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#Politics of Display

Real Activism or Clicks without a Cause?

Our social media experiences are not neutral. How can we engage without fuelling a platform conducive to performative allyship?

Real Activism or Clicks without a Cause?

June 24, 2022: My phone buzzes. I unlock it and check Instagram. Someone I follow had re-shared something about a gun having more rights than a woman in the United States of America. I took the bait—and clicked through in shock. After five decades, the U.S. Supreme Court had voted to overturn Roe v. Wade, ending the nationwide right for women to abort before the viability stage of 24 weeks of pregnancy. I closed the app, my mind reeling as I immediately wondered how the news outlets in Germany, where I live, would respond. A little-known fact is that in Germany, abortion—although possible with legal loopholes before 12 weeks gestation—is still technically illegal.

By the time I reopened the app an hour later, Instagram was completely saturated by posts on Roe v. Wade. My feed was mostly flooded by waves of outrage from Australia, my childhood home, where earlier in June 2022, abortion was decriminalized in all states but one. The next most prominent voices were those of my friends in Germany, even though on the same day, the German parliament had voted to remove a Nazi-era law that banned doctors from providing factual information about abortions—news of which only reached me days later. It was virtually buried in the wake of Roe v. Wade, which had completely overtaken the news cycle. Hermit activists were coming out of their shells to re-share infographics, express their anger, and let the world know that, yes, they, too, are feminists. Yet, amidst all the noise, something was off. Where was this anger back in January 2021, when Poland announced a near-total ban on abortion? Or in early 2022 in El Salvador, where thousands of womxn took to the streets to protest one of the world’s strictest abortion bans? And after all the global uproar about U.S. women’s reproductive rights, where were these same voices in July 2022—post the overturning of Roe v. Wade—when a 10-year-old rape survivor in Brazil was denied an abortion by a judge?

“How much of this social media participation is activism, and how much is merely performative allyship?”

Social media experiences are not neutral, and with algorithms that change faster than Berlin’s weather forecast, clearly, something larger was at play here. Today, several months later, the topic has all but vanished from my feed, only to be replaced by small bursts of similarly short-lived activism in response to whatever is surfacing in the news cycle. I can’t help but wonder: how much of this social media participation is activism, and how much is merely performative allyship?

This socially reactive sentiment around Roe vs. Wade echoes what we saw in June 2020, when millions of Instagram users posted black squares along with the hashtags #BlackOutTuesday and #BlackLivesMatter. What had started as an effort to hold the music industry accountable for systemic racism was quickly co-opted by uninformed users. I was swept up in it too, along with my boss at the time, a white artist based in Germany. Back then, not posting a black square felt like admitting to racism, but months later, I realized that it mostly served to appease others and occupy social media space, rather than promote actual anti-racist actions. I decided to archive my square. There were other, far more substantial ways to support the movement—ways that didn’t involve calling attention to myself.

“[Posting a black square] served to appease others and occupy social media space, rather than promote actual anti-racist actions. [...] It was all about the appearance of being “woke’”

Analyzing the phenomenon within the U.S. wellness influencer industry, researcher Mariah L. Wellman argues that black squares were employed to build social media credibility. After those initial posts, many influencers lifted anti-racist content from activist accounts and presented it in aestheticized form, blending it with their visual brands. These influencers, however, were unable to genuinely support the Black Lives Matter movement in the long term, resulting in what Wellman described as “the memeification of social justice activism with no substantial progress toward diversity, equity, and inclusion.” It was all about the appearance of being “woke”—a term historically rooted in the Black community to describe a staunch social justice advocate, but not really about partaking in meaningful change.

Corporations exemplify the same behavior. Earlier this year, we witnessed the blue and yellow color-washing of multiple brands supporting Ukraine on Instagram. At the time, I was working on the communications team of a multinational German sportswear brand, and I lost track of how many emergency meetings we had to craft various drafts of social media statements about the Russian invasion. These internal conversations always centered around the brand’s image and reputation. Our social media team was prohibited from posting any actual useful information, such as donation links and resources for displaced persons arriving in Germany, due to potential “legal issues.” The company saw itself as apolitical, so “their hands were tied.” Meanwhile, less than one kilometer away, thousands of people fleeing Ukraine were arriving into Germany on train after train at Berlin’s main station. The chasm could not have been bigger between the flimsy corporate social media response that finally emerged weeks later, and the actual groundwork needed to resettle the refugees arriving into the city.

“BLM, the Ukraine refugee crisis, Roe v. Wade, and other urgent social justice issues and movements are being commodified and leveraged to gain social capital. [...] This is the textbook definition of performative allyship.”

BLM, the Ukraine refugee crisis, Roe v. Wade, and other urgent social justice issues and movements are being commodified and leveraged to gain social capital. In their wake blazes a trail of neoliberal sentiment that quickly burns out once apps are turned off and phones are tucked away. This is the textbook definition of performative allyship. Holiday Phillips, a UK-based sociologist and diversity & inclusion advisor, best puts it into words as “someone from [a] nonmarginalized group professes support and solidarity with a marginalized group in a way that either isn’t helpful or that actively harms that group.” This manifests itself on social media as the individual or organization playing the role of an “ally” that publicly professes their support in exchange for social appraisal and approval. Although it’s entirely possible—and quite common—to engage in performative behavior offline, Instagram is especially conducive to this kind of allyship, as it urgently demands us to assert our stance. A hashtag enters the algorithm and begins to tumble around as we endlessly scroll and scroll. It fills up with hot air and balloons inside our social spheres, urging us to immediately engage.

Cyberspace today has grown into a labyrinth of data traps and commercialized social platforms that mine our information for private profit whilst suppressing marginalized voices. As pointed out by U.S. researcher Jessa Lingel, the internet has gentrified, making us increasingly more isolated and beholden to corporations and their shareholders. Prime real estate is given to those who can afford it. Attention is turned toward the voices that shout the loudest (and in languages imposed by the colonizers—English remains the dominant language of the Internet, despite three quarters of its users being from the Global South). As users, we deal in currencies of followers and engagement rates, gained from those who “double-tap” or “like” our content. In true capitalist style, climbing up the popularity ranks means increasing your social capital, in turn giving you a larger space to be heard—leading to more eyes watching your reactions, and more pressure to engage on whatever subject is trending.

If you get it right, your social capital goes up, but you get lured deeper into the circuit as more eyes turn to your reaction the next time a point of view is required. Instagram, in particular, has evolved into a high-speed train that rewards whoever jumps on one of its bandwagons. Whether you are a global brand, an influencer, or a simple individual user, this fast-paced system demands continuous engagement. The more popular you are, the more pressure you’re under to react well—and turn a profit.

“Instagram’s algorithm mostly circulates content in tune with our political views, creating an echo chamber that amplifies an issue disproportionately in favor of our own beliefs.”

The irony is that expressing an opinion on Instagram is rarely polarizing, and acts to only separate us further from those with whom we disagree. Instagram’s algorithm mostly circulates content in tune with our political views, creating an echo chamber that amplifies an issue disproportionately in favor of our own beliefs. It’s possible to glean an opposing opinion if we search for it, but even so, radical counter-ideas are rarely shown or are watered down, and our own “confirmation bias” kicks in. The more we click, the more data is gathered around our preferences, allowing Instagram to serve us what we want to see. We then stay on their app for longer, increasing its ability to monetize our activity. Fancy a “Don’t Talk To Me Until I’ve Had My Abortion” mug to sip your morning coffee? Well, if you clicked any Roe v. Wade articles—like I did, during the days and weeks following June 24th, 2022—you might’ve come across the U.S. brand Phenomenal’s abortion merchandise on your Instagram Discover page. It popped up among many other ads by pro-choice brands—and likely their pro-life counterparts—presumably targeting anyone who’d shown interest on either end of the topic’s political spectrum. Despite a brand like Phenomenal raising awareness around the issue, these links between activism and sales continue to fuel an algorithm that favors profit over people.

Today’s news cycle runs around the clock, with opposing time zones adding to its infinite continuity. Just as it is on social media, the distribution of the “daily scoop” is influenced by ownership. With media ownership concentration increasing, many tabloids and publications are part of the same parent company and spin the same stories in their headlines, influencing how much coverage they have in the overall media landscape—of which Instagram, owned by Meta Platforms (formerly named Facebook), now has a hefty slice. If it’s click-worthy, the value of a story increases and leads to its snowballing across the World Wide Web. Although this varies from country to country and from state to state, neo-colonialist attitudes still pervade, and economic powers can throw their weight around the global media landscape and influence portrayals of events through their hegemonic gaze. This became painfully evident following mounting comparisons of reporting on the Ukrainian refugee situation versus other recent and ongoing conflicts resulting in mass human displacement, like those in Yemen in Western Asia and the Tigray region of Ethiopia in Africa, both of which disproportionately received far less international media coverage.

“Content moderation mechanisms learn from biased data-sets which inherently reproduce racism, sexism, and ableism, and consequently they mute its most vulnerable users.”

Social media platforms like Instagram go a step further, not only in underrepresenting certain regions and cultures, but through their ability to shadowban, rank, and intentionally distort content distribution to censor their users. On May 5th, 2021, whilst Red Dress Day was commemorated across the U.S.A. to raise awareness for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG), the voices of Indigenous activists were silenced across Instagram and Facebook when their posts began disappearing. Content moderation mechanisms learn from biased data-sets which inherently reproduce racism, sexism, and ableism, and consequently they mute its most vulnerable users. In mid-2020, Facebook “confused” terrorism with activism and “mistakenly” deleted 35 accounts of Syrian activists and journalists trying to share vital information. Similarly, Instagram came under fire for censoring pro-Palestine content in 2021, effectively rewriting the narrative. In recent weeks, Iranian protestors have reported a similar silencing effect from Meta’s moderation, when posts speaking out against their government—which managed to bypass a state-imposed Internet blackout—started getting deleted.

Whilst access to free and safe abortions remains a crucial reproductive justice issue worldwide, there was elevated pressure to show outrage when the matter landed in a U.S. context. Most tech companies are primarily U.S.-based and driven, but not their user bases—according to a 2021 report, 88% of Instagram users reside outside the U.S. All of these factors contribute to algorithmic bias around U.S. issues that creates a fake perspective of very real events, with consequences that trickle down into how its users choose to support those affected. Research into media coverage and its effect on humanitarian aid indicates that increased media exposure to a crisis can indeed propel an increase in aid given by the public.

Instagram offers a podium to speak out as an activist online, but does not offer all voices the same opportunity to be heard. Understanding this unequal footing is vital in knowing how performative allyship may drown out groups that lie at the core of an issue. In choosing to participate vocally online, we should be aware of the space we are taking up. What is our positioning with this issue? Will our message connect with tangible action? Why are we reaching for the social media megaphone in the first place? The online sentiment of outrage following Roe v. Wade’s downfall was an important first step in challenging an oppressive agenda, but follow-up action needs to happen on the ground as well. Driving reproductive justice forward is an ongoing struggle, and there have been some victories in recent years. To ensure the decision does not derail long-term efforts elsewhere in the world, abortion activism needs to be sustained now more than ever.

In Mexico, for example, abortion was decriminalized in September 2021. Decriminalizing something doesn’t make it legal, but it’s an important step for women’s reproductive rights in a country with the world’s second biggest Catholic population. In 2020, the people of Argentina won a legalization vote on abortion, a paramount decision for a region that boosted momentum to the work of activists in neighbouring Latin American countries, echoing Guyana and Uruguay where legalization is already a reality. Colombia followed with legalization in February 2022. Chile recently voted against an amendment to the constitution which included rights to a “voluntary interruption of pregnancy.” Now, the fear is that in countries where the conversation is still ongoing, the anti-abortion sentiment from the U.S.A. could begin to trickle down and undermine all of their progress. In a European context, where the EU took a firm stance against Poland’s decision to limit abortion access, it muddies their argument to have such a large international ally now take a similar position against women’s rights. However, optimistically, the opposite has been occurring elsewhere as the surges of resistance in the wake of Roe v. Wade’s overturning have overshadowed the decision itself. Following rallies across the country in Australia, the final state waiting for its abortion legalization got it across the line, two weeks after Roe v. Wade was overturned. This points to what voice and action can achieve, and why it’s even more urgently needed when the opposing view threatens to take hold.

“Digital activism connects people to one another through sharing resources, educating, and building communities, but this potential for social change requires much more than re-shares or bursts of copycat behavior online.”

Digital activism connects people to one another through sharing resources, educating, and building communities, but this potential for social change requires much more than re-shares or bursts of copycat behavior online. It may begin by simply adding a call-to-action link to your profile, pulling people from the virtual into actionable activism through a community event or protest. Post-Roe, U.S. Congress representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez demonstrated this by sharing resources on how to access abortions if living in a jurisdiction that lost abortion rights protection. Activists living in Mexico have now banded together to distribute abortion pills across the border to U.S. states like Texas, where abortion was immediately outlawed following the fall of Roe v. Wade. Pills used to treat stomach ulcers are bought over the counter in Mexico and then distributed among a network of women in the U.S. states affected. If you live in Europe, you might have come across similar groups that exist, packaging pills to send to women in Poland, or arranging their transport and accommodation into bordering countries like Germany. Similar action can be taken to support women in the EU states of Andorra, Liechtenstein, Malta, Monaco and San Marina, where there are also highly restrictive abortion laws. When online security and personal safety are threatened by government surveillance, encrypted platforms like Telegram can be used to organize real-world meet-ups and connect people across borders. Abortion Without Borders is an informative network to start your search or consider supporting.

“Decolonization, anti-racism, and feminism are crucial social justice issues, and their support requires long-term, sustained engagement.”

All in all, online activism is nothing but another form of activism. Decolonization, anti-racism, and feminism are crucial social justice issues, and their support requires long-term, sustained engagement. Although global corporations like Meta still define the general parameters of online communication, as social media users, there’s still a lot we can do. We can hold brands, companies, and influencers accountable. We can boycott those that opportunistically engage with social justice issues to gain capital or out of fear of losing it. We can be aware of our own stake in an issue and use our platforms to elevate voices better equipped to speak out than our own. We can research local groups and initiatives to connect with and support. If we reflect on our own social media usage, we can think critically about the narratives our shared content is contributing to, and question who our activism is really helping. We all have the capability to influence politics and enact change if we channel our expressions into action through community. Sometimes activism can begin with a hashtag, but it certainly should never end with one.

Isabelle Winkler (she/her)) is an Australian/German writer and editor based in Berlin. Currently, she is in the Netherlands completing an MA in International Relations, specialising in Culture and Politics. Her interests lie in how cultural activism can shift ingrained prejudice and help centre the perspectives of communities traditionally underrepresented in international politics.