Social media as a way to spread information hardly favours political nuance and complexity, and the rise of the “story” feature on Instagram is no different.
Similar to the tweet and the hashtag which came before it, the “Instagram infographic” has become the latest format in which quick online activism, for better or for worse, takes place. From the protests of summer 2020 to the events occurring in Israel and Palestine, social and political issues are now accompanied by a wave of pastel-coloured posts on Instagram stories seeking to give the most concise explanations of some of the most complex issues of our times.
The increasing democratisation and accessibility of information through social media allows virtually anyone with access to the internet to gain knowledge, which can only be a good thing. But, where this so-called “Instagram activism” becomes an issue is regarding exactly what kind of information is commonly shared.
Just as social media can allow its users to access well-researched, insightful, and nuanced coverage of global issues, poorly researched and ‘click-bait’ orientated material has just as much potential to become widespread. While the production of these infographics is mostly well-meaning, reducing the context and explanations of the issues of the day to a (maximum) ten-image post means the final product can be an oversimplified caricature of what is happening in the real world.
The recent conflict in Israel and Palestine came with an increasingly common online discourse over the failure of ‘infographic culture’ to address the complexity of the situation between Israel and Palestine, particularly concerning allegations of Anti-Semitism in many of the infographics being spread at a time of rising Anti-Semitic attacks in the USA and Europe.
Just like in real life it’s easy to boil down an issue into a simple case of ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’, the same is true on social media.
How these Instagram infographics are consumed, typically on the story of someone you follow for the few seconds they are on-screen, means those with the most attention-catching and emotionally evocative titles win out in the race to go viral. A product of the rapid consumption model of social media platforms, Instagram’s emerging infographic culture bears the risk of becoming dominated by poorly researched information appealing to certain aesthetics or popular narratives which users would want to share.
The conversation around Instagram activism and the forms it comes in is emblematic of the wider debate over how social media is increasingly shaping the ways we both consume and spread information online. Gone are the days when media business giants were responsible for most of our news production both in print and on-screen, with social media allowing anyone with an account and internet access to shape online political debates.
This can mean that those traditionally excluded from these conversations have a voice, with the power to shape public opinion being increasingly divested from major media companies to anyone with the ability to forge an online following.
Despite this increasing equality in who can influence online debates, this also comes at the cost of fewer institutional checks and balances (not to suggest that media companies are in any way inherently objective or fair in their coverage) typically present in reputable news platforms in the spreading of online information, whether in the form of deliberate misinformation or poorly researched information.
One of many ways in which social media is radically altering the way we engage with political and social issues; the Instagram infographic is calling into attention the ways we need to critically engage in how exactly we receive information online.
Calling attention to social and political issues online has the potential to engage huge numbers of people in topics that may otherwise be swept under the rug; indeed, it arguably already has with the amount of political engagement occurring among young people today, especially online.
Where the problem with this new kind of political activism occurs is the offering of certain ‘solutions’ when the fast-paced nature of consumption of information on social media does not encourage critical thinking or debate.
Exactly how social media should be used to engage with political issues is not an easy question. The cat is well and truly out of the bag when it comes to social media and social discourse, and working within the model of social media platforms, such as Instagram and their story feature, is now a necessity.
Using social media as a platform to raise awareness of an issue and directly invite debate and conversation both online and in everyday life could be a more constructive use of the online tools we have rather than simply telling one’s followers what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ without any space for critical engagement.
The Instagram infographic is just another example of how we try to cope and engage with the changing limits to expression and communication on social media platforms. While complex and nuanced debates are not favoured on these sites, the potential for a more healthy and open-minded way of engaging in online activism remains dependent on how we choose to use the online tools at our disposal in the future.