There is no doubt that many of us turn to social media as our main news outlet to keep up to date with what is happening in the world. Particularly when it comes to complex political situations, we can receive quick briefs on an issue instantaneously, which is an attractive prospect. However, I want to look at the flipside of the relationship between social media and politics and the damage it can do, which isn’t necessarily always talked about.
Performance allyship is activism done to increase your social capital rather than a genuine devotion to a cause. Often someone will post about a current affairs situation or issue not to help the matter, but rather for the sake of how it will look to others, making it activism purely on a surface level. Through ‘aesthetic’ social media posts, awareness is generated about this issue, but its nature and lasting effect has generated many critiques.
Allyship itself is an authentic support system where someone from outside the marginalised group in question can advocate for those who are victims of discriminatory behaviour or a crisis. Within this authentic allyship, the individual wants to use their privilege to help those who lack it, to support them and achieve genuine change. Juxtaposed to this is performative allyship, where their supposed solidarity to a cause is strongly vocalised yet disingenuous and often can do more harm than good to the marginalised groups in question.
Often companies or brands will carry out this form of activism as a purely ‘tick box’ exercise as they feel they have to to ensure that their company or brand will not face backlash – it is entirely performance driven. Many people support a cause when it is ‘trendy’ and so their support only lasts the length of a news cycle. A common example used to demonstrate performative activism with the LGBTQ+ community would be people attending and posting about Gay Pride events and concerts, yet not actually campaigning or protesting for key issues the community faces or showing support in overwhelming times of hardship. I would go as far as to argue that instead, this maintains the status quo and feeds into supporting structural racism. To fully explain what performative allyship is, it is better to demonstrate through examples.
In the midst of the pandemic, on 2nd June 2020, ‘Blackout Tuesday’ became a mass social media movement for Black Lives Matter. This collective action was to protest racism and police brutality and was catalysed by the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and killing of Breonna Taylor. People urged businesses to pause their operations for that day, in a show of solidarity for the cause. Most notably on social media, the #BlackOutTuesday was a globally trending hashtag and involved users posting a single black square to show their solidarity with the movement. Social media was dominated by symbols supporting Blackout Tuesday, yet as much as this was intended to be perceived as a show of solidarity, people were quick to point out the faults in this approach.
Around 28 million users on Instagram used the hashtag along with a black square on the 2nd June, yet only 13 million had actively signed the petition for the police officers involved in the murder of George Floyd to be brought to justice. The issue of ‘performative activism’ simultaneously gained traction alongside the emergence of black squares, as many people said this show of supposed solidarity was more people showing their commitment to a trend rather than actively supporting a cause. Moreover, the social media movement quickly experienced a U-turn as people were quick to bash the posting of black squares just as quickly as they showed support. The backlog of posting these black squares alongside hashtags like #BLM, meant that people trying to find information regarding the movement, attacks, fundraising or protests were at a loss. The hashtags were inundated with black squares blocking genuine information. And so, it was determined that these posts were doing more harm than good. Blackout Tuesday has faced significant criticism since then in regard to performative activism and as being a form of virtue signalling. Pop singer Lorde summed up the issue well when she stated: ‘One of the things I find most frustrating about social media is performative activism, predominately by white celebrities (like me); it’s hard to strike a balance between self-serving social media displays and true action’.
The Ukrainian Conflict
Similar to the BLM movement, the current online support for the war in Ukraine is also facing criticisms. There are key questions to be asked – notably, at what point does the posting become purely performative? A tragic issue or event always generates a wave of posting online, particularly with people who place themselves at the centre of the narrative but fail to shed light on the real issue at hand. This is a key criticism of those sharing aesthetic infographics on their social media, or using the colours blue and yellow to show support, when arguably for many, they don’t even know where Ukraine was on a map a few weeks ago. This is surface level support, where people have posted a blue and yellow love heart on their page, but provided no real substance about how others can support those in the crisis or educate more people on what is actually happening. Yet on the same side of the coin, another key criticism in the world of social media is calling people out if they do not post enough.
Showing support for a cause online has quickly transcended into something of an obligation, where individuals feel like they ‘need’ to post about issues like racism, homophobia or situations like the war in Ukraine. There is no meaning behind it, they do not attempt to educate their peers, or march at a protest or raise money for the cause. As much as social media is one of the greatest tools for making a vast amount of people aware about an issue easily and quickly, performative allyship is one critique that needs to be addressed.
Resources to help people in Ukraine: