Instagram Activism: more than just for show

Amy Wang and Grace Tseng

For any user of the ubiquitous social media app Instagram, it’s easy to see that a change has washed over it in the past few months. Whereas before, my feed was filled with carefully curated pictures posted by classmates and friends, now not a day goes by when the stories that I’m clicking through aren’t in some way related to current issues and events. Whereas before, people shied away from posting about political issues, now such voices are everywhere, coming in the form of pictures and videos and colorful graphics. 

There’s a change in the numbers tool; from February 2020 to March 2020, the number of active users increased by 3.7%, while in months prior to the outbreak, the number of active users on Instagram remained stagnant. Factor in issues like the recent spread of COVID-19 and the growing number of activist organizations on the app, and it’s easy to see why.

The recent prolific cases of police brutality and the increase in awareness of such issues have caused online activism to see a surge in interest. Despite the recent protests, there are still many who aren’t yet comfortable with going outside in large groups, and so it’s become common to see people taking to their Instagram accounts to protest and demand the improvement of country’s unjust laws. 

Sharing links in profiles and on stories has become the new normal for many users, and posts concerning racial equality and police reform are often shared. Links to bail funds and protest groups, as well as Google documents of minority-run businesses and fundraisers have become popular, and can be found almost everywhere. The hashtags #blackouttuesday and #BLM have garnered massive support, surpassing 29 million posts each on Instagram alone.  Additionally, online events have been organized to show solidarity, and in one case, Blackout Tuesday involved black squares of the pages as a show of solidarity for the victims of racial injustice. 

This new wealth of information, from the Google docs to the master lists of petitions, as well as the posts outlining what supporters of BLM can do to help enact meaningful change, are signs of a new and impactful resource. The app, which has had one billion monthly users in 2020 is often looked to for trends.  Information, and misinformation for that matter, spreads like ink through water. Lengthy cycles of awareness-focused posting have been useful in garnering widespread support, but like all social media, there are problems with making sure that what’s going around is accurate and updated.

Yet at its core, the issue with Instagram activism in general can be seen in the hashtags, especially for Blackout Tuesday. While around 20 million people posted the black square on Instagram, the ultimate goal of 9 million signatures on the petition asking for justice for Breonna Taylor has yet to be reached. This disparity, among others, raises the crucial question of how much of Instagram activism is performative, or done simply because it’s trendy and everyone else is doing it. Or, more simply, done for show.

About a month ago, story ‘chains’ were common, and users who participated tagged friends in a show of solidarity with the BLM movement. While those who participated likely had no ill intent, their actions had no positive or lasting impact on the movement, and did nothing of real benefit. These stories, while tagged with BLM, did not include any links or additional information on how those concerned could help. Such problems involving awareness but not actual action show the underlying issues with using Instagram as a vehicle to push meaningful change. 

However, what is certain is that with such a large group of users, when proper steps are followed, meaningful change can happen. There are many ways to do this; education, communication, and advocacy are all well within reach. As with many other courses, teaching plans on studies of racism and African American history in the US have been released by universities across the country, and are widely available for free use to the general public. Taking a second to verify whether the information given by widely shared posts and graphics is also a good learning experience. What with the boundless depths of the internet, there’s a lot more than just posting black squares that can be done.

When users take the time to step away from shallow activism and instead do the necessary research on the issues they’re advocating for, the impact is huge. Activist pressure is an immensely useful tool when it comes from so many, as can be seen from the reversal and reconsideration of several decisions regarding police brutality in the past months. When users take responsibility for what they post and share and donate to, through actual research and advocacy, the massive numbers we’ve seen in the hashtags can make their way into real life.