Illustrations by Hannah Robinson
Since the killing of George Floyd, social media activism has proved itself to be an incredibly powerful phenomenon. Millions of people have taken to Instagram and Twitter, using their platforms to educate their followers, demand justice and call out systemic racism and police brutality. Social media has shown that it has the power to exponentially accelerate this social justice movement, but also that is has the power to drag it backwards.
Movements that thrive from widespread behind-screen activism are also vulnerable to two threats posed by the inherently superficial nature of social media. The first is performative ally-ship, which has reared its ugly head this week as many corporate voices attempt to finally join the conversation and comment on structural racism. Most notably, cosmetic brand L’Oréal, who posted a message on their Instagram page with the #BlackLivesMatter, proclaiming that “Speaking out is worth it”. This is the same brand who, in 2017, fired black model and transgender activist Munroe Bergdorf for speaking out about racism and white supremacy, stating that her comments were “at odds with [their] values.” L’Oréal has issued no apology or compensation to Munroe Bergdorf. Nor have they, at the time of writing, made any public comment to address the situation.
This brand has shown that it does not stand in solidarity with the black community and that it is not willing to take tangible action in the fight against systemic racism. Yet, social media has allowed them to commodify this movement as a marketing strategy and therefore capitalise on the black oppression that they have contributed to and continue to profit from. Companies such as this have twisted the transformative power of social media activism into a sadistic public relations opportunity whilst being applauded as anti-racist heroes. Social media can be a haven for performative ally-ship like this because online, words speak louder than actions. Often, social media allows the wrong voices to become amplified in the conversation therefore perpetuating systems of oppression rather than dismantling them.
The second threat that the Black Lives Matter movement is at risk of is virtue signaling: those who join a social media movement to make it seem like they care, but who take no further tangible action against injustice. Social media allows people, whether it be multi-billion dollar corporations, widely followed celebrities and influencers, or individual personal accounts, to post about justice and change to gain social points or to stay relevant in an algorithm, but then continue to ignore the systemic racism which they are profiting from.
Posting a black square or an aesthetically illustrated quote about equality onto Instagram does not make change happen. Activism for social validation is ignorance to the real effects of racism and black oppression in society. Activism to gain popularity and relevance online is disingenuous and, once again, it amplifies the wrong voices in the conversation. The prevalence of online virtue signaling means that social media activism can often do more harm than good.
Social media is forceful in the way that it can build momentum. It can raise awareness, engage people and challenge ignorance. But it can also be an easy way out of taking real, concrete action. Black Lives Matter is not an Instagram trend, nor is it a public relations opportunity and it certainly cannot be used as a method to sooth our white guilt and gain personal validation. Unless action is taken beyond our screens, nothing will change.