Performative Activism

In a world consisting of prominent issues that influence society, there are many people who are willing to use their voice and make a change for the better through activism, through means ranging from social media to physical opposition. In light of this, as social justice issues gain attention and recognition around the world, performative activism has become increasingly popular, yet common. Performative activism is the act of activism done to escalate one’s social capital, rather than because of one’s genuine devotion to the cause. This term has been used derogatorily to refer to activism that takes place mostly online and is carried out by individuals who want to appear to be involved in social injustice issues, yet fail to make an effectual change. 

How Blackout Tuesday Became a Social Media Moment - The New York Times
Many celebrities participated in #BlackoutTuesday on Instagram. (Credit: NEW YORK TIMES)

Concerns regarding performative activism escalated during the Black Lives Matter movement, followed by the death of George Floyd. Amid this movement, approximately 26 million American took to the streets in opposition against police brutality, while millions of others took to social media platforms, using relevant hashtags to support the movement. Despite this unprecedented outpouring of public support, some critics expressed concern that much of it was merely performative, aimed at gaining social clout rather than genuinely supporting the movement and its demands. Concerns, as such, only escalated after the #BlackoutTuesday, in which millions of people support the movement by posting black squares. Many activists claim that, rather than bolstering the campaign, the torrent of posts inadvertently drowned out vital details that organizers on the ground were using. According to a Yale University student who was a part of the uprisings, Jordi Bertrán Ramirez, “You have this social approval that comes with posting — we conflate likes and views and follows with value — and so even with people who are of the best intentions, you’re trying to play this game, this algorithm, of social media, while trying to promote something that is inherently not individualistic.”

Up until the present day, performative activism is becoming more common, with the recent Israel-Palestine conflict. Individuals have spread awareness about this conflict through infographics and news uploads across social media. These infographics come in a variety of colors and types, but they all follow the same pattern: they’re mostly text-based, with big, transparent fonts against dark or pastel backgrounds to make them stand out, and they are designed to go viral. However, as important as social media is to the advancement of progressive changes to a cause, it also serves as a trap for performative activism, in which posting an image makes the individual feel better, but has no tangibly positive impact on the challenges they are facing. It has also been brought up that many people tend to lean on a specific side of the conflict, through their activism. Taking this into consideration, Anna Garbar, the co-director of New Story Leadership, suggested, “Try to avoid statements like ‘I stand with Israel’ or ‘I stand with Palestine.’ If you really care about the people in the region you shouldn’t choose a side, you should think about how to find a solution for them.”

A massive banner was put up in London to advocate justice for Palestinians.

Moreover, it is believed that performative activism has also escalated with the crisis of the increased COVID-19 cases in India. South Asian students are turning to activism in the wake of India’s recent devastating COVID-19 case surge to help and aid the nation through the crisis, while dealing with their own grief simultaneously. Regardless, as more awareness is spread through social media, an activist, Martyn Ewoma states, “Sometimes when things become trends people just share them without actually reading them or even agreeing, it’s just fashionable,” implying that there is a skewed perspective on how much real activism is happening. Many people also suspect that some donation sites that claim to help support the crisis are not authentic, due to how the funds may not go towards where they are supposed to, which is an example of performative activism. To combat this, Sneha Ranade, the Indian Students’ Association’s director of programming, encourages social media users to contribute their own research on how their donated money can interact in what they repost, to avoid slipping into performative activism.

Social media paves the way for more awareness to be spread and is extremely crucial for different people around the world to gain an understanding of significant global issues occurring. However, with more individuals getting involved in activism, majorly rather online than offline, it is believed that performative activism has become more prevalent today. While there are many individuals with great intentions towards helping a cause and making a change for the better, there are others who might be using an issue to their advantage and for their own benefit. It is important for all individuals to be aware of how their actions in regards to activism can really impact the issue or cause itself.



Tiana Thwin

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