If you’ve been on your feed anytime the last couple of weeks, you’ve probably seen dozens of people you follow posting photos of Hong Kong riots or the rainforest burning, or noticed the hashtag #PrayForAmazonia trending. A similar phenomenon happened in June this year, with thousands of Instagram users changing their profile picture to a plain navy blue colour in protest of the human rights crisis in Sudan. For a time, my profile picture was blue, too.
For many Instagram users, myself included, there’s a natural instinct to repost the activism posts that resonate with us. I can’t help but wonder, though – how are we actually helping?
The world of Instagram activism is pretty widespread, so there isn’t really one right way to answer this. Insta-activism most commonly has to do with social, environmental, or political justice issues, displayed in many different forms. For example:
Anybody can be on Instagram. Literally anyone. As long as you have an email address, you can make an account. On the one hand, this can be a positive thing – it’s an accessible outlet for expression and connecting with other people. Conversely, though, the accessibility of Instagram makes it an easy avenue for spreading false information and clickbaiting users.
Take @sudanmealproject, for example. During the #BlueForSudan wave, this Instagram account went viral. Every other story I viewed was someone’s repost of this image on the right; Instagram was flooded with it. Virtually none of the 1.7 million users that liked and reposted this photo thought to fact-check this account. It had just the one post, no background credentials, no proof of legitimate existence – yet so many people fell for what later was revealed to be a clickbait scam.
Can we really blame @sudanmealproject for ‘taking advantage of people’s goodwill’, as some have put it? After all, this post wouldn’t have gone viral if it weren’t for the millions of people that shared it. People are annoyed that they were scammed, and that’s understandable, but we shouldn’t forget that the primary responsibility to fact-check falls onto the people actively choosing to repost something.
After we all changed our profile pictures to blue, did we ever think to check back on what was going on in Sudan a week later? A month? If you did, good on you, but it’s not a stretch to say most of us probably didn’t. To put it bluntly, it’s probably because we didn’t care.
The bottom line is that, most of the time, our activism is lazy. We post things because other people do, but we aren’t invested in what we’re posting – and most of the time, we’re post about the problems, but not the things viewers can actually do to help.
I talked to junior Cal Galicia, a member of the Executive Service Council that oversees the service community at SAS, about the issues with this kind of activism.
Cal goes on to explain how bandwagon activism is almost like chainmail; it’s passed it along because no one wants to be the one to end it.
“It’s a common phenomena — especially on websites like Instagram and Twitter –– where a horrible tragedy occurs and instantly; it’s trending like wildfire online,” he says, “it stems from an innate desire we all have to be liked and to feel good about ourselves –– it’s a sad truth but there it is. We see something terrible happen in the world and we feel bad if we don’t advocate for solutions to the problems. We feel guilty if we don’t.”
So, yes, by posting something like this (left), you are raising awareness, but there are thousands of people who’ve posted the same thing – yet nothing has actually changed. Social media is powerful, but it doesn’t have the power to make change. People, however, do.
If you want a solution to a problem, you don’t just share the problem… Find the issues that matter to you, and devote yourself to those causes. Every issue is important, but the reality is we can’t help everyone.
Instagram activism is not inherently bad. In fact, it can do a whole lot of good – but only if it’s used effectively. As Cal Galicia puts it, what makes activism actually worth something is when it promotes viable – though not always easy – solutions for the demographic it advocates to”.
In other words, tell people how to help.
Want to post about climate change? Then tell us what everyday products we use that can be replaced with sustainable alternatives. Angry about gun violence? Don’t give us your thoughts and prayers, tell us what government petitions we can sign.
It definitely takes effort to research solutions to a problem before you post about it. There’s no doubt that it’s significantly easier to screenshot and repost something you see on your feed. But think about it – if you aren’t willing to take that time to be more aware of what you’re advocating, it’s a pretty clear indicator you aren’t really posting because you genuinely want to make change.
The issue isn’t the Instastories – it’s thinking that they are enough.