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The Ever Changing Standards of Social Media Activism

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The emergence of social media as the new public square has democratized access to social movements and, in turn, activism. While this is generally a net benefit, the “short attention span” syndrome that has plagued social media users for over a decade has once again reared its ugly head — this time in Gen-Z Instagram activist circles. Online users frequently restrict their news consumption to headline-skims and synthesize their viewpoints from quick, digestible bites of information, resulting in “The Ever Changing Standards of Social Media Activism.”

So what does this mean? Because information moves faster than ever and gets broken-down into four-sentence pastel graphics, well-meaning teenagers who want to educate themselves on social issues often do not form concrete, in-depth beliefs and standards that they hold consistent. This manifests itself in how ultimately performative and empty the demands, actions and strategies being pushed by — most of — these activists are. 

One standard that changed drastically from one movement to the next has been the willingness to demand others to care about an issue. During summer 2020, at the height of the “Black Lives Matter” movement, Instagram activists were screaming “Read the room!” and “Why aren’t you posting about this?” to anyone who continued posting about their daily lives and personal developments during the ongoing protests, acting as if no one was allowed to have any fun or enjoyment during this time. No one was safe: celebrities faced possible cancellation and everyday people were pressured into keeping horrific images of police brutality ingrained in their minds 24/7 instead of celebrating their job promotions, their babies’ first steps or worrying about their economic security during a pandemic-induced recession. 

This sentiment was echoed by many online activists during this time, and I am not here to tone-police how militant an activist should be. Many activist movements in the past have achieved success by being aggressive. What I have a problem with, however, is that this strategy of forcing people to care would eventually be tossed aside during the “Stop Asian Hate” movement later on. This movement, started to combat hate crimes against Asian people, ultimately did not elicit the same combative pressure from the same activists that promulgated that exact strategy just the year prior. This time, I saw posts on my Instagram feed saying things like, “You can’t force people to care about an issue” and “Don’t use BLM to get people to care about Asian hate.” These slogans promoting a more relaxed approach were being reshared by the same exact people who, just last year, donned hardline activist personas to force people into caring about racial issues. 

Looking at these activists’ strategies and not the merits of the movements themselves, there is no logical reason as to why social media activists have switched up their values. It is purely a result of these people never truly believing in a concrete strategy in the first place. The Instagram political sphere rewards activists who are chronically online; those who are the most outspoken get the benefit of being viewed as morally superior without actually having to carry and ponder those same virtues in real life. Combined with the fact that news is broken down into brief Instagram slideshows, the consumption of actual information is thus kept at a very shallow and quick-paced level. Then, most people behind the screen don’t follow up on sources or develop their own values about what they have seen, trapping themselves in a cycle of resharing viewpoints that they aren’t very connected to. 

Speaking as someone who is in these activist circles, I believe that going beyond Instagram snippets and forming deeper connections to the issues we care about will become more of a necessity in our increasingly polarized country. We’ve seen how hyper-partisan Democrats and Republicans can’t even believe in the same set of facts. The media, including Instagram, is crunching news into soundbites and short clips to become more digestible and appeal to the “sugar-high” viewers get when they are outraged. None of this is good for the mental well-being of our collective society. 

Taking a moment to be more in-depth with the issues we care about will strengthen the consistency of our arguments and allow us to have more nuanced approaches, rather than just screaming snappy slogans at people. To be frank, I have definitely fallen into some of the same traps I described. However, I encourage everyone to be an imperfect activist who is aware rather than an imperfect activist who revels in outrage while never going beyond the regurgitated, shallow Instagram talking points. 

Johnny Nguyen is an Opinion Intern for the fall quarter 2021. He can be reached at johnnln1@uci.edu