The Issue with Performative Activism

Thursday, August 06

By Savannah Williams

"Performative activism is a pejorative term referring to activism done to increase one's social capital rather than because of one's devotion to a cause."

We've all seen it - a major event relating to a social or global issue occurs, and the next minute, people's Instagram stories are flooded with reshared pictures and videos of said event. Raising awareness, per se, for the devastating event that may have just happened. Something that, on the surface, seems to be harmless. What issue is there with people banding together to raise awareness for a catastrophe? 

Many people will raise the argument that "everybody knows about [insert event here] already, there's no point in sharing an Instagram story just to prove that you know about it too" or "posting about it does nothing".

Yet, it has come to a point where if you don't post something about an issue, you are portraying to others that you either: 1. don't care about it, or 2. are in support of it. Furthermore, it seems to be believed that if you only share one meagre post raising awareness you also don't care, because hey, why aren't you sharing more? This is reflected in the actions of companies making approx. 1 post during pride month, black history month, etc., essentially saying "We stand with you! Also, buy our products!"

So where is the line drawn between real activism and performative activism? Surely, you can't conclude that everyone who dares to share one post to raise awareness, is a performative activist who doesn't truly care about the cause.

I believe that you can tell the difference between performative activism and true activism by analysing not only the content of the "activism" someone shares but also the potential motives they may have. Were someone to share one thing saying "Black Lives Matter" to show solidarity, it is worth questioning their devotion to the cause. Did they provide links to petitions? Links to contact details for governors or other authorities? Important facts and figures regarding the issue? If it's a company, research: internally, how do their actions toward minority employees reflect their outward social views? Do they truly seem committed to their words, or are they using it as a way to simply push an agenda for more sales? By analysing these aspects of someones supposed activism, it can become quite simple to see their real motives, when taking into account the backlash they could get for not publicly being on the right side of an issue.

It has come to a point where people will say that to be a true activist, you must sign petitions, post photos of protests, and so on. But is that not performative activism in itself? Can one not be an activist without sharing it on their social media? It becomes an odd paradox: you're a performative activist if you only post activism on social media. You're a real activist if you make real-life moves like signing petitions and going to protests. But unless your social media shows you doing those things, you aren't a real activist. But if you post it on social media, you're a performative activist. Rinse and repeat.

However, the issue with performative activism lies not only in the sometimes shallow acts of showing "solidarity" or pushing an agenda. Sometimes, with so much information around an issue or event, we can experience information overload.

Whenever I first see or hear news of something, my first instinct will, of course, be shock, anger, outrage, and a desire to learn more. And of course, when I first see posts upon posts on social media regarding the issue, I read each one, interested to learn more and see what I can do to help.

Until, for weeks on end, all it is, is posts... upon posts... upon posts.

The posts lose their meaning. Based on my experience of hearing what the people around me have said during these times, it seems as though the information overload of every single person on your feed sharing something, will cause people to become desensitized. Now, this isn't to say that information should stop being shared; it is merely a fundamental issue with social media activism. It isn't as though you can have a roster with everyone on a social media taking turns to post about an issue to combat the information overload, but it is interesting to note that with everyone speaking up on an issue, people who may not have even been as interested in something in the first place, will become so desensitized that they end up not making the effort to educate themselves on anything at all; almost out of spite of the "annoying" frequency of the posts. Even I can be guilty of this at times; sometimes, when I'm tapping through my Instagram stories, and I see someone with ten slides of information on the same issue I've heard about so many times and already educated myself on, I will not make the effort to look at each one. This is because social media activism does tend to be very repetitive, contributing to the desensitization.

Unfortunately, there is likely no way to combat this. Seeing people post passionately about an issue is fantastic, and seeing people band together to share their views on an issue is a great insight into the power of our generation - but an unfortunate side effect is the desensitization that can come from it.

At the end of the day, it is important to remember that raising awareness is great - but physical actions most certainly speak louder than words.

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