Bhardwaj: The rise of performative activism

Divya Bhardwaj, Op-Ed Contributor

Infographics have completely taken over my Instagram feed. I can’t go a day without seeing dozens of aesthetic diagrams that friends and acquaintances have shared, with each advocating for a specific relevant issue. And while there’s certainly a role for social media to play in activism, I find the scope of infographic use to be alarming. Instagram posts are meant to amplify a message, but I often see them being used as a replacement for actually understanding an issue — and that has dangerous implications. 

Every day, many take to social media to spread the word about instances of injustice, promote resources for marginalized groups and share infographics to help others understand current events. On Instagram, in particular, it’s easy to both share your own views and amplify those of others. I’ve learned about issues ranging from climate change to government corruption through posts my friends have shared with me. The digestible, bite-sized pieces of information have helped bring new topics to my attention and keep me up-to-date on current events. I also share infographics from time to time; it’s an easy way to spread the word about causes I’m passionate about. However, the problem with social media activism arises when the commitment does not extend beyond the platform. 

While Instagram can be a good starting place, reading and sharing posts on social media should not be a substitute for doing research on a topic or contributing toward a cause. Infographics are meant to explain issues in simple terms, to capture people’s attention and spread a general message. While they can be helpful, these posts are not even close to being comprehensive accounts of social movements or current events. Unfortunately, consumers often treat them as such. No matter how good an infographic is, gaining true insight and knowledge on an issue only comes with extensive independent research: examining first-hand accounts, reading multiple experts’ opinions and keeping up with current events. Simply sharing a few posts and failing to take further action is performative activism.

Social media can reduce important, persistent issues to merely passing trends. Instagram users have been briefly infatuated with causes such as Black Lives Matter, Free Palestine and the #MeToo movement. My feed is often inundated with posts on the topic that’s currently the most popular. Once the topic is no longer trending, I hardly ever witness anyone sharing more information or new developments related to the issues they supposedly cared about. While the ebb and flow of Instagram trends is inevitable, the longevity of the trend shouldn’t determine the importance of the issue. If we are truly passionate about a cause, we should continue to advocate for it, educate ourselves independently and join groups that can bring about positive change. When we conflate posting on social media with activism, it implies that causes are only noteworthy when they’re trending on Instagram. 

With social media, the need to appear caring has superseded real passion. I truly believe that people who share Instagram infographics do have their hearts in the cause — but their activism should extend beyond just a screen. 

Divya Bhardwaj is a Medill freshman. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.