Amidst the intersection of social media and politics has emerged a new kind of online brand: activist influencer. From sponsored posts to paid vacations, these social media celebrities have built their online identity on social awareness and advocacy. They brand themselves as activists, show up to benefit parties and social justice panels, and amass thousands of followers in love with their “cool” lifestyle.
Because of the influence of these online activists, so many of their followers now see activism as a trendy side activity or perk-filled paid job rather than an undercurrent of life to which we are all connected and for which we are all responsible. Influencer culture combined with “woke” culture has created a social desire to get personal rewards for being an activist.
In reality, however, activism should not be part of an exchange for recognition or money. Activism and organizing should not be portrayed as a glamorous piece of one’s identity in order to increase online follower counts or to gain access to exciting opportunities. Although it’s completely valid to use social media to spread activist messaging, amplifying your work and amplifying yourself are completely different things. Leaders of our generation’s inclination toward social justice should use social media to promote activism, but not to promote themselves.
Genuine humility and passion for justice often seem to be missing from these social media platforms. Rather than sharing resources for change or information about inequality, influencers use their profiles to create a self-serving online persona. Through perfectly curated Instagram highlights of different aspects of their lives, social media activism takes personality branding to a dangerous extreme.
While the list of articles criticizing youth slacktivism is endless, it’s important to address the specific, nuanced concept of personality within this slacktivism analysis space. Personality has very little place in activism. Of course, leaders of social change often have characteristics that make them compelling and commanding, but nobody would stand on a soapbox to tell crowds of protestors about their extracurricular involvement in climate strikes. They would talk about climate justice and environmental protection itself.
Activism, after all, should not be about individual people—it should be about a community and its issues. It definitely shouldn’t be about those who are privileged enough to have the resources to join unique and interesting extracurriculars or go on “volunteer” vacations in order to weave together an identity that others want to follow. Activism should be centered on the people who are most affected by the issues these activists claim to fight for, centered on people doing the grassroots activism on the ground and not looking for fame because of it.
Because social media is such a powerful resource for youth, looking at activism through rose-colored lenses blinds viewers to why activism is so important. The reasons for activism are often uncomfortable, violent, and oppressive, making the romanticization of activist work even more harmful to how we intertwine social media and social justice.
Following dozens of young, progressive influencers enforces the idea that we should be rewarded for helping others. But in the midst of our generational discussion of acceptance and community, this seems to be the exact opposite of what activism is supposed to do. It should not only dismantle gender inequality, for example, but should bond people together through service and passion simply for the good of humanity. That is what activism is, after all—work for the good of humanity.
Nobody should be involved in activism for recognition from their peers or others online, and constantly consuming pseudo-activist content online, from blue avis for Sudan to captions about female empowerment, can often distill the content, remove the action-based rhetoric, and numb users to the usual urgency of the post.
Social media activism has its perks, from resource-sharing to connecting with other like-minded individuals, but, somewhat paradoxically, it’s overwhelmingly self-serving. Personal branding and the representation of activism as some kind of flawless, glamorous activity feed into these presentations of an idealized self. These social media activists aren’t inherently bad, however; their platforms clearly have immense possibility. But rather than showing up to a march simply for a good Instagram post, they should be just as happy to show up without taking a photo. Activism needs to be grounded in real-life work, intertwining advocacy into our lives rather than our profiles.
By Katherine Williams