From photo sharing to politics
Recent weeks has marked another chapter in Instagram’s evolution. Over the years the site has continued to grow from a simple photo sharing site into a tool for much more. As the Black Lives Matter movement has grown, social media and Instagram in particular have become critical aspects of the movement. Social media has been used as both a tool to share information, locations and information about the actual protests themselves as well as a means of showing support, education and discussion. Black Lives Matter LA account grew to 150,000 followers in the past few weeks up from 40,000. Celebrities with large followings- such as Selena Gomez and Arianna Huffington- have given over their Instagram accounts to activists in order to allow them to reach their audiences. There has been an increase in posts showing ally-ship and support, dissemination of artwork and other educational tools. What does this tell us about the changing nature of the platform?
The evolution of social media activism
Social media’s role in protest and political activism has been steadily growing over the last decade. In 2010 and 2011 it played a major role in the Arab Spring and uprisings across the region- sometimes dubbed the “Twitter revolution”- it was used as a means of co-ordination amongst protesters as well as a means of showing the rest of the world what was happening. In the years since it has played a similar role in a range of protests and movements the world over, including other recent protests in Chile and Hong Kong. Indeed Black Lives Matter has long been using social media as a means for activism with the name coming from a Facebook post written in 2013 when activist Alicia Garza used it. Social media has also played a huge part in other political movements such as the #MeToo movement, the Occupy movement and activism to prevent climate change.
Gen Z leading the game
In part the prevalence of social media- and in particular the case of Instagram- reflects the role that Gen Z are playing in both the Black Lives Matter activism and other political movements (notably the fight against climate change has been lead by this demographic with many of the main voices such as Greta Thunberg using social media platforms to great effect). Instagram has a huge user base amongst Gen Z with it being estimated that 73% of them use it. Social media naturally makes for the quickest way to spread a message or the images and content that are so critical to protest movements. Content can reach massive audiences across the globe. And therefore allows people to see things or understand realities that they may not have encountered first hand. What’s more most of us have been having even more screen time than usual. Cooped up inside whilst sat on our phones and laptops has been a reality to many of us during the pandemic. Meaning more time to engage with social media than before. Social media also offers a means of looking at political or social issues and how powerful figures interact with them, to an extent not previously had. Interactions with brands is one area where it has changed our relationship significantly. Our ability to interact with them directly as well as critique and call out injustices or bad behaviour by global corporations has in part contributed to the rise of more conscious branding. Brands now know that customers expect them to be sustainable, politically aware, inclusive and doing their part to promote equality. And their social media channels need to reflect this.
The problem with online activism
Whilst this is to be welcomed it nods to some of the problems with social media activism. The performative aspect that can occur; posting on a topic does not necessarily reflect the institution or company. Major brands and fashion labels have been criticised for their posts following the last few weeks. Influencers and celebrities too have been seen performing on their platforms. And this is perhaps the concern with social media’s role in political activism- that real change on structural or corporate levels can get lost or glossed over with a few posts. Whilst social media certainly has a role to play and brings benefits to political change and activism the performative nature that is so inherent in platforms like Instagram and the heavy brand presence means there is a delicate balance to be found.