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Lithium Unpacking the Instagram infographic industrial complex

Oct. 9, 2020
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Here’s what’s happening in Lebanon. Here’s a list of legal funds. Here’s a list of petitions to sign. Here’s how to be a good ally. If you’ve been on Instagram in the past couple of months, it’s likely you’ve seen at least a few social justice infographics like these pop up on your feed. These bite-sized slideshows have become a way of sharing protest notices, educational resources, and info on just about any social justice-related topic—for the politically-minded and less politically-active alike.

Infographics have become a popular way to disseminate information to the digital masses. They’re appealing for many reasons: they’re accessible, informative, and easy to share. But some have criticized the practice for propagating a form of slacktivism, whereby people show their support online but don’t materially contribute to the cause on the frontlines. 

Slacktivism has become a buzzword in the digital landscape, but its existence predates the internet. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, a slacktivist could be seen carrying a backpack adorned with dozens of social justice buttons, signaling what we would now call being “woke.” “Twenty years ago, a lazy college student would arrive at campus and happily discover it was ‘Blue Jean Day’ to promote gay rights,” said Scott Gilmore in a Maclean’s article. “That day, he was magically transformed into someone who gets it, a man who empathizes, a student who cares.” The creation of the internet merely moved this type of watered-down advocacy to an online forum. It now undermines hashtag campaigns like #BringBackOurGirls that have been heavily criticized for a lack of tangible, political action within institutions, despite well-intentioned words. 

The Instagram infographic craze can similarly be critiqued through the slacktivist lens. What binds all these forms of slacktivism is their lack of commitment to material effort. It’s performative. Whether it be wearing a t-shirt, tweeting with a hashtag, or sharing a blacked-out screen for #BlackoutTuesday, these actions fail to connect the wearer or sharer to the actual struggle. The real problem is those who feel they’ve “done their part” without doing anything beyond hitting a share button. 

This isn’t to say that infographics are inherently bad, or should be abandoned completely. Many folks may feel intimidated by jargon-heavy theoretical texts or are simply new to the subject matter, and infographics can function as a primer on these issues.

At best, these infographics can point one toward donation links, organizations to support, and ways to stay up to date on issues. At worst, they can be breeding grounds for misinformation, spread under the clever guise of peony pink and Helvetica lettering. Indeed, these infographics haven’t been immune to controversy. Accounts like the infamous Sudan Meal Project “charity accounts” have been under fire due to false donations claims. With a lack of transparency on where funds will be allocated or what organizations they are affiliated with, the users behind these scam accounts expose themselves as nothing but viral opportunists, preying on well-intentioned users eager to share their support. 

As with any post on Instagram, social justice infographics are intertwined with the algorithm game that those who wish to gain a platform must play. In a Vox article, Jess, the creator of So You Want to Talk About—an Instagram page that dissects social and political talking points—says she uses pastel, bubbly design elements popular with the millennial, mimosa-drinking “#GirlBoss” crowd to attract a following. While Jess’s page has been wildly successful, garnering over a million followers in just a few months, her success story attests to the need to market posts via aesthetics in order to win over the algorithm. As activism becomes streamlined into content, it is rendered into more of a design competition; the post’s aesthetic becomes more determinate of its reach than the credibility or depth of the information. 

This same watering-down process has led to what some have called the “memeification” of Breonna Taylor’s death. Adding “arrest the cops that killed Breonna Taylor” to unrelated TikToks, selfie captions, and Twitter threads may be well-intended, but in reality, undermines the substance of these statements. To have the death of an innocent Black woman in the hands of the police be limited to a series of memes is more than insulting; it is counterintuitive to the cause itself. 

Revolutionary or not, movements cannot be sustained solely on social media. The history of social movements makes it clear that offline, direct action is what leads to tangible change. Even Occupy Wall Street, cited as one of the first movements to use social media as a tool to spread awareness, went beyond Facebook posts and YouTube videos. It was the solidarity between thousands on the street that brought power to the movement. 

Instagram algorithms act within a capitalist system, meaning that even posts which promote anti-capitalist action must function within the confines of the algorithmic playing field. Those who play by the rules are rewarded with more likes, shares, and followers. But social justice isn’t about playing by the rules—it’s about critiquing and often breaking them. The Instagram algorithm doesn’t afford this privilege, though; a post with a trendy aesthetic would likely have a better chance at popping up on your Explore page than a generic but informative infographic—even if the former isn’t derived from a credible source.

If you’re going to share, share wisely; know who your local activists, organizers, and grassroots organizations are, and amplify their causes. Be critical of who you’re giving a platform to, and consider what voices could be uplifted. Most importantly, hold yourself—and others—accountable for showing up offline. 

Movements build, demands are met, and justice is served when folks show up. For one to be able to hide behind the comfort of an iPhone screen, disconnected from the struggle is a luxury—one that most marginalized folks don’t have. To limit your social justice “efforts” to sharing a few pastel pink infographics a few times a week without changing your actions, educating yourself, or showing up in real life doesn’t make you an ally; it’s this type of bystander stagnation that perpetuates injustice. 

Illustration by Yoo Young Chun