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The Social Psychology behind Performative Activism

Researcher & Writer: Sian O'hanlon

Illustrator: Sanika Deshpande

Due to the increasingly politicised social media climate, we see an uprising in online forms of activism. Trending hashtags for movements like Black Lives Matter or Stop Asian Hate, or an infographic formatted through Instagram surrounding a socio-political issue. In theory, this seems like an inevitable and effective way to spread awareness and understanding. In practice, activism has become somewhat of a trend. There are those that encourage protests or advocacy against prejudice through social posts; then there are those who contribute to a monkey-see, monkey-do system.


Performative activism is defined by supporting a cause for the sole purpose of increasing one’s social capital, rather than due to one’s personal devotion to said cause. If you’ve ever posted a cause or movement on social media to make yourself feel like a ‘good person’ or to add to a series of instagram highlights, it most likely wasn’t authentic. This action then snowballs into a trend, where people see everyone else posting this same post, and feel the need to do the same.

Let’s go back to June of 2020, during the height of the Black Lives Matter movement. There was an infamous trend named Blackout Tuesday- where anyone, from celebrities to ordinary users would post a black square to a hashtag of the same name. This trend was critiqued for being extremely reductionist, and lacking in effectiveness. It was a prime example of performative activism. This had a short-lived positive impact on the actual movement, especially at its global scale. It instead allowed individuals to feel like they were inciting some sort of social political change.


Though, we cannot fully criticise those that fall into the trap of performative activism, as it is purely the human reaction to a popularised movement. Other than our fixation on online performance, there are also socio-psychological factors that can explain this reaction.

Asch’s conformity experiments (1951) give us insight into why we conform. The experiments consisted of a group “vision test”, where participants were found to be more likely to conform to obviously wrong answers if first given by other “participants”, who were actually working for the experimenter. The experiment concluded that individuals conform for two reasons: they want to fit in with the majority (normative influence) and because they believe others are more informed than they are (informational influence). In terms of performative activism, we can definitely see these elements present.

Imagine all your friends share a post about BLM, you don’t want to be the odd one out that isn’t following this same practice- it leaves you open to criticism and the feeling of individuality (which can be unsettling to some). We want to be accepted and liked by the majority, therefore it is a lot easier to mindlessly click a few buttons and perpetuate this issue of performative activism. It may also be a lot easier to assume the other people posting these things are more informed than you are. Seeing all of your peers supporting the same movement may lead you to believe that it is good, even if you’ve got no idea what it’s benefitting.


At this point, the detrimental nature of performative activism emerges. Not only is performative activism failing to generate the long term support that is necessary for systematic change, but also providing individuals with naïve realism. Naïve realism is a socio-psychological tendency where people tend to believe that our perception of the world reflects exactly what it is. They ignore the possibility that their cultural identity, financial status, place of living and religion could affect this perspective they hold. For example, seeing every story reflect encouragement of BLM, LGBTQIA+ pride or gender equality; will lead people to the false conclusion that this issue is being eliminated in the general public.


Considering all this, we can come to the conclusion that real activism is difficult. Performative activism serves as a mental shortcut to be seen as a ‘good person’. Perhaps advocacy is taking a step in the right direction, but we must understand the things we’re reposting and sharing in order to incite any change.


Bibliography:

Beyond the black box: Unpacking performative activism. (2020, December 8). Retrieved November 13, 2022, from https://web.colby.edu/cogblog/2020/12/08/beyond-the-black-box-unpacking-performative-activism/






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