Black Lives Matter

#woke: Performative activism and social media

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The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement is currently dominating headlines and social media feeds following the murder of George Floyd at the hands of a policeman in the USA. Systemic racism is not a solely American problem and it is appropriate that we have conversations in the U.K. about our own history of racism and how it continues to affect modern society.

This article is not about the Black Lives Matter movement specifically, but rather an exploration more widely of the discourse surrounding ‘performative activism’ which has been highlighted in recent weeks, particularly in the wake of #BlackoutTuesday. Social media can be a really effective tool to raise awareness and spread information surrounding racism, but how much meaning does this truly hold if we are not taking tangible actions offline to fight for these causes?

Blackout Tuesday was initiated by two employees of Atlantic Records named Brianna Agyemang and Jamila Thomas as a way to “disconnect from work and reconnect with our community” as well as hold “the industry at large, including major corporations and their partners who benefit from the efforts, struggles and successes of black people accountable”. Their decision to go silent on the 2nd June 2020 soon spread across other industries, celebrities, and ordinary people posting black tiles to their social media pages to show solidarity with the BLM movement and draw attention to racial injustice.

It was not long before criticisms of this concept arose. Black Pride UK stated that they ‘would like to encourage those who care about Black lives to delete their black squares and post useful, helpful, uplifting and empowering information and images that further the #BlackLivesMatter cause’ and that ‘a feed full of black squares does not let us know that you stand in solidarity with us’. It was also pointed out that hashtagging these tiles with ‘blacklivesmatter’ caused information about protests to become lost amidst a sea of black squares.

Though well intentioned by the majority, #BlackoutTuesday ended up offering an easy way to show your support for the cause, without doing anything further that had a real practical effect offline.

This is not to say that many of the people who posted black tiles to their Instagram have not been continuing to attempt to help in a tangible way outside of their social media. However, potentially once people have made their post or hit ‘share to story’, they may pat themselves on the back and think that their work is done.

This is not an issue exclusive to the Black Lives Matter movement, it has just been amplified by it. There are several ways individuals can bring about real change to both the Black Lives Matter movement and other worthy social and economic causes. There is an abundance of worthy charities, social enterprises and Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) to donate to. Similarly, online petitions offer a way of taking a practical action for those who cannot afford to donate to multiple causes by putting pressure on systems and organisations to tackle particular problems and concerns held by ordinary citizens. If someone is sharing social media posts without carrying out actions such as these alongside their posts, their posts lose their meaning and integrity.

Another issue with social media activism is that it tends to be an echo chamber. Generally speaking, the people we follow or interact with are likely to hold views which align with our own, and algorithms are specifically designed to show us what we are most likely to agree with or want to read.

If our online discussions about social justice issues or politics are only truly being held with those likely to agree with us, they have limited impact outside of our social media bubble. Of course, discussions with those who disagree with us via the internet is not always a productive means of change either, as tone and nuance are frequently lost in online debates.

This article is not arguing that social media activism is wholly without merit. Much of my own interest in politics and current affairs has been generated by my online presence and this will be true of many young people. Sharing information and opinions via social media can be a valuable way of spreading messages and drawing attention to many of the problems facing our society today. Regarding the Black Lives Matter movement, social media enabled the video of the unjust killing of George Floyd to spread worldwide and re-ignite the civil rights movement on a global scale. The issue is where activism and interest in current affairs does not stretch beyond the confines of the online space.

In the current climate, activism may be more restricted to donations and signing petitions for those who do not feel safe to attend protests due to Covid-19. Once the pandemic’s effects have eased there will be many ways to practically contribute and create tangible change. Offline conversations with those closest to us are likely to have a greater effect in educating and drawing attention to issues than spending hours arguing with others online. Volunteering or canvassing are other ways of taking practical action and making a tangible difference.

By all means, continue to spread information and raise awareness via your social media accounts –just make sure this is backed up with real concrete action too.

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