Activism in Modern Age: Effective or Performative?

Every few days in recent years, there has been a new worldwide crisis or incident. Social media has made activism more accessible with practically everyone talking about their concerns, stating opinions, and demonstrating their “support”. But, the question is, does it make a difference? Of course, we do it with the best of intentions, but is liking a post really helping the cause, or has it simply become a self-congratulatory way to signal support without truly having to engage?

As we’re in the era of fast news, social upheaval, and the need for people to stand up for what they believe in our society, there has been an increase in the number of people who just talk the talk and not walk the walk and this is what can be referred to as performative activism. Performative activism commonly referred to as “slacktivism”, “clicktivism”, or “hashtag activism”, occurs when a person or organization posts on social media about a current topic but doesn’t follow through with meaningful actions. In other words, showing online solidarity for personal capital gain and social clout. It’s the notion that simply altering our profile picture or posting on social media with a viral hashtag is enough to convince people that we care about the current events without doing anything beyond that.

Credits: Pew Research Center

While it has been around for decades, ‘Black Out Tuesday‘ was arguably the pinnacle of performative activism during the BLM Movement of 2020. The movement #TheShowMustbePaused was initially launched by music executives Jamila Thomas and Brianna Agyemang to amplify Black voices, stories, and artists. But when #BlackOutTuesday rolled around, the feeds were deluged with nothing but black squares. The #blacklivesmatter and #BlackoutTuesday hashtags were filled with roughly 24 million black square posts, completely drowning out the educational and important information about the movement that had been shared previously under the same hashtags. People hastily posted a black square to assure others of their “wokeness” and went about their everyday lives without doing any actual work to support it. By its very nature, slacktivism relies on the simplest and least amount of engagement – a repost, to appease our conscience and feel as though we have accomplished something.

Too often, social issues are taken up by hashtags or shares and become trending topics for a few weeks before dying out. People treat disasters like the Russian-Ukrainian war, the illegal occupation of Palestinian lands by Israel, and Yemen’s humanitarian crisis as if they were a fad, sharing one post and then disappearing. Other crises do not receive the same level of attention due to a lack of hashtags and likes. It’s disconcerting to consider how some issues that affect people’s lives and integrity are just part of a trend cycle.

Credits: Delphine Diallo

Everyone is expected to be concerned about the hot and trending societal issue, ignoring other, still-unresolved and appalling concerns. But how genuine is someone’s interest in these causes if they only ever share or talk about them on social media?

Most notoriously, celebrities are also not immune to the desire to seek online validation. They weep for a black man’s life lost in America while endorsing skin-whitening products in a country with a predominantly dark-skinned population. Talking about hypocrisy, Indians from higher socioeconomic brackets are also not exempted from it. They are quick to speak out on international issues and point fingers at the relevant authorities while turning a blind eye to the atrocious issues in their nation perpetrated by the Indian police force and the Indian government.

It’s indisputable that online activism has a significant role in bringing issues to the foreground that would otherwise go unnoticed. Social media can be used to promote awareness, start dialogues, and persuade others to act. Not to mention how it sparked global outrage by turning Black Lives Matter into a global social movement. However, social networking is not the panacea for all the problems. Sending a link or signing a petition won’t solve all of the issues. It’s important to remember that social media is a tool, not an end in itself. Awareness is a strategy, not a goal. Public support does not always imply private action. In today’s fast-paced world, public support for evolving movements is fleeting and easily forgotten by the next repost.

A field study on slacktivism found that an online campaign that showed engagement from 6.4-million online users only received 30 physical donations. According to a preliminary study, this is likely due to the absence of accountability and repercussions associated with e-pledging. Furthermore, between June and September 2020, support for the BLM movement dropped from 67% to 55%, particularly in white and Hispanic communities, indicating that #blacklivesmatter was merely a phase for many.

But this needs to change, especially in cases of social justice. While spreading information is always valuable, pressing topics deserve action beyond a retweet. Our Instagram story is not going to feed a starving child. To make a difference, we need to ensure our support is continuous and extends beyond social media and not fall victim to performative activism.

Moneera Aiman is a student pursuing English Hons. from Jamia Millia Islamia.

Edited by: Anzal Khan

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Written by Moneera Aiman

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