In the last number of years social media has become a useful tool for gathering momentum and solidarity around social movements and advocacy campaigns. Some would argue the digital realm makes activism and the resources needed to engage in it much more accessible for people who may have limited capacity in being able to do so or otherwise may not be aware of the issues prevalent in society at large. Although valuable in terms of raising awareness outside of activist circles, advocacy via social media can thread a fine line between meaningful engagement with a cause and mere virtue signalling by those who feel obliged to like and share due to perceived social pressure but may not actually meaningfully engage in a cause, to perform ‘wokeness’, without the accountability one would normally experience being a part of a movement ‘on the ground’.
Where does the value of social media lie in the context of a society experiencing a huge increase in social movements and campaigns; does it provide an essential tool to increase accessibility to these causes or does it, only for a fleeting moment, provide engagement and virtue signalling?
Social Media and Accessibility
In recent months we’ve all probably come across at least one social movement or social justice campaign via Twitter or Instagram. The first that comes to mind is Black Lives Matter. At home we’ve also seen social media utilized as a vehicle for mass social engagement to tremendous success via the ‘Yes’ Equality or Repeal campaigns. Many recent social movements struggled to associate some sort of hashtag or online iconography tied to them.
Particularly in an Irish context, the invention of this online forum for social change has massively helped in alleviating accessibility issues previously dogged by campaigns. Particularly in a physical sense, many movements by nature become city-centric, given the usual constraints of time and energy, as well as a public transport system that’s unreliable and financially inaccessible the online realm offers a fantastic alternative to actively engage with fewer barriers to participation. This being said, this may be a useful tool in terms of finding new avenues for mass demonstrations or acts to initially draw attention to a cause but, can social media also double as a tool for deeper-engagement geared toward the deconstruction of deep-rooted societal inequality?
In the height of the Black Lives Matter campaign there was a shift in conversation, beyond awareness raising of police brutality via social media blackouts but in addressing white supremacy, anti-blackness and, doing the ‘work’ as white-allies to unlearn these racist attitudes and white supremacist sympathies.
The key to this cultural conversation emphasised doing work beyond sharing an Instagram post or hashtag, going beyond that to seek out Black and POC voices and their works, their stories and using your initiative to educate yourself as an ally rather than demanding those directly affected by these discriminatory norms relive their trauma or expend their emotional labour and energy to hold your hand in dispelling your ignorance.
After following prominent campaigns with a dominant online presence in years previous, such as Repeal or Marriage Equality where both campaigns relied heavily on personal stories and having those directly affected by the issue at hand utilize their vulnerability and trauma in the name of education and awareness raising, seeing this conversation opened up (albeit in an American context) was refreshing.
For a while there was a huge energy and effort around highlighting resources such as works from Audre Lorde, Michelle Alexander, and James Baldwin making them accessible to people who may normally continue to scroll or share a black square and call it a day, with the intention that in doing so, they may engage in ‘doing the work’ that is required behind the scenes.
News Cycles & Virtue Signalling
It’s important to note that, Black Lives Matter as a movement was not just an invention of the circumstances of police brutality and anti-blackness in 2020 – but a movement initially prompted by the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the muder of Trayvon Martin in 2012. The movement has been working since to advocate against police brutality, but has only ever been drawn to the attention of those unaffected by the phenomena following brutal expressions of brutality against black and poc communities in the US hit the news or begin to trend on social media.
One factor that plays a huge role in what circulates our feeds is the news cycle. What we consume is often dictated by its cultural relevance and it’s cultural relevance is often dictated by what may encourage the most views or clicks. The way this information is portrayed is often in short and snappy ‘bites’ of information, enough to get the general gist of what is happening but not nearly enough to provide context. Neither does this content demand viewers to engage with content critically or in a meaningful way. This presents a huge challenge to contemporary social movements and the consequences of such is something we’ve seen play out with Black Lives Matter, as the news cycle eventually began to digress to other stories and, in turn, so did many people’s news feeds.
The conversation that had begun with BLM (and in turn our own movements here at home around Direct Provision, which also began to gain momentum around this time) continued almost in earnest. Resources still circulated but not to the same extent, black squares began to disappear from users’ grids, while some feeds began to prompt users to think critically about transformation in content being presented to them.
This form of virtual accountability from strangers on the internet encourages a similar kind of accountability you might experience in a traditional movement, but in an online setting this becomes largely reliant on the person on the other side of the screen who has the inclination within them to engage.
This holds the potential to venture into ‘virtue signalling’ territory, wherein people engage with a movement by sharing or retweeting information surrounding a cause but their main motivation for doing so is due to perceived social pressure (i.e. seeing their friends post and the fear they may be perceived as disengaged or heartless for not doing the same) and may do little else to engage with the movement. It provides almost an aesthetic of performative ‘wokeness’ characterised by posting the ‘right’ content at the ‘right time without truly putting in the legwork to engage meaningfully with the issue at hand.
‘If your feed has returned to ‘normal, ask yourself why’.
Engagement & Accountability
When information and resources are arguably more accessible now than ever before, the notion of not reading up on a cause, engaging with the work of seasoned advocates and taking action beyond liking/sharing/retweeting might be considered a form of willful ignorance.
As the ‘peak’ of the conversation around Black Lives Matter began to subside, my feed took on an interesting dichotomy of black squares, reading materials, voices of Black and POC experience with pepperings of selfies, memes and dog snaps. Some might argue that this offers a prime example of the disengagement that follows on from virtue signalling?
For many indivduals fighting for these causes they do not have the luxury of ‘switching off’, the consequences of living as a person of colour in white supremacist society is not a hat you can take off at the end of the day, it doesn’t disappear when you log off.
Tackling this phenomena many have highlighted that in sympathy with this lived reality as allies to a cause we must sympathize with this fact by demanding of ourselves that we remain ‘on’ in the same way that they are unable to ‘switch off’. The nature of social media ensures that we are always ‘on’. We know that this can be damaging in a regular context to our own mental health and wellbeing.
Being constantly inundated with information, particularly extreme images of tragedy (something massively prevalent via harrowing videos of police violence earlier in the year) can bring us to a point of ‘fatigue’ in that the stream becomes so normalised, it’s impact lessens and soon holds potential for us to dismissively scroll in order to deal with what is essentially an information overload.
With that in mind, is this the most effective way of showing solidarity, engaging in the ‘work’ and sympathising with those most affected?
Instead, what if we asked what we can do in solidarity with this reality that simultaneously produces actions that are meaningful and productive to the cause. We can scroll and share and retweet to the early hours of the morning but could it be more productive to take time to engage in reading; local activity around the movement (or if there isn’t any, helping to establish some); and having conversations in your social circle. To do the ‘work’ – be it internal or within your community – that may not necessarily appear online and earn you brownie points but actually extends beyond to both acknowledge and empathize with a cause and hold ourselves accountable as allies in a way that also acknowledges our capacity as human beings.
Social media is an incredible tool in building a movement and a sense of community in an increasingly disconnected world. It serves an invaluable function by creating awareness, providing access to education and engaging folks in a way that was not possible before. This is especially true in Ireland where so many causes and campaigns are often quite city-centric making access to ‘in person’ events and community groups incredibly difficult. There is a ‘risk’ in terms of those who engage in preformative activism but in turn it does possibly present an opportunity for those who have a tendency to only passingly engage with content surrounding a cause to fall down the ‘rabbit hole’ of content and have it result in a tangible and constructive outcome compared to binge watching cake videos on Youtube.
Our feeds may operate in cycles but the lessons we have learned from movements such as Black Lives Matter is that our engagement with social justice must not. And so it is on us to hold one another accountable in meaningful and tangible ways that stands to benefit the causes we wish to fight for.