Am I an Activist to Make Change or to Look Cool on Social Media?

Deleting Instagram helped me focus on the issues, not the image.

by Yotam Pe'er

Tony Zhen, Unsplash

The air felt thick, and the masks weren’t helping. Sweat dripped down my back and soaked my sweatshirt. I was jostled forward by those behind me as the crowd started moving. A man holding a sophisticated looking camera equipped with antenna and sensors was filming a group of people next to me. Even before I realized I was doing it, I raised my sign higher up in the air hoping he’d notice me. No luck.

As the man moved on, the crowd started shouting, “Black Lives Matter!”  I remembered why my mom and I were actually here. A group on my right pulled out their phones and started recording the rally, yelling alongside everyone. But it seemed to me that the only time they chanted was when they had their phones out. And I thought: Was that all we were here for? To fish for a moment of fame through performative activism? Were we protesting for justice, or to make ourselves look good on social media?

I had been attending Black Lives Matter protests for the past few months, and sincerely believed in police reform being a necessary step in disassembling a biased criminal justice system. I thought millions of others who marched alongside me in different cities and countries believed the same.

But as I marched alongside my mom on that sweltering afternoon, I wondered how enthusiastic I’d be about this movement if there weren’t any cameras, no Snapchat filters to share or Instagram posts to show off. The intense need to show the world that I was at this rally gripped me. Thoughts about George Floyd and police reform were pushed to the background, and instead I wondered how many likes I would get if I posted a picture of the rally. 

It started as one Insta Story, but one became two and two became five. As I scrolled through my feed, I saw much of the same. On the streets, we were all united in our common goal of supporting the Black Lives Matter movement. But on social media, we were equally united in our common goal of curating a do-gooder account in seek of praise.

Most of the time, this is a good thing. As activists, it’s our job to convince people uninterested in these campaigns that it’s a cool thing to do. But there is a fine line between publicly identifying with a cause you care about, and publicly identifying with a good cause for social media clout. At that point, I didn’t know which group I belonged to.

Scrolling for Hours

At the same time, I was volunteering at IntegrateNYC, a youth-led organization that works to desegregate New York City public schools. I joined because this is an important issue that impacts about 1.2 million NYC students, and I am interested in public service. Being able to learn from other public school students, creating campaigns, and lobbying legislators are all part of my experience there. I started as a lead, working on outreach and smaller activities like facilitating Integrate’s Youth Council. About a year ago I was promoted to a Director. I strategize big-picture campaigns and participate in important events like school reopening panels.

As a youth-led organization, we are prominent on social media and often push to repost and uplift new posts about our work. I began to realize that I was plugging more and more of their content on my account not because I was more invested in the movement, but because it attracted  more followers for me.

Like with the BLM marches, I started to question my motivation for working with Integrate. Was I trying to create a fake image of activism for myself? Was I just virtue signaling (publicly expressing opinions that would make me look like a good citizen)?

Just Chanting for the Camera?

About a month later, I participated in a Black Lives Matter demonstration with a friend. It was just as hot as last time, but the cool shade of the trees and the light breeze cooled us off. Tear gas and police arrests only seemed to happen at night now, so I was in shorts and a t-shirt. We were crowded in a small park, with a mini-podium.  A few officials, including the Queens borough president, were off to the side, smiling and chatting with constituents.

Thoughts about George Floyd and police reform were pushed to the background, and instead I wondered how many likes I would get if I posted a picture of the rally.

As the borough president began to speak, a TV camera person started filming the crowd. The speech wasn’t rousing or particularly powerful, but when the camera passed people they perked up, adjusting their sign, and even clapping at whatever the speaker was saying. At first I felt the urge to do the same, but I resisted.

Social media was also at the forefront of my thoughts. Every so often, I’d bat down the idea that I should be posting, and then think again about how this was a win-win because I was both supporting the movement and growing my social media presence. But why did I and others feel so motivated to share our activism with the world, I wondered? What was so impressive about marching with others in the name of equity?

When the borough president finished I said to my friend, “That was a lot to take in.”

“Yeaaah, wasn’t the protest so cool, though? You saw that the camera-guy was taking pictures of us, right?” bubbled my friend. “We might just go viral!”

“I guess. Did you hear what the borough president said about the movement being more about investing and building bonds than defunding and destroying them? That was pretty interesting,” I said.

“I don’t think I caught that,” she said as she pulled out her phone, “but it’s probably on the video I posted on Facebook. I was so focused on keeping the camera steady I couldn’t catch what he said!”

After this seesawing in my mind and my friend’s comments, a wave of shame washed over me. I realized that if I really wanted to support the movement, especially as a White ally, I had to abandon the goal of attracting more social media followers. I needed to fight for racial equity simply to fight for racial equity.

I didn’t immediately get off social media, but I gradually started posting less. With the incessant need to find Insta-worthy pictures diminished, my motives during protests finally cleared. I was there to uplift the Black Lives Matter movement. In those moments, I felt a sense of clarity that I hadn’t felt at previous protests.

I felt less of a burden to show off what I was doing, and more energy to just do it. At Integrate, I got closer with co-workers, was happy to manage more projects, and volunteered for any public speaking opportunities. I was much more aligned with my work than in the past. But with Instagram and Snapchat still on my phone, I still had work to do.

Life After Instagram

Last February, I watched the documentary “The Social Dilemma,” a film about the power that our phones, and social media have on our lives.

I learned how social media likes mean nothing in the grand scheme of things if they are just stand-ins for genuine change and activism. It validated my questioning of whether my like count was more important to me than the real reasons why I attended protests and worked at Integrate. That’s not to say that social media is not useful sometimes, but for me, it mostly gave a false sense of real activism.

So that night, after deliberating on the couch while tracing the outline of my Popsocket, I deleted Instagram. I’d intermittently redownload and then delete Instagram in a weekly cycle, and sometimes felt my focus wandering from “How can I help Integrate?” to “How can I look good to others by helping Integrate?” Now that I’ve experienced the negative impacts of these thoughts, though, I don’t want to go down the same path again. My goal as an activist is a more just world, not more attention.

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