Digital culture in the age of COVID-19: Unpacking performative activism
In 2013 three Black organizers — Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi — coined the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter in response to the murder of Trayvon Martin; the Black Lives Matter movement has resurged in full force seven years later. The movement attracted significant national attention when a video of the brutal murder of George Floyd at the hands of Derek Chauvin, a white police officer, flooded people’s feeds and entered the country’s pandemic-stricken political narrative. Since Floyd’s death on May 25, the Black Lives Matter movement has repositioned itself in the forefront of digital culture as global campaigns, memorial funds and protests organized via Facebook events have enabled activists and organizers to further the movement’s objectives. Though, amidst trending hashtags, seemingly “woke” Instagram graphics and pseudo-genuine corporate statements, the movement has generated conversation surrounding a passive kind of political engagement known as “performative activism.” Who’s guilty of it? Who does it harm? And who does it benefit?
We wanted to unpack performative activism as it manifests itself on social media by turning to the expertise of University faculty. Speaking to LSA Communication and Media professor Scott Campbell and LSA National Center for Institutional Diversity scholar Dr. Apryl Williams, we were able to discuss issues like performative activism, slacktivism and Instagram trends like the #blackouttuesday initiative. Dr. Williams and Professor Campbell reflected on the digital aspects of the movement thus far and speculated where the movement might go.
We asked Professor Campbell to define two widely circulated expressions for us: ‘slacktivism’ and ‘performative activism’. ‘Slacktivism’ characterizes people who use technology to participate in online activism movements without making an investment, Campbell explained. Essentially, it’s just laziness. Performative activism, on the other hand, is “different in the sense that your intention is to present an image of yourself to other people.”
Critics of performative activism claim that superficial online actions can undermine offline, on-the-ground efforts. However, Professor Campbell cautions us not to oversimplify, and argues that the relationship between online and offline activism is more layered than that. “I don’t think they are really separate or competing,” he said, “I would say that they are more of a hybrid, integrated place … (and) the things that we do online can ultimately translate to what we do offline.” He gives as an example the promotion of protests online, which, through the wide reach of social media, draw huge crowds. Even if initial posts are done with a performative intent, he explains that in today’s world, “if you accumulate enough likes or clicks … you’ve got a huge voice”.
The same idea held true in our discussion of the #blackouttuesday social media movement. Professor Campbell became aware of the #blackouttuesday trend though a subsequent academia blackout and conversations with his neighbors and friends. He mentioned these encounters as examples of the far-reaching impact of social media movements, saying that, although they are critiqued for being performative, online trends like the #blackouttuesday movement are “effective in the sense that (they) draw awareness”. People talk about #blackouttuesday and, as a result, increased attention is directed at the Black Lives Matter movement.
As the conversation unfolded, Professor Campbell drew our attention to the similarities between the current Black Lives Matter movement and the Civil Rights era in the 1960s. He recognizes the resemblance, but notes that we have a completely different media environment now. “It used to be that our media was a centralized place of power and money that would broadcast a message out to the masses,” he said, “in civil rights, the media was the way that the voices were taken up for policy change … we are seeing this now, but in a different way.”
Similarly, he believes performative activism is not a new phenomenon. People have always been accused of fronting, and the term ‘performative activism’ is just “an evolution of language referring to the same kinds of things”. Celebrity participation in recent social media trends, for example, evokes parallels to Tom Wolfe’s ‘radical chic’ essay, which criticized high society socialites and celebrities in the early 1970s for their incendiary and frivolous efforts to boost their image and status. However, Professor Campbell reminds us that there are some sociologists who say that all we do as people is front ourselves. The truth is often more layered than some make it out to be, and the pejorative language surrounding performative activism tends to “steer ... things in a negative direction that overlooks … the bigger picture.”
So where do you draw the line between meaningful and performative contributions on social media? Professor Campbell theorizes that there are two key parameters. First, consider the intention of someone’s participation. To draw this line, you must “know the person who is (posting) and what their motivations are”. If you are looking at online activism skeptically, Professor Campbell speculates that you tend to look at this line. It’s also worth considering the impact of a social media action; in other words,“to what extent does any (potentially) performative engagement still somehow translate into impact”. For example, consider if a celebrity engages in some kind of action just for their image, but it translates “into other people doing that thing for more genuine reasons”. He concludes that taking into account the actual outcomes of online action is a fair approach to take. After all, “likes and clicks are a new form of capital,” Professor Campbell reminded us, “the line is very hard to draw in terms of impact”.
Dr. Williams began our conversation by characterizing social media in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement as a “really good resource (with) two sides to it.” Williams says, “On one hand … those who are actively organizing and are on the ground (can utilize that information) and those who are not able to be on the ground … can learn from those conversations that organizers are spurring on social media.” However, on the other hand, “If the only thing you’re doing is reading on social media and you’re not actually engaging in any movement in terms of interrogating your own implicit biases or your own white privilege … then you have to move from the position of learning and into the position of acting.”
Acknowledging her role as an academic and a scholar who must “clarify some of the cultural misunderstandings that are happening,” Dr. Williams’s political engagement involves action that precedes social media activism. Before she posts anything online, she takes part in donating to bail funds and organizations as well as directly to Breonna Taylor and George Floyd’s families. In honor of Breonna Taylor’s birthday on June 5, Dr. Williams posted directing others to ways they could support the pursuit of justice for the late EMT. Though, she says, sharing posts is the last step we should be taking after we have engaged in active participation like donating as we are able and examining our own racially charged implicit biases.
When asked if she thought performative activism has manifested itself in any previous social movements, Dr. Williams assures us that, though she does not consider herself an expert in historical events, “... there’s always been a performative element because typically white people tend to co-opt Black faces and … tend to colonize them.” She pointed to mainstream white feminists of the 1960s and ’70s, who would try to “tag along off of the Civil Rights Movement.” Consequently, these white feminists failed to make space for Black women and women of color in the greater second-wave feminist movement. Thus, Dr. Williams tells us, there’s a “centered whiteness and a performative element,” with white women centering themselves “rather than thinking about and listening to voices of Black women.”
So, what kind of space should white activists occupy online in our current Black Lives Matter movement? Dr. Williams answers, offering a distinction between social media efforts that are “centered on whiteness” versus those that are “centered on Black communities.” The latter, she says, work to justly amplify Black voices.
Dr. Williams says the #blackouttuesday Instagram initiative that bombarded people’s timelines with black images serves an example of the kind of white-centered wokeness that ultimately overshadows Black voices. Rather than amplifying Black voices in the entertainment industry as the #blackouttuesday hashtag originally intended to do, it was co-opted as many “used (the) social media post to assuage (their) white guilt.” The black images were detrimental to protesters as Instagram feeds were clogged with black images, covering up resources for those on the ground, like tips on what to wear to maximize safety. Dr. Williams recommends we must “... be conscious of the ways our social activism … amplifies the work being done by organizers and protesters and ways it can be harmful as well.”
Ultimately, as Dr. Williams states, any and all conversations concerning white activists or “white allies” amidst the efforts of the Black Lives Matter movement can be counterproductive. Dr. Williams says such conversations “should have happened a long time ago” and that they “(take) power away from the movement.” She adds, “We can’t wait for these moments to do that ideological work because right now we’re doing the actual work ... Black people should not have to waste their energy and time explaining what white allyship is.”