Performative Activism

Eszter Klára Szabó

Performative activism is supporting a current sociopolitical issue to gain attention, and increasing one’s social capital rather than actually devoting oneself to making a difference.

This idea of wokeness has been around for a very long time already, but in recent years it has gained a lot more attention through social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Because time on the internet goes relatively fast, nothing stays relevant long enough for people to actually make a change. People will choose one problem at a time—which is not more important than any other ones, but graphic enough to keep people interested—make it popular, and create posts and hashtags about it. Then the media sees this and writes articles about it to get more clicks, and this becomes an endless cycle.

The question comes up: Why do people do this? It is to make themselves feel better by fighting for good causes. A lot of the time they don’t care about actual consequences or outcomes; they are looking for the easy answer, the illusion of change, so that they don’t have to address their own contribution to the problem: a problem that people choose to ignore, until it becomes trendy so they can’t anymore. This is when they display their moral virtue to the world, because they don’t want to be called out for staying silent. Influencers and other public figures like to do this too because they can capitalize off the moment. Even large companies have taken part in this behavior: for example, during the Black Lives Matter movement, because they know how profitable it will be for them.

 A big part of this problem is Instagram infographics. There are certain pages that specialize in these kinds of social issues and make pretty, pastel-colored infographics and catchphrases with little to no elaboration or educational content.  A perfect example of this phenomenon is the account called ‘impact’, which is ironically not very impactful. ‘Impact’ prioritizes aesthetics over substance, because they know it will do better on a larger scale, as it will get a lot of reposts and drive up the likes and followers too. They are aware that people don’t want to face the discomfort that these heavy topics could possibly bring them, so they only approach them on a surface level. They try to make activism more marketable and attractive, so that it’s easier to digest for the audience, or at least to those who share their values. Even though most of these accounts have good intentions, it’s important to keep in mind that intentions don’t equal impact. Posting on your instagram stories and making symbolic gestures will not dismantle systemic issues if you’re not doing anything off the computer. Practice what you preach, or don’t preach at all!  

Being woke has become the standard by now, but people shouldn’t be required to be invested in everything that’s happening in our world. There are so many social issues that one person cannot tackle them all, learn their complexities, and approach them all with the same care and urgency. That is unrealistic and takes away from real activists. I believe it’s better if you only focus on one or two topics at a time and do that properly, as Greta Thunberg does with climate change.