Morgan Neville discusses the powerful impact that online activism has in our society, questioning how we can distinguish the performance activism and popularity pleas from the use of such platforms for active change.
We’re living in a digital age, where social media is part and parcel of everyday life, so it is unsurprising that the political sphere spills over onto platforms where everybody has a voice. Generation Z and beyond are increasingly taking to social media to display acts of activism, perhaps due to the immediate and vast reachability provided online. Not only does everybody have a voice, but immense followings are becoming ever more accessible to the average user. The Digital Marketing Institute says that a video with 1 million views is considered to be medium viral, and with TikTok’s 1 billion monthly users (as of January 2022), this doesn’t seem too difficult to achieve. This reachability can be beneficial for social change, but it comes with the danger that anybody can gain a sense of authority. On the contrary though, the ability to blend into the sea of voices on these platforms gives light to unhelpful, performative activism. This article will explore these ranging displays of political and social activism, and what we as consumers can do to give precedence to the right voices, whilst making sure that we don’t assume a passive, performative position.
In some cases, a single video will go viral and suddenly you have a ‘creator’ status and a platform. In other cases, followers are gradually gained, and a sense of trust is garnered over time. TikToker Ann Russell falls into the latter category; Russell is known for her household and cleaning advice, and she has grown to a following of 2.1M. The widely beloved user fell into some contempt in recent months, though, after posting her sadness at Queen Elizabeth’s death. She was questioned in her comment section at her support for the colonialist monarch, but she doubled down on her support, claiming that the Queen could not do anything about the monarchy’s atrocious past. Russell seemed to fall even further from grace, when she, in a now deleted video, set the grammatical parameters for racism, and told a woman that she had not experienced racism even though the women felt that she had. Many people criticised Ann for this, including the TikTok creator Jeff Kissubi, who argued that Russell tried to ‘invalidate and diminish people of colour and their experience’. As a white woman, Russell is in no place to tell the victims of colonialism that the Queen tried to make reparations, nor can she tell a woman of colour about the technicalities of racism.
It becomes very easy to feel that one can speak with authority when one has a following, even if all that following seeks from you is cleaning advice. This begs the question then – if anyone has access to overnight fame, how do we as an audience prioritise the right voices when having these discussions? We may feel inclined to give voice to anybody who appears to share these experiences, insofar as their identity aligns with the marginalised social categories in question. However, author Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò suggests that we should be wary of such standpoint epistemology and that we risk the perpetuation of rigid social categories. If we assume a shared experience across broad social categories, we lose individual experience and imperative nuance. Therefore, the solution is not to simply take a backseat and leave it to others.
Should we instead provide a quieter form of activist support? Instagram, as a social media platform, offers less access to internet fame than TikTok, since the format means that one consumes less information from fewer people in less time, compared to the endless stream of TikToks one can scroll through. Unlike the pedestals given to TikTok users, the immediate shareability of Instagram posts means it is easier to ‘blend in’ on Instagram, allowing users to covertly align with social movements. An example of this can be found in the summer of 2020, when the tragic death of George Floyd reignited the Black Lives Matter social movement. I’m sure everyone remembers the “black squares” that flooded our Instagram feeds on 2nd June 2020. Whilst it may seem that this mass, yet quiet, display of support would be approved of by Táíwò, for many people this was simply performance activism. Besides generating traffic, this kind of mass reshare doesn’t aid actual social change. Whilst the intentions for most people may have been good, it allowed for people to appear to commit to social change, even if it was being done merely to blend in, or arguably worse, to cover white guilt. It can be difficult to find the line between raising awareness of important social issues and performance activism.
So, what can we as an audience do to aid important societal change, all without crowding spaces or being passive? Social media and TikTok fame are often random and fast; we as viewers and those with platforms must make the effort to make room for people with relevant personal experience. Recognising privilege and social bias allows us to realise our inability to relate to certain marginalisation. Listening to, and more importantly, comprehending the voice of others is absolutely fundamental to societal change.