When everyone is an activist online, is anyone?

The rise of ‘topical activism’ means we're jumping from movement to movement without creating real change.

by Ella Glover
03 August 2021, 4:16pm

“Why is nobody talking about [insert cause] anymore?!”, “[Insert atrocity] is still happening, btw!”, “I’ve taken note of which ‘friends’ haven’t posted about [insert issue that has been reported on by every major news organisation]” — these are all phrases which have become synonymous with online activism, a practice which, while not new, has exploded in popularity since the beginning of the pandemic.

At a time when protests were banned (though still going ahead), and were genuinely frightening for those shielding from COVID-19, it’s unsurprising that the majority of pandemic-era activism has existed online. But once again, social media has turned something hopeful into something toxic, and a groundswell of negativity has risen to the surface. Instead of seeing activism as a good thing, it has become mandatory; expected. And such phrases, while well-meaning, have been used to shame the masses into sharing their engagement with worthy and necessary causes on the internet, blurring the line between genuine engagement and mandatory public caring.

The underlying sentiment is that if we aren’t publicly condemning something bad, or pushing for something positive on our social media platforms, we’re not doing anything at all -- whether we’re out on the streets or not. Olivia Yallop is the Creative Director of creative agency The Digital Fairy and the author of Break the Internet, the “first full length study of influencer culture and the creator economy”. She says: “After 2020, the (always somewhat false!) division between [our] online and offline selves has completely collapsed. The idea that you could think something or do something and not post about it is alien. “As a result, I believe we have reached our point of singularity with the internet: the significance of online action has surpassed its physical equivalent, posting is now the primary activity against which everything else comes second place.”

Even disregarding that question of fairness, our growing online culture of shaming people into speaking on each and every cause is unrealistic, firstly because it fails to acknowledge that a lack of talking does not necessarily denote a lack of action, but also because not everybody has the means or inclination to engage with issues of social justice. For some, this is down to privilege of ignorance, but for others, especially those on low incomes, a lack of time and resources to ‘do the work’ may not allow them to engage thoroughly.

Daze Aghaji, a 20-year-old London-based climate activist who organises and takes part in civil disobedience with the likes of Extinction Rebellion, is a firm believer that we should all consider ourselves activists. She says: “All of us should have time to participate in democracy and our society [but] there are people who literally just don't have the time because the world is so shitty to them, which I think we need to give space to.”

Plus, 21-year-old Francisca Rockey, a London-based geographer and activist in sustainability, education and diversity and founder of Black Geographers — a community interest organisation working to tackle the erasure of Black people in geography — makes the point that it isn’t actually safe for all activists to speak publicly about their work, particularly those in jobs that expect staff to stay politically neutral online, like the BBC or the civil service, but also people who belong to marginalised groups and could be subject to more scrutiny and online abuse than others. “If you come from a vulnerable group, then it might not actually be a good thing for you to be screaming and shouting,” Francisca says. “We need to remember that people do have jobs alongside what they do. And unfortunately, it does mean that they have to be careful for whatever reason.” This is something people don’t consider when they’re gunning for a statement from every politically progressive person they follow online.

And for those who are able to engage, it’s easy to forget that we, as humans, are hardly equipped to deal with this constant barrage of information at once. The pressure to juggle an infinite amount of injustices in our minds, while also worrying about our own lives and livelihoods, Daze says, is problematic. “It puts this real anxiety on the people who can't, or don't feel like they can, pick up so many issues, because, especially after these last two years, people are at a point of real emotional fatigue. This is where you get hopelessness and disempowerment, because it's like the weight of the world is too much to carry.”

She adds: “[People ask,] ‘why isn't anyone talking about this?' as though all of us have the emotional capacity to hold the world and all the problems in the world, on our shoulders.”

Olivia suggests the psychological impact of the endless supply of traumatic posts on social media, which we filter through among news updates and birthday wishes, is microcosmic of what content moderators deal with daily. People who moderate online content for YouTube and Facebook are prone to mental illnesses like PTSD and depression. “We’re simply not built to filter through so many digital micro-interactions every single day,” she says. “There’s an undercurrent of cognitive strain that impacts anyone who has a working relationship with the internet.”

Besides that, it’s important to remember that not all activism lives online and prioritising online activism over on-the-ground work could be counterproductive. As Daze says: “Me burning myself out, constantly commenting, and trying to get involved in loads of different social issues at the same time, is not actually going to help the issue.”

And that’s just it: Of course, grappling with your own privilege and stake in the world’s injustices never feels fair, and it shouldn’t have to, but we need to begin to ask ourselves whether pushing people to speak out on issues on social media is even practical.

“It’s important to remember that not all activism lives online and prioritising online activism over on-the-ground work could be counterproductive.”

It feels important to add that online activism isn’t inherently bad. A 2020 study.) found that micro-level evidence supports a positive relation between online activism and offline protest among citizens under repressive regimes, and can help to mobilise minority groups who “can more easily make contact and make themselves heard through social media,” and recent feminist movements aiming to expose and put an end to sexual harassment, such as #MeToo, have gained traction on the internet.

Sravya Attaluri, the Creative Director of Our Streets Now — a campaign which began online with the mission to end public sexual harassment through legislative and cultural change through awareness and education campaigns — backs the method. “I decided to use digital activism because social media is one place where minority voices cannot be silenced (or it is much harder to do so) and you can also find a community of others who relate, and reach a global audience,” she says. “Digital activism can also make activism accessible for disabled people who cannot protest in person.”

But the way social media facilitates bouncing from one cause to the next before any meaningful change has come to fruition is at odds with how on-the-ground activists approach their work. “It creates an online space that is very reactionary, rather than purpose and solution driven,” Daze says. “It becomes ‘topical activism’, where we find trendy topics to talk about and then we talk about it for a couple of weeks, and then it's on to the next trend without creating real, actual activism that doesn't just educate but creates change, as well.” She adds: “What’s better is, I root myself in the causes that I’m fighting for and practice solidarity with people who are doing the same for different causes.”

Francisca echoes this sentiment: “Personally, I feel as though people who campaign successfully are usually the ones that are campaigning on what they know the most [about],” she says. “When you start putting your eggs in loads of baskets, you can lose the grasp on what it is you were fighting for to begin with.”

Another problem with social media in general is that it has a flattening effect, particularly when it comes to activism, in that it forces users to package their activism up neatly and aesthetically, so that it can appeal to the masses. Nuance is often lost, and so is the understanding that activism is multi-dimensional; holistic. “The architecture of social media is antithetical to activist organising in many ways: it’s vertically aligned, it lacks key tools, it has inbuilt incentives and sanctions that condition users towards the status quo, the algorithm will always favour ‘lifestyle’ content that makes users feel satisfied over content that makes them feel uncomfortable,” Olivia says. “In the place of ‘traditional’ organising we get the hollowed out, social-media-optimised equivalent: the Instagram-infographic industrial complex.”

Francisca agrees: “Activism is not just sharing something online, it’s doing work within the community and having real life, in-person conversations with the people who are going to [help you] make the change,” she says.

But the way online activism has morphed into an increasingly self-righteous, guilt-tripping black hole is pushing people to perform activism online, often to the detriment of their own mental health and seemingly less often to the benefit of a single cause. As Olivia notes, “the broader activist concept that ‘silence is compliance’ has been distorted and co-opted — quite literally — for social media,” and expecting the world from activists and people trying to engage is likely to have a more negative effect than positive when it comes to galvanising the masses.

As Francisca notes, if we really want to make a difference, “Those who are interested and have the time should spend less time talking about what people are not doing and shaming people, and more time coming together and doing the work.”

Follow i-D on Instagram and TikTok for more on activism & internet culture.

mental health
Social Media