It’s been proven that social media campaigns can be used to effectively generate real life social change. In 2019, the New York Times studied what impact the #MeToo social media campaign had on actual tangible events. They discovered that such a large scale movement did, in fact, generate action. The United States’ National Sexual Assault Hotline saw a 30 per cent increase in calls during the time of the campaign and raised nearly $25 million dollars in support of the cause.
Instagram activism is not the same.
This summer, I noticed an increase in pointless mass posts clogging every story and plaguing the every-day user. Each was filled with promises that “just one like can plant a million trees” or that changing the colour of a profile picture will actually impact the state of a war. These posts are spread in dark rooms with blank faces lit by the reassurance of a quick fix, easing the guilt of the constant flow of information. Filled back to back with empty promises, Instagram activism leans on the idea of generating awareness while real action is left forgotten. Like most things on Instagram, its activism is centred around appearances. As long as the user appears to be engaged with whatever issue is deemed trendy, the reality is left irrelevant.
The recent emphasis on climate change lies victim to this state of mind. Anthony Leiserowitz, director of Yale University’s program on climate communication, was quoted in National Geographic saying the percentage of citizens who believe that global warming is personally important has reached record-breaking levels of 72 per cent; this is up nine points since March of 2018. A product of panic, this spike in Instagram activism stems from the evolution from ignorance to full-blown fear of the truth in the average citizen.
There is an atmosphere of general hopelessness accompanied by the desperate stench of self-preservation but even that is not enough to provoke anything other than slacktivism. This epidemic of superficial awareness is dangerous. It allows the people taking part to pat themselves on the back, to fulfill their need to keep up appearances, and then go back to exactly how they were before.
Awareness does not equal change. It doesn’t even begin to touch action. If examined closely, it would become clear that many of these posts don’t do anything to begin with. Refusing to use straws will not save us, recycling will not save us and even planting trees will not save us. Studies indicate that no matter the trees planted, the world cannot grow enough to capture enough CO2 to meet the goals described in the Paris Agreement. In fact, the entire United States would have to be covered in trees to even capture 10 per cent of global emissions.
In June 2019, One Tree Planted ran an Instagram story campaign that promised the complete opposite of this statistic. Generating millions of likes, for weeks it was impossible to escape seeing this post. Any person who hadn’t liked it was immediately villainized for allegedly hating the environment. Whether these likes came from a place of ignorant good or laziness, it does not change the fact that these posts are filled with false promises. Many of these posts disappear after the first several hours when they’ve garnered the attention they set out to receive. Or in the case of “Blue for Sudan,” the people meant to be impacted may never get to see the support that is being garnered for them online, due to a government-mandated internet blackout. But that was never the agenda in the first place.
This summer marked the beginning of a global realization that our world is not indestructible. It is time that we move past that shock towards tangible solutions and preventative measures before it is too late. Instagram activism is not the solution to this problem. It is not the same as social media campaigns. They do not fill the gap left by a lack of action. They will not make you a better person. Instagram activism isn’t about anyone other than the individual who is posting.
Please stop pretending you care.