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The Modern Art of Sharing and Moving On: Performative Activism on Social Media

Angélique Babineau


Credits: CNN Style

Following the death of Mahsa Amini on September 16th at the hands of the Iranian “morality police,” the internet was quick to vocalize its indignation. I recollect my Instagram feed and stories being flooded with pictures of the 22-year-old woman in the hours leading up to her death. According to my social media, almost every account I followed seemed to care about the event and sought immediate, radical change. If the majority of people I befriended on Instagram were outraged by the situation, why am I witnessing little action being taken?

According to The Observer, performative activism is “activism” to increase personal gain or popularity as opposed to showing genuine support for an issue, cause, or movement.” This emerging phenomenon raises questions about whether or not activism belongs on social media. Allowing for social injustices to be reckoned as trends, performative activism strips these issues from all meaning and overshadows the work of real activists.

While social media platforms show great potential for raising awareness around social movements, several users seem to exploit these platforms for passive advocacy, begging the following question: why is this currently observed among a generation like Gen Z that strives for tangible change? Indeed, social pressures appear to play a role in why some engage in performative activism, but not only; “It is almost as if you don’t share, you’re a bad person,” says 19-year-old Instagram user Yassine Boulahia. Boulahia continues, “I feel people want to take the moral high ground on social media, even though their morals aren’t consistent in reality. It’s just a front; that’s what it is.”

Stemming from a desire to remove ourselves from any sense of responsibility, performative activism, whether deliberate or not, acts as a way to appease our conscience. According to Annie Bélanger, obtainer of a Bachelor’s degree in communications and public relations at the Université Du Québec À Montréal (UQÀM), the motivations behind one’s participation in performative activism might go even further: “Because I shared and liked, I don’t need to do anything else.” In other words, “I participated in helping the cause, so I can no longer be held accountable or expected to take further concrete actions.”

In the case of Mahsa Amini’s death, the noise it generated on the Internet, performative or authentic, seems to have had positive effects. With protests and haircutting occurring worldwide in support of Iranian women and governments such as the Canadian and the United States governments releasing sanctions on Iranian authorities, the posts brought light to the issue and encouraged concrete acts of solidarity. But how does one differentiate performative activism from real activism? Unfortunately, it is virtually impossible. “People will participate in things without knowing their meaning, which frustrates me. But I think that just reposting, though you should try to check your sources and educate yourself, can be useful because it draws attention to the issue and helps raise awareness,” says 18-year-old Lea Nohad Hamze, activist and events coordinator for the Dawson Feminist Union. Having volunteered at the haircutting event at Dawson on October 20 in support of Iranian women, which captured the attention of CTV news, Hamze values using these platforms to discuss socio-political issues.

Although performative activism will likely persist and remain hard to identify or repress, it should not discourage people from using social media to speak about these social issues.


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