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The Equity Issue

From Informative to Performative: When Social Media Becomes Problematic

Within the realm of political action, digital technology, specifically social media, has become more relevant and utilized within movements—from the Twitter hijacking of the hashtag #myNPD in 2014 to #BlackLivesMatter and #Ferguson, the latter of which became some of the most frequently used racial justice hashtags in the first 10 years of Twitter’s existence. Many of these movements have utilized social media to call people to action against racial injustice.

In addition to this, social media has also offered a space where other groups who still feel erased in activist work to be seen. For instance, #SayHerName was created to center Black cisgender and transgender women as victims of state-sanctioned violence and non-police violence. This action was seen as necessary due to anti-racism work being seen as only centering the experiences of Black cisgender men. However, although many of these social practices have raised awareness, digital activism has also made it easy for individuals to engage in small, tokenistic acts of support or “slacktivism.”

Furthermore, performative allyship has led to doubts on the tangible impact of social media activism. It has also caused discussions on how some of these practices are harmful to the communities they claim to protect. So, what are the dangers of performative allyship, and how can we better use these platforms to lift and support marginalized communities? Let’s explore.

Not All Allyship Is Good Allyship

While there are many positives of social media activism, such as broad reach, lower participation costs and removal of participation barriers, it is not without its faults. Not only does it favor those with access to the internet, but the low commitment also needed to take part has given rise to other harmful consequences.

Seth Meyers, SNL Weekend Update, September 2012

If you make a Facebook page we will ‘like’ it — it’s the least we can do. But it’s also the most we can do.

— Seth Meyers, SNL Weekend Update, September 2012

Slacktivism

Slacktivists are the individuals that will engage with token behaviors but not follow through with more meaningful contributions from that point onwards. While such inaction may not seem nefarious from the outset, slacktivism is particularly harmful to groups needing physical or monetary support.

For example, a field study on slacktivism found that an online campaign that showed engagement from 6.4 million online users only received 30 physical donations. Preliminary research has shown that this is likely due to the lack of accountability and consequences of e-pledging. Nevertheless, this highlights the limitations of virtual acknowledgment and puts a doubt on the trickle-down effect awareness is meant to have. That said, these issues with effective social media aren’t relegated to just political activism.

Wokefishing

Coined by journalist Serena Smith, wokefishing is the practice where people pretend to hold liberal political views for sex. It is done intentionally to capture potential romantic partners or by someone who projects themselves as more progressive to bolster their dating chances.

Such a practice highlights the issues with representation and visibility alone being seen as virtues of a good ally. After all, wokefishing is especially harmful to BIPOC as research has consistently shown racism to be a “health-defeating stressor” that can increase the symptoms of anxiety, depression, psychological distress, and PTSD. Furthermore, it is very common for people from marginalized communities to curate their dating preferences intentionally.

As the data has shown, political preferences influence romantic interest, attraction, and even relationship length. So not only could wokefishing affect their comfortability dating long term, it arguably delays their chance at finding someone.

Trauma Memes

While Gen Z may be the most open generation when it comes to speaking about their mental health, data has shown that they are also experiencing more mental health issues when compared to other generations. Therefore, it is no surprise that many of them turn to online spaces to discuss and document their struggles. Trauma memes exemplify this, whereby participants lean on humor to help them process and share their experiences.

Although this can reduce feelings of isolation and provide accessible content for audience members who are curious about the noted mental health issues, advice from unverified sources has the potential to exacerbate or worsen someone's existing mental health issues. Furthermore, it simplifies the information around mental health illnesses in general, which can be harmful to an unknowledgeable audience. This is also the main critique of Instagram infographics.

Instagram Infographics

Rather than lean into humor to make their content more accessible, Instagram infographics seek to educate people on complex political and social issues. They do this by distilling complex issues into bite-sized colorful information cards that can be shared online. Although these infographics have helped disseminate information that isn’t easily found in Western media coverage, there are many issues.

For one, the oversimplification of complex geopolitical/social issues is presented in a way that can contribute to misinformation. Furthermore, the sharing of these infographics directly contributes to slacktivism.

This isn’t to say that these infographics alone are to blame, but it’s essential to recognize whether or not you’re haphazardly sharing social justice content for the optics.

So, What Makes Good Racial Allyship?

While many of the practices highlighted above are problematic, sometimes this harm is done without ill intent. Nevertheless, this means taking the time to consider how you might be harming marginalized communities is even more necessary. So how do you shift your actions into more effective allyship?

Good Allies Tend to Exhibit Three Core Characteristics:

  • They must see themselves as White (or their proximity to whiteness).
  • They must recognize the power and privilege that comes from this.
  • They must be actively working to dismantle all systems of White supremacy and be willing to share power with members from marginalized communities.

The issue with performative allyship is that token actions are used to avoid more meaningful forms of activism, instead of seeing digital actions as a starting point to be supplemented with donating money, protesting, advocating for members from marginalized communities, or volunteering time and skills.

Digital engagement is often seen as verification that their efforts were successful. But as we can see from the third characteristic embodied by good allies, this doesn’t count as meaningful action against systems of oppression. After all, online engagement doesn’t mean a systematic transfer of power to subjugated groups. Furthermore, research has shown that public token support doesn’t necessarily lead to increased meaningful support for social issues. Therefore, people must begin to recognize the limitations of their current allyship.

Meredith D. Clark, PhD, researcher and scholar

At its core, the concept of allyship rests on the recognition of power and privilege, and the intentional transference of these benefits to members of subjugated groups.

— Meredith D. Clark, PhD, researcher and scholar

How to Better Use Your Platforms

Social media activism and allyship aren’t ineffectual. For example, the 2020 George Floyd protests, dubbed the largest movement in U.S. history, were sparked by social media engagement. However, online engagement turned into physical mobilization and protesting even in this example.

Furthermore, a 2014 survey found that two-thirds of White people had no non-White friends. So digital activism can be instrumental in giving White allies access to racial narratives and state-sanctioned violent acts they may not otherwise be exposed to. However, it is vital not to become apathetic or fall into a false sense of security because of this.

How to Ground Your Actions Into Meaningful Activism

Consider the following:

  1. How else are you supplementing your activism? This could be by donating directly to marginalized people or volunteering your time. Perhaps you may even volunteer your skills to help give BIPOC a fair chance to compete in the job market.
  2. Be honest on whether you have actively tried to share power with marginalized folk. There have been many instances where allies have taken center-stage instead of vouching for the people they want to help. Remember, subjugated people are not voiceless, but the systems have intentionally muted them.
  3. Advocate for the people you seek to help. If you see something in a public space or at work, say something in the moment. Don’t wait to give your support in the shadows.
  4. After sharing something online, ask yourself what’s next. To increase meaningful support for social issues, we must acknowledge the problem. As soon as you’ve engaged with something on social media, take a moment to remind yourself that there is still more to be done. For example, supporting Black-owned businesses.

A Word From Verywell

Even with the best intentions, it is easy for people to fall into performative allyship. However, we all must remain vigilant in the fight against oppression.

While it may have been challenging to see why the social media practices above are harmful, it should now be clear to see why and how we can better show our support. In the end, while sharing a post on social media may feel good, good allyship should center and affirm BIPOC. 

Living in a racist society isn’t easy, therefore, the activism needed to fight against it won’t be easy either. It’s time to put meaningful action back into social media activism.

Artwork by Alex Dos Diaz

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Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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