When Protest Turns Performative

While social media has paved the way for more casual activism, social justice issues have also been used as trends.


photo by Jess Daninhirsch

Social media has provided a platform for all to voice their opinions on societal issues, whether or not those concerns are genuine.

Sally Cho, Staff Writer

We all saw the flood of black squares on our feeds in June. We’ve all seen the educational infographics on people’s stories. We’ve seen hundreds of links to petitions and people proclaiming, “Why is nobody talking about this?!”

When the death of George Floyd sparked an uprising in support for the Black Lives Matter movement a few months ago, it seemed like everyone I followed on social media suddenly turned into an activist overnight, even if I had never heard them utter a word about politics before. 

Over these last few years, being “woke” and taking part in activism has turned into a social media trend. Such performative activism is designed more to gain social standing rather than to give voice to our devotion to a cause.

With the recent rise of political protests across the country, we have all become so quick to proclaim that we’re activists fighting for whichever marginalized group or issue is placed in the spotlight, even those of us who were once silent and chose to stay neutral when confronted with a situation in real life. 

When we see a certain political topic trending on social media, we proclaim ourselves as allies, without any intention to change our own behavior in real life.

Social media expects everyone to be loud, which in itself is a problem, as it makes us feel compelled to have an opinion about seemingly everything, even if we don’t really mean it. We don’t want to feel left out, which seems like such a shallow notion when discussing a serious topic like activism, but it is true. We want to feel like we are a part of something, even if we aren’t truly educated on what that “something” is. 

Celebrities are especially guilty of this. Many celebrities opted to simply just post a black square during the peak of the Black Lives Matter movement and say nothing afterwards. Although they have a platform they could use to help raise awareness and gather donations and signatures, many celebrities chose not to do so. They want to look “woke” enough to please their activist supporters but not so much that they turn off the rest of their fan base.

For marginalized people, activism is not a choice… They cannot choose when to participate and when to walk away.”

Even large companies can engage in the same kind of public relations. Following the death of George Floyd, practically every major company issued a public statement about how they were standing with the movement and their black employees, but most failed to actually detail how they would do that. Companies, like celebrities, want to please everyone by going as close to the line as possible, but never crossing it.

But how can any of us claim to be an activist if we’re trying to please all sides? 

One of the latest examples of performative activism was seen in the case of Breonna Taylor. Vanity Fair put Taylor on the cover of their September issue. TikTok creators made videos lip-syncing to the words “Arrest the killers of Breonna Taylor.” It’s become a trend for people to write “…but anyways, justice for Breonna Taylor” in their Instagram captions. And yet, Taylor’s killers have not been convicted for her murder.

I can’t imagine how it would feel to see my deceased daughter’s face plastered all over the media as a platform for people to showcase their activism, when actual justice to her has not been served. 

Perhaps what is most troubling about performative activism is that for many, it is merely a choice to be active in politics. We can simply choose to log on to Instagram that day, repost a “woke” picture, pick fights with some nay-sayers, and log off. If we’re ever feeling overwhelmed or upset, we can simply just set down our phones and walk away from it all. Most of us have the privilege of being able to do that.

However, for marginalized people, activism is not a choice. Injustice in the world is injustice in their lives. They cannot choose when to participate and when to walk away.

Of course, some of us truly do care about the subjects of our social media posts, and understand the importance of educating ourselves and raising awareness, even after a movement’s momentum has died down on social media. I applaud and respect those people, as they are true activists.

But when suffering and tragedy are reduced to a chain of grandstanding reposts on social media, activism is cheapened.  Activism is not about how woke we are, and it is not a social media trend. 

Genuine activism involves attending protests and donating money to activist organizations, and when those are not possible, signing petitions, and joining social justice clubs in our schools. 

And if you have no interest in any of those measures, the best that you can do to support and uplift marginalized voices is to leave the posting to those who truly care.