Social media makes it easy to feel like you are engaging in politics in a meaningful way and for some, that may be true. Platforms such as Twitter and TikTok were crucial in helping Black Lives Matter protests gain support among people who may have never attended or been involved in these movements before. At the same time, Instagram story trends such as the June 2020 black square trend can also be harmful — people feel like they have done their duty to a movement once they have posted. This can make people complicit and passive.
Moreover, social media trends can at times do more harm than good. For example, during the black square trend, many activists claimed that the black squares were clogging up feeds and burying more important information such information about protests, arrests and donations.
In the same sense, luxury brands that use Pride Month to launch rainbow-colored collections of expensive items that many people can’t afford are engaging in “rainbow capitalism” in a purely performative way.
So how can you be involved in politics in a nonperformative way? In order to fight for the causes you believe in, I believe you cannot rely on corporations or big tech companies to help do that. Many corporations that have Pride collections and campaigns including AT&T, Deloitte, Amazon and Google, are also donating up to millions of dollars yearly to anti-LGBTQ+ legislation and politicians behind the scenes, according to Fortune.
Furthermore, big tech companies have come under fire for failing to uplift content by Black or BIPOC activists. Black creators have accused platforms such as TikTok of censoring and suppressing content that is related to activism or protests. TikTok has since apologized and promised to reform its algorithms to avoid racial bias in filtering content on the platform, but according to NPR, the results of this are yet to be seen.
Similarly, it is effortless for a celebrity to change their Instagram bio to “Black Lives Matter” or to post to remember to vote in midterm elections. It is a lot harder to actually get your hands dirty and turn social media activism into reality.
I attended the abortion rights protest in Washington Square Park in New York City on June 24 immediately following the overturning of Roe v. Wade. I saw people were capturing the protest aesthetic more than the actual speeches or conversations themselves. I saw some enter the protest just to take selfies with signs and then leave without participating in the walk. I saw celebrities post pictures at the protest and dozens of news outlets covering the celebrities in attendance.
The performative obsession with the protest aesthetic clouds what protests stand for and takes attention away from grassroots political organizing. In fact, the form of political activism that may have the largest tangible impact is likely not the most glamorous on social media.
Grassroots activism, or activism within local communities, might not look like protests with thousands of people and celebrities giving speeches. It might be door-to-door canvassing, translating voting documents to ESL voters, passing out flyers at community events, phone banking eligible voters or calling local politicians. These behind-the-scenes actions are what get policies passed — while large protests may bring attention to issues, they don’t actually bring about as much change as emotionally invested citizens coming together in solidarity in their community.
With my own personal experience canvassing and phone-banking, I’ve enjoyed being able to connect with voters one-on-one and discuss issues that affect us and our community members. Sharing our thoughts on these issues not only let me build community, it has also enabled me to hear different political perspectives and not stay stuck in an echo chamber of like-minded people.
Moreover, the attention given to protests is often temporary and surface level. The general public may pay more attention to white celebrities such as Karlie Kloss attending Roe v. Wade protests, which may take attention away from the many impoverished women of color in states where losing access to abortion is an immediate risk.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with taking pictures at a protest, but when people post those pictures on social media and act like they have fulfilled their responsibly to help protect abortion rights, it becomes harmful. Political activism isn’t a one time thing; it is an ongoing, long-term process of social reform that requires more involvement and effort than posting on your Instagram story. It requires bringing people together to fight for legislation and policies that they care about.