How To Spot Performative Activism, and Why It Can Do More Harm Than Good

Photo courtesy of BELatina
Photo courtesy of BELatina

With so many communities in America facing discrimination, hate crimes, racial attacks, and more, it seems as if any opportunity to speak out in support of what is right should be welcomed with open arms. Right? 

As it turns out, not exactly. 

Cultural experts and activists argue that there’s a difference between true allyship and activism versus performance activism, and performance activism could do more harm than good.

Once you understand precisely what performance activism is, you can begin to understand why it can be problematic. But that’s part of the problem — in this social media-obsessed reality we are all navigating, it’s hard to know what’s a performance and what is authentic anymore. Clearly, people are confused about when it is appropriate and beneficial to speak up in support of a cause. 

We know what you’re thinking. Isn’t silence the enemy? 

Holocaust survivor, human rights activist, and Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel once said that “neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” So isn’t it not only necessary but essential to speak out against the injustices of the world and show support for what is right? Isn’t it always better to stand on the right side of history, even if that support is a black square or a photo filter on social media?

First of all, it’s complicated. Second, no, “support” on social media is not always good. To understand why, you first must understand the concept of performance activism. Then you can truly comprehend the very complex way that this form of performative wokeness, as some call it, can be problematic.

Let’s break it down: 

What Exactly Is Performance Activism?

Performance activism is essentially the act of supporting a cause, not necessarily because you are passionate about creating change, but because you want to garner attention and gain support or monetization from others due to your support. 

It’s basically the idea that people use their social media feeds, actions, or online presence to show that they are “woke” to the issues that their followers care about and to gain praise for their support rather than actually making a difference. 

Picture this:

In the wake of George Floyd‘s tragic murder, people across the country were rightfully outraged. People were devastated, angry, and demanding change from coast to coast and in virtually every culture and community. 

So, when tasked with an opportunity to show that they stand with the Black Lives Matter movement and to show that George Floyd’s death could not and would not be in vain, they posted a black square on social media with the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. This online protest was known as Blackout Tuesday. 

It seemed innocent, right? A chance to be supportive. To stand up for what is right. To honor George Floyd’s life, raise awareness for the Black Lives Matter protests, and show that you, too, were demanding justice. 

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. That black square people posted on social media was, more often than not, a distraction rather than an impactful statement. Many activists saw those black squares not as a groundbreaking digital movement in support of BLM protests but as missing the point. And activists criticize that many people — celebrities and public figures included — posted those squares to prove they were “woke,” and they never did anything else to further support the cause. 

Another example of performance activism? Consider how companies and organizations show endless LGBTQ+ support Pride Month, proudly flaunting rainbow flags and showcasing what they do to support equal rights and “love is love” messaging etc. But what about the rest of the year? Where is the support for the queer community then? 

Sure, some people (and organizations) possibly commit performance activism intentionally to gain some clout in the public eye and win supporters’ admiration. Still, for others, it can be an honest mistake. Speaking out against injustice feels like the right thing to do, always. It’s hard to imagine that it can be a bad idea to show that you will not sit by silently while crimes are committed against any Americans. But there are some dangers to consider with performance activism, intentional or otherwise.

The Dangers of Performance Activism 

Think about just how far-reaching the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter and the Blackout Tuesday black square trend were on social media. According to Pew Research data, the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag was used roughly 47.8 million times on Twitter — an average of just under 3.7 million times per day — from May 26 to June 7, 2020. 

Tens of millions of #BlackoutTuesday posts with blank black images were shared on Instagram on June 2, 2020. What began as an online movement called “The Show Must Be Paused,” launched by music executives Jamila Thomas and Brianna Agyemang, turned into an unprecedented explosion of social media support. “We will not continue to conduct business as usual without regard for Black lives,” the founders of the movement wrote at the time.

Celebrities, executives, musicians, and influencers (regular people too) all got on board, leading to a massive flood of support and fans following suit. 

But this is where things get tricky. 

In some instances, this performative support is about likes more than it’s about activism. It’s about putting on the show of being behind a cause when in reality, you’re not doing anything to bring about change; you’re just doing it for the social currency. You’re doing it for the wrong reasons.  

In addition to the issue of authenticity, there’s also the issue of diluting focus from the real problems. Activists argue that frequently performance activism can draw attention to the celebrities’ actions rather than the purpose of the movement itself. Instead of people getting educated about the cause and finding ways to help and become involved in the solution, they focus on the trendy actions of influencers and celebrities who aren’t involved in any tangible way. 

These concerns were seriously apparent on Blackout Tuesday when millions of black squares were posted and re-posted and shared all over social media, so much so that people had to search through endless black squares just to find information on what the Black Lives Matter movement was all about. 

The flood of trendy posts to show “support” drowned out the intended message. In addition, the message behind the day got lost in the shuffle. Some people vowed to keep their social media feed “silent” for that day on Blackout Tuesday, which is the opposite of what the movement was intended to be; it was never about silence but to speak out and bring about change. In fact, the organizers of “The Show Must Be Paused” movement even released a statement clarifying its intent. “The purpose was never to mute ourselves,” the group said. “The purpose is to disrupt.” 

While it wasn’t intentional, the damage was still done. “We know that’s it no intent to harm, but to be frank, this essentially does harm the message,” mental health advocate and Black Lives Matter activist Kenidra Woods posted on Twitter. “We use [the] hashtag to keep ppl updated. PLS stop using the hashtag for black images!!” 

The irony is that by making the activism trendy, the movement overwhelmed social media and, in turn, made it challenging to truly be an activist. 

Is Social Media to Blame?

It would be convenient to place all the blame here on influencers, celebrities, and social media in general. After all, when this performance activism becomes the trendy move on social media feeds, that’s when the actual work that needs to be done is overshadowed or overlooked entirely. 

But social media isn’t all bad. 

According to Professor Harry Thomas of the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs at Yale University, performance activism is optimistic and promising. 

Thomas believes that these instances of performance activism actually show the power of social media and how it can mobilize communities that were never before involved in some of these causes. “Everyone had a black square,” Thomas told the Yale Daily News. “Everyone said #BlackLivesMatter. Two years ago, that would not have happened in the suburbs. It would not have happened in East Hampton.” 

The trick isn’t to abandon social media or always assume the worst where online activism is concerned. Experts believe that social movements are an essential part of social disruption. The trick is to learn how to become a better ally, so that performance activism doesn’t take away from the vital work that needs to be done. 

Yale Professor Pamela Hovland, who teaches “On Activism: The Visual Representation of Protest and Disruption” at Yale, believes that performative activism is an essential part of the revision process that makes any social movement effective. It made people think about activism in a new way, and consider if they were working to support a cause or their motivation. “I think that [#BlackoutTuesday] was more powerful in the end because of the critique that resulted from it,” she said. “If you were someone that gave over to that quickly … and then heard about that critique afterwards, it caused you to think: What am I doing in addition to this? Am I donating to the cause? Am I speaking to other people about this offline?” 

The concept of performance activism is complicated, to say the least. And while there are some negative aspects of performance activism, it’s important to also see this as a wake-up call and an opportunity to take action beyond just a social media post or a re-posted Tweet. 

If the recent explosions of online activism are any indication, we are living in a time when people are tired of staying silent and are looking for ways to mobilize and show their support. While a static black square on Instagram might not change the world, we can argue it’s a step in the right direction and hopefully launch conversations around what real activism looks like and what we can all do to bring about positive change.