Amid a pandemic, the national reckoning on race and an approaching presidential election, 2020 has been a year like no other. Reactions to the police killing of George Floyd prompted numerous discussions on various social media platforms about topics such as systemic racism and police brutality.
Countless creators, artists and activists — many part of Generation Z — have begun to publish visually appealing short guides on Instagram covering serious and often complex topics. Some posts might explain how to be a better ally or provide information on climate change and how to mostly stop using Amazon while others may oversimplify political issues. Regardless, if you search hard enough, there’s bound to be a post, explainer or guide that advocates for virtually any cause you can think of and likely with tens of thousands of engagements.
Wide chunky typefaces, bold gradient graphics, serif fonts and pastel color palettes define most of these social justice slideshows. These design choices, often co-opted from established brands, are intended to catch a user’s eye and prompt them to read the post. Their extremely digestible formatting makes posts easy to read but does not paint complete pictures of the issues being outlined. As a result, this trend has become an easy way for people to appear as though they are contributing to activism without actually taking action.
In tandem with social justice explainers, Instagram creates a space for very short-lived expressions of activism that are largely performative. Sharing a post to a story that expires in 24 hours is a remarkably easy virtue signal to feign solidarity with a movement or issue. Because Instagram is driven by sharing photos and not information, it is incredibly difficult to be anything but performative and reductive.
Professor Eve Ewing of the University of Chicago used the Instagram explainer template to criticize these graphics. She stated that they often oversimplify complex ideas in misleading ways, are not attributed to someone who can be held accountable for errors and frequently draw on the work of scholars and activists without credit.
These explainer posts particularly rely on the simplification of complex histories and ideas. That process of simplification and generalization to fit facts into 10 slides also largely depends on the ideological perspective of the creator, even when the post tries to position itself as non-ideological. When this is considered simultaneously with the use of eye-catching fonts, backgrounds or visuals, the presentation of grave topics such as racism or sexism might be seen as trivialized.
Many creators also work to verify and vet their posts, but as with anything on the internet, misinformation and disinformation are always lurking, especially in the polarized society that we live in. It is remarkably easy for a shoddily researched post that misconstrues a political idea to be given an air of false legitimacy because of its presentation. On a platform like Instagram, it is ever-important to be aware of how we consume and disseminate information that furthers a cause.
The very nature and essence of Instagram renders it a categorically poor substitute for real activism. Sharing something on social media is barely an adequate measure of activism and posting should never provide a substitute for real activism. The trend of social media explainers has commodified activism and reinforces the dangerous idea that people do not need to take the time to actually educate themselves and flesh out the issues brought to light.
Regardless, maybe it’s better that these digital conversations are indeed happening than not at all. However, when saturation is paired with oversimplification and misinformation, it becomes clear that more work needs to be done. This form of activism is merely a stopgap before education and civic engagement and cognizance. Learning, particularly in these manners, does not end on Instagram — in fact, it ought to be just the beginning.