Opinion: the Double-Edged Sword of Digital Activism

Emily McDougall, Co-Editor

The Memorial Day death of George Floyd sparked nationwide protests against police brutality. Images of protestors with posters, walking arm in arm, fleeing from tear gas look eerily similar to the civil rights protests of the 60s. But the Black Lives Matter movement has a platform unheard of for Martin Luther King, Jr. or Malcolm X: Instagram.

The immediate nature of social media platforms seized the Black Lives Matter movement with renewed force.  Newsfeeds turned into crash courses about systemic racism and oppression. Petitions circulated daily, gaining thousands of signatures in a matter of hours. 

Instagram’s story feature became especially political. Its defining purpose, to post quick shots that may not make it to the grid, was radicalized to repost infographics, anti-racist quotes, and reminders that all lives cannot matter until black lives matter. 

These stories last no more than a day, unless they are saved to a “highlight” on the users’ profile. And so, good intentions and a movement against decades of racism and oppression quickly turned into a competition of who could be the most ”woke.” 

On June 2, activists urged for a moment of digital silence in remembrance of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. A solemn symbol of respect became #BlackOutTuesday. In theory, users would post a black square to their feed to demonstrate their support of BLM. Support turned into endless scrolling of black square after black square, all of them boasting their desire for justice and emoji fists raised in multicolored support. 

For many, that’s where the support ended. After posting a few quotes and a single black square, many patted themselves on the back and let their feeds return to normal. Performative activism rears its ugly head in the temporary clout of stories and snaps. 

Social media allows users to create a narrative. They can be the prettiest, coolest, most polished version of themselves. They can be social justice warriors, a digital King Arthur riding to the rescue of the oppressed. Wokeness is tokenized and broken into bite-size content chunks, easy to swallow and easy to post.

The double-edged sword of social media is the balance of convenience of information and the issue of authenticity. While there are resources and tools to assist the movement, it is easy to fall prey to the facade of progress that can be demonstrated by pixels and graphics. In order to address the deeper issue at stake, there must be a change of heart, not a change of aesthetic. 

Look beyond the screen. The current conversation may have been begun on social media platforms, but it cannot end there. 

The process of unlearning implicit biases is uncomfortable—but so is change. An effort must be made to educate and grow outside of what can be posted or shared. No prize is given for being the most anti-racist or the best social justice warrior. If recognition and applause is the motivation, social justice becomes another trend cycling through feeds. Lasting change can be instituted if the spark ignited by digital activism is fueled by research, reflection, and the choice to grow beyond the sins of the past and our present.