On June 2 this year, the popular social media platform, Instagram, was filled with black squares. To the standard digital hermit, the sight may have been a welcome break from all the TikTok videos and cat memes that the Internet radiates. But on that day, Instagram stories were being updated frantically. People were worried that the black square users were posting captions with the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. Soon enough, the #BlackLivesMatter section on the app was filled with black squares, literally throwing a curtain on the content posted by black rights activists.
This is an example of a familiar modern-day dilemma of social media – whether Instagram amplifies, or silences, voices that need to be heard. All this boils down to the idea of a platform that serves multiple purposes. Some purposes are purely technical, such as posting pictures and comments, sharing stories, and creating groups. In the realm of politics, this translates to posting venues of protests, creating events, sharing resources for education, and instigating large-scale activism. Other purposes are relatively emotional. For instance, videos and vlogs highlighting racism or recording instances of police brutality appeal to the viewers’ collective consciousness and humanity.
But a rising third purpose questions the verity of certain posts, mainly by those who are termed 'slactivists', i.e. users who engage in lazy activism without contributing substantively to a cause. For such people, social media is a way of virtue-signalling, enabling them to publicise their moral high ground without actually engaging with the content or activities being organised. While there is some debate around the potential efficacy of slactivists in positively influencing others, the term recognises the filter that shields true opinions. This same filter can enable people to tread onto the sketchy side of social media, where actions are meaningless or promote hatred towards vulnerable communities.
Shortly after the outpouring of public protests following the killing of a black American, George Floyd, by the police, netizens took to Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube to express their outrage. This incident sprouted a variety of reactions, with the dominant theme of racial injustice. It reminded the oppressed that tragically, this incident was not without precedent. It resonated not only the angst of the Civil Rights movement in the United States, but also a paralysing history of mass incarceration, war on drugs, and white privilege. In this context, a rising generation of tech-savvy users felt the tug of political consciousness streaming through their fingertips.
Helen Margetts et al., while writing about the relationship between social information and collective action, discusses how political mobilisation in the past might drastically change now due to social media. In particular, while smaller and more intimate groups used to effectively incentivise and pressurise participants to mobilise, social media is making large groups more viable. This is primarily due to the relative anonymity and convenience offered by online platforms. As the initial protests in Minneapolis transformed into a global movement, thousands of Instagram profiles were filled with images of Floyd, his family, names of other victims, and colourful information flyers. Even the most inactive users were gradually joining the conversation, sharing an opinion or two, or just posting a black square.
While the mass movement was certainly effective in spreading awareness and promoting policy changes such as the Justice for Breonna Taylor Act banning no-knock warrants in Kentucky, it also led to counter-movements such as #AllLivesMatter. This backlash was reflected on social media as users left a combination of furious and vapid comments on BLM posts. But perhaps more importantly, the shield of the filter enabled subtler forms of engagement that paved the way for hypocrisy. For some, the movement became a tactic to enhance their online image to come across as 'woke' and compassionate.
PAIN IS BEAUTY?
We have all heard of the adage, 'beauty is pain', but what about pain is beautiful? Aestheticising pain was a significant part of the Romanticist movement, and even in politics. Art, in fact, is perceived as transcendental and norm-defying, which makes it an intriguing ingredient for movements. In fact, sociologists observe that movements often need to be performed and dramatised in order to be effective. Musical parodies denouncing the Trump administration; murals of George Floyd; and other BLM graphics, all evince the amalgamation of art, culture, and politics.
However, this also leads to entrepreneurs capitalising on online trends by producing merchandise, thereby commercialising the movement. As a result, a simple artwork of George Floyd by a graphic designer quickly expanded into a symbol, but also, in some cases, was reduced to a marketable commodity. As the protests continued all over the U.S., the rest of the world was exposed to these symbols and artwork being used to influence people far and wide.
In this context, Instagram risks providing a platform to users such as the slactivists – in addition to genuine BLM activists – who are drawn to the movement's aesthetic while excluding any real sentiment. The nature of the platform itself, with an emphasis on the visual social media experience, creates a paradox where dirty politics meets a neat layout. Manufacturers and creators risk providing users with content that is a polished, filtered version of reality. By sharing primarily aesthetic informative resources, the black community's daily angst can become reduced to a temporary trend. This is especially pertinent amongst privileged influencers who join the movement due to the pressure of social media and post content that generates self-worth, rather than actively engaging with the issue.
In today’s fast-paced world, we are often quick to like, scroll, and share information without genuinely engaging. This leads to influencers competing for attention with aesthetic content that filters the world to render it suitable for social media. It is difficult to discern whether someone is posting content due to genuine or superficial reasons. But if we don’t learn to sustain our focus on the issue and do the groundwork, trends will die without leading to genuine systemic changes.
- Social media and technology can be powerful tools to spread information and spur movements. But it can also provide a platform with filters and anonymity that can undermine the same movements.
- While merging art and politics can ensure an effective way to influence others, aesthetics often overlook the harsh reality and reduces collective actions to trends.
- It is, therefore, necessary to be wary of the limitations of social media. While Instagram can be engaging and empowering, the real work transcends the virtual world. We need to find ways to genuinely work towards systemic change and/or support organisations that are dedicated to ensuring long-term progress to move beyond Instagram.
By Synergia Foundation Research Team