The revolution will not be Instagrammmed

Image Credit: Sinéad Mohan

Grace Donnellan looks at the pros and cons of Instagram activism.

Since its formation, social media has been utilised by activists. No wonder, as it is an accessible tool that can get your message across to millions. Social media has played a prominent role in a number of uprisings and protest movements, such as the Arab Spring, the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement and the Hong Kong protests. Over the past year, one of the most popular forms of this socially conscious appropriation of social media has been aesthetic Instagram slideshows. These slideshows are often in pastel or other eye-catching colours, use a clean font and feature short definitive statements such as “10 Steps to Non-Optical Allyship”. They are easy to share to your Instagram story and often have thousands of likes. This kind of PowerPoint activism has thus become popular among ordinary users and celebrities alike who feel that they can no longer ignore political issues on their feeds.

These slideshows are usually made in good faith by individuals, activists and advocacy groups. They present social issues in a visually appealing and digestible manner. This is not the first iteration of images being utilised by activists. At the 1900 World Fair W.E.B. Du Bois presented infographics displaying data on the socio-economic conditions experienced by Black people in America. He used this media form in order to simplify complicated information and make it accessible to the Black people in the communities that he had worked in.

Additionally, they shed light on issues that may not be given sufficient attention in mainstream media. Instagram has made activism accessible. Anyone can share their lived experiences and their knowledge with millions of others. This allows even the most marginalised to get involved in a way that is not overly laborious or time-consuming. This is a welcome change as often these individuals are left out of mainstream media coverage or may not have the time or money to devote themselves to full-time activism.

There is a problem, however, in condensing what are usually very complicated and nuanced issues into a few sentences. The ten image slideshow does not provide a means to critically analyse and contextualise a situation. Users may read a slideshow that tells them “Here’s What You Need To Know About Yemen” written by someone who has never even been to the country and feel as if they now know everything they need to know about it. It is very easy to create one of these slideshows and so they could potentially be used to share misinformation or a subjective account of a situation. While Instagram has cracked down on the spread of misinformation, it is harder for an algorithm to locate it in an image than in text.

Additionally, the question arises as to whether it is even appropriate to aestheticise human rights abuses and other tragedies that impact people’s real lives. Turning important causes into memes, such as what happened with the death of Breonna Taylor, may desensitise people to the injustices at play. Additionally, it may lead people to believe that by sharing a post they are doing something important to help. And while they are shining a spotlight on an issue, sharing a post alone is not enough to make a difference. This kind of performative activism plays into the hands of people who want to maintain the status quo.

It has been noted that these slideshows share similarities with marketing materials used by corporations, causing almost a branding of progressive politics. Many of the movements these slideshows advocate for, such as BLM, promote an anti-capitalist agenda. These slideshows demonstrate a confluence between aesthetic corporate branding and political education. While this form of political messaging has raised concerns, refracting capitalist tools through a moral lens is not necessarily a bad thing. The subversion of marketing strategies is what allows these posts to reach such a large audience as they appeal to the Instagram algorithm.

Instagram slideshows are a good starting point. Anything that attracts attention to important social justice causes is worthwhile. However, we cannot end our education and action there. This kind of activism can only go so far. Individuals need to take responsibility to ensure they seek out other resources beyond those found on the gram. Additionally, exposure and awareness don’t pay the bills. The most important and vital kind of activism is done on the ground and through fundraising. After you post the story consider what you will do next.