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Activism Must Break Past the Digital Realm

Spreading awareness by reposting "woke" infographics is the beginning of a dangerous cycle. To avoid institutional issues becoming trends and ultimately being forgotten, we must understand why reactive activism prevents progress and how we can move toward reform.

On June 2nd, over 19 million individuals consciously chose to participate on Instagram by tagging the viral hashtag "blackout Tuesday," representing the Black Lives Movement campaign after the death of George Floyd. Black squares flooded our feed as society came together to protest racism and police brutality collectively. After reflecting on the recent event, the outcry lasted for weeks. However, reposting the black screen did not. A post on social media- particularly one that disappears in 24 hours- is a low price to pay in the name of a cause these millions claim to care about. As more people have begun to participate in social media activism, it has evolved into a passive "protest" limited to reposting quotes and videos. In other words, "slacktivism," coined in 1955 by Fred Clark, is rooted in online activism that is not backed up by real political commitment.

First, reposting infographics can be harmful to issues you are passionate about if not done correctly. Controversial societal issues that have given rise to public and media attention are at risk of becoming trends left to fade. The nature of Instagram is inherently multiplicative, and many of the solely "performative" Instagram activists only repost content that the people they follow repost. This method could be an easy way to avoid the virality of unproductive content on Instagram. Getting users to stop and click through is a challenge, not just on Instagram but for any online carousel.

Second, the issues you are passionate about stand the chance of remaining a severe problem due to the ignorant cycle of slacktivism. The bottom line is that activism can be lazy. We post things because others do, but we aren't invested in what we post. People post about the problems, but only some of the things viewers can do to help. People think they have accomplished some activism because their friends shared a trendy graphic on something they already knew. There is no power in empty repetition.

Third, reposting images and quotes without background knowledge can lead to possible harm to the general public and society as a whole. When you repost an image to spread awareness, the lack of background knowledge will spread misinformation. For instance, if enough of its first viewers retweet a tweet, the newsfeed algorithm will show it to more users. Then, it will tap into the biases of those users too.

Finally, as a result of misinformation, the political climate of society will reach a toxic environment of individuals debating facts that may not even be true.

Those promoting reactive activism create a problem everyone, including us, is responsible for addressing since anyone can make the unconscious mistake of spreading ignorance. So, how can we address reactive activism?

Transitioning to a proactive approach will ultimately create more significant reform. If you are passionate about an issue, you unconsciously want to do more. To become passionate and angry about a societal issue, researching background information will drive you to take a proactive approach. The ability to decode media messages and access the influence of those messages will allow you to consciously interact with the media that perpetuates social issues. Most organizations make it reasonably easy to access a way for you to donate money. 

Stay in touch with organizations, interest groups, or small communities, setting dates for events you can attend, whether a protest or an informational session. For instance, engage in offline activism by attending protests and sit-ins. Support Black businesses and artists. Speak up against microaggressions. Acknowledge and unlearn the prejudices. Attending events at any level of professionalism leads to educating yourself and others.

We must manage how we interact with our social and political climate. Ignorance is different from the approach when actively spreading information. Consider the following scenario representing a significant cause lost in a viral trend.

During the summer of 2014, the Ice Bucket Challenge took the Internet by storm. Scrolling through all forms of social media, people of all ages stood in front of a camera, nervous about the impending harm they soon inflicted upon themselves, as those behind the camera were eager to laugh at what was to come next. Seconds later, said people would dump a bucket or even bins of ice-cold water on their heads after nominating friends to complete the same challenge in 24 hours. As funny as it was to see these people shivering and soaked, how many knew why they were following the trend? The full name of the challenge is called the ALS ice bucket challenge. The idea behind the challenge was that ice water would simulate the experience of muscle stiffness that people diagnosed with ALS feel. After reaching 440 million views, this viral challenge raised 115 million dollars for the ALS Association, according to an estimate by ALS News Today. This trend is just one of the hundreds of examples that prove how trends grasp society's attention and perpetuate a sense of blindness to the realities of a situation.

Citizens and societal issues should not face the repercussions of reactive activism when these issues are preventable. We can prevent reactive activism now by understanding and addressing why simply reposting infographics harmfully affects societal issues and the public and how to move towards a more proactive approach.

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