Social media continues to be an ever-present phenomena in our lives, shaping our actions and the version of ourselves we share with the world. But the moment we allowed social media to take an important place in our lives, we made social activism an inherently empty act to gain clout as a conscious, trendy and engaging citizen rather than participate in transformative change — or as we know it, performative activism.
My stance on performative activism depends on the topic at hand. Celebrities singing a cringe-worthy performance of “Imagine” during the pandemic is not remotely the same as promoting a GoFundMe campaign for Kyle Rittenhouse’s bail. One aimed to lift the spirit of those suffering from COVID-19 while the latter raised funds to release a teenager arrested for homicide. I am defending the value of performative activism that acts as a vehicle for globalized conversation on current issues.
The term performative activism is defined as activism done to increase one’s social capital rather than genuine devotion to a cause. Unfortunately, the involvement of social media in our everyday lives has blurred the line between allyship and performance. For us to be validated as conscious members of our community, we must prove that we are all on the same engagement level of social justice reforms. This catalyzes an inherent urge to be politically correct or risk being canceled or criticized. On social media, we selectively publish a version of ourselves the public will accept, granting us the ability to share engaging and activism-related posts merely to enhance our social capital. For instance, we have the choice to share short bites of information on the 2020 elections. And after our followers have seen our post, we believe our contribution is over and enough.
There is no escaping performative activism in a world where social media dominates. Rather than criticize it, we must take advantage of social media as a catalyst for conversation, spread less biased information and encourage others to engage in important causes.
The wide accessibility of performative activism makes it an essential tool for global progress. Citizens of countries with a high level of freedom, such as the U.S., have the opportunity to give communities who lack freedom a voice by encouraging conversation. For example, on Jan. 6, 2019, a Saudi Arabian woman, Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun, managed to seek asylum in Thailand after she posted aviral video on Twitter about how she faced violence and potentially death from her family because she renounced Islam. She continuously tweeted about her safety being compromised, drawing attention to hundreds of followers supporting her asylum request. Her story also encouraged conversation about misogyny in different platforms and communities, from human rights groups and Western embassies. Mohammed Alqunun eventually received asylum because of these efforts. Social media can act as an accessible platform to strive for change and substantial impact — a prompt and influential action.
Even while recognizing the importance of performative activism, it should never replace tangible, real-life action. Posting a black square on Instagram for#BlackOutTuesday should not be the one virtuous deed to overturn years of malice racism. It should be an entry to further conversations and a source of encouragement for protests, challenging state legislators and raising funds for organizations like Black Lives Matter, International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs, amongst others.
Before posting on all our socials — whether that be Instagram, Facebook or Twitter — we need to keep ourselves grounded on the privilege of speaking about current issues without worrying about personal safety. We must remain informed on the issues we repost on our stories and continue being consistent when such topics are not trending anymore. For example, even after the story of George Floyd’s murder stopped trending, we must still learn about racial injustices and work with organizations to transform our justice system. If and when the pandemic ends, we must continue to highlight the racial disparities in the communities affected by COVID-19. Most importantly, we must work on ourselves to surpass our collective capabilities.
This leads to the ultimate question: How can we do better?
It is up to us to focus on the benefits of this phenomena and encourage constructive discussions rather than encourage void activism.
Sara Perez (24c) is from Managua, Nicaragua.