Performative Activism: How is it Harmful?

by Gia Orsino
January 29th, 2021

Social media has given rise to an entirely new understanding of what it means to be an “activist.” Back in the day, to earn such a title you needed to essentially dedicate your entire life to activism: spend your days educating yourself and others, volunteering, taking to the streets day after day despite potentially facing jail time or worse. But in 2021, it seems as though you can earn the same title by reposting @nowsimplified threads onto your Instagram story from your bed. The expedience that social media affords our activist efforts have been good in many ways, but it has also led us into an era of performative activism, that is, claiming your status as an activist for clout.

Now, I don’t mean to disparage all social media activism, nor do I mean to say that all social media activism is performative. In fact, it can be a crucial tool (especially in a post-COVID world) which we can and do use for quick and accessible education, organization, and lightning-fast information distribution. For example, the revitalization and the successes of the BLM movement last summer in 2020 were completely reliant on the use of social media. However, the performative activism that comes with this new era is more problematic than you might think. More than simply being “fake,” it can cause real harm to BIPOC communities. Let’s dig into why.

I recently saw a thread being reposted constantly about the tragedy of the crisis in Yemen after a popular news Instagram account brought it to everyone’s attention. That seems harmless enough, right? Although, if we think about why someone might feel the urge to post something like that, we can begin to see the problem.

By reposting some facts and figures about a humanitarian crisis on your Instagram story, what are you really doing but showing your followers how much you care about the crisis?

Why not, for example, save your 10 seconds to go sign a petition, or donate a few dollars toward the cause? Why not google “how can I help,” and then actually do the helping?

Being “woke” in the modern world gives you social capital. It’s considered cool to be interested in social justice! Do you ever wonder why every celebrity you follow seems to take part in ‘activism’ today? People know that their followers will like them showing that they support social justice causes. Literally. This is how Performative Activism is born.

So then, Performative Activism is basically “activism” for clout rather than tangible action based on a desire to promote social justice. But before I get into how this can be harmful to BIPOC communities, let me digress.

I recognize that some people have no other means to support these causes other than social media, and yes, accessibility in educating people on these topics is important (which is why these Instagram chains exist!) Then let me ask you why there are over 21 million black squares posted on #blackouttuesday, yet over the 8 months since Breonna Taylor’s passing, there have been only 11 million signatures on her petition?

It is not when we post on social media that the damage is being done. It is when we use these posts as a substitute for action, as a way to get followers or clout, or when we don’t check the privilege we have to be posting these stories from the comfort of our homes without having to worry about our own rights. Therefore we find ourselves exploiting the struggles of these communities--particularly BIPOC communities--as a way to make ourselves look good on social media.

So maybe next time you go to repost a story, or add your picture to a new hashtag, think about whether what you’re saying on social media is reflecting your actions. And if not, maybe ask yourself why.