Front of house: The rise of social media activism in 2020

(Megan Li • The Student Life)

Following the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Tony McDade, the Black Lives Matter movement was front and center on the national stage. With many states experiencing spikes in COVID-19 and many people actively social distancing, online activism and communication emerged as a crucial tool in organizing

Community organizing groups used Instagram and Facebook to spread information about upcoming protests and fundraisers. Snapchat was also a crucial tool for protesters, as it allowed people to share information real time as situations unfolded at protests. Social media was also helpful in holding police accountable, as people were able to share pictures and videos from events instantly if confrontations occurred.

The presence of activism on social media platforms extended beyond just organizing efforts: It permeated the social aspects of how we use social media platforms as well. From late June to early August, there was an unspoken — and sometimes spoken — expectation that people would not post nonpolitical content on Instagram, such as beach pictures and selfies, so as to not take space away from organizing efforts.

This pressure did not cause posting on Instagram to subside. It was instead replaced with Instagram graphics breaking down larger concepts, like police abolition and the prison industrial complex, into a digestible size with simplified language. 

These graphics were helpful to an extent. Not many teenagers, especially those living in white, affluent suburbs, are privy to the language of prison abolition or the nuances of how racial bias operates in the police force, and these graphics served as an approachable entry point to the world of racial justice organizing.

Despite the good intentions of those designing these graphics and those reposting them to their Instagram stories and feeds, the manner in which they were popularized and the nature of some of the graphics quickly became cause for concern. People became concerned that the visual aesthetics of many of these graphics trivialized that which they were covering. Informative, well-intentioned graphics began to be overshadowed by graphics with chunky modern text detailing how to prepare for a coup and Sanrio characters holding signs with protest slogans. 

It is understandable why these aesthetics would become prominent. By using design conventions already familiar to many social media users, accounts can increase the chance that others will share and interact with their content, ultimately allowing the messages of their posts to reach a wider audience. However, some argue that by invoking an aesthetic used mostly by brands and influencers, it is easy for the messages of the posts to be diluted.

It was also clear in some instances that these graphics were drastically oversimplifying the subject matter they were covering. Simplified explanations of the steps necessary to achieve justice for Breonna Taylor and topics like the school-to-prison pipeline may make that information more accessible but should not be used as anyone’s final or only source of information on the subject matter. The nature of these posts can cause a spread of misinformation, as many people repost these graphics upon seeing them without doing any research into the subjects being covered. Chicago-based activist and author Eve Ewing commented on this in an Instagram post imitating the aesthetic and language of these posts, urging Instagram users to be conscious consumers of information and “share with care.”

It is not just the graphics that are cause for concern. The act of reposting graphics to one’s Instagram story has also raised questions among activist groups as to what exactly people’s intentions are in doing so. Reposting a graphic to one’s Instagram story takes little to no effort but grants one the outward appearance of being informed. Things like this yield an influx of performative activism, which dilutes the message of the information being shared and the organizations associated with it. And, in the instance of the Instagram blackout, it caused active harm, with black squares flooding the Black Lives Matter hashtag and suppressing important protest information.

Despite the sometimes dangerous nature of these graphics, many people making and reposting them have good intentions. So how can people make sure that they are sharing with care? 

One easy way to do so is to do a quick fact check before reposting something to your Instagram story to see if there is any misinformation or if details are omitted. It can also be helpful to check in with yourself as to your intentions in posting it. Are you doing so because you genuinely want to boost this information or because you want to appear informed to others? Another thing to do is make sure that you are boosting information that genuinely needs to be shared. A post from CHNGE or So You Want To Talk About with 150,000 likes may not need boosting, but information from local organizing groups about protests and fundraisers could benefit greatly from being shared. 

So long as the information is correct, is respectful of the material being covered and is being shared with the right intentions, share it. Social media can be an incredibly effective, and necessary, tool in raising awareness.

Caelan Reeves CM ’24 is one of TSL’s pop culture columnists. She’s a government and literature dual major from Chicago and loves everything to do with music, movies and books.

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