: What the Algorithm Wants :
#BlackLivesMatter. #MeToo. #MarchForOurLives. #WomensMarch. #ArabSpring. #UmbrellaRevolution. #EndSARS.
In the past decade of technological advancement, activists from North America to Asia to Africa have chosen the social Internet as a new battleground. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, online activism has been elevated to new heights through an inescapable shift from physical space to virtual space. This past summer has revealed the possibilities of online mass mobilization through a resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement sparked, facilitated, and spread by online user-generated content.
Following the deaths of two Black men, Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd, netizens took to the Internet in protest, reinvigorating Black Lives Matter into one of the largest mass movements in US history. As racial injustice against the Black community captured the online conscience, there was a new urge to join in the dialogue whether you had 75, 7500, or even 75 million followers.
This summer marked a turning point in which previously politically unengaged social media users – from supermodels to corporate brands to college students – realized that the social cost of not saying anything about the moment outweighed the cost of speaking up and saying something wrong. The solution to this posting ambivalence resulted in an outpouring of social media posts that diluted the movement for racial justice into bite-sized, Instagram friendly squares, many of which could be categorized as performative activism. Colloquially known as “slacktivism” or “clicktivism,” this new form of political gesture can be defined as action rooted in managing how others perceive you. Often, this “activism” is action rooted in the maintenance and preservation of status, capital, belonging, and image.
For a few weeks beginning in June, my Instagram feed became saturated with an unending carousel of text and color. Scattered screenshots of donation receipts. GoFundMe links. Petitions. A previously politically unengaged classmate confessing in a long-form post about challenging an old perspective. Most of all, I was overwhelmed by posts posing seemingly impossible questions of race and injustice that were wrapped in an approachable visual language of whimsical color, bubbly fonts, and unsettling corporate familiarity. Scrolling through my social media apps felt like trudging through a virtual Times Square of flashing billboards and advertisements, with each new post trying new ways to grab my attention.
Many of these infographics were created on Canva, an online graphic design platform targeted at users with minimal design knowledge. Canva has heavily enabled the mass creation of sleek, web-friendly graphics in the past few years. On a daily basis, you are probably scrolling past multiple graphics created on Canva. And here exists the tricky parallel – while Canva makes infographic design accessible and digestible, these graphics can then be created about anything, by anyone, with any range of experiences. In the context of the Black Lives Matter movement, no matter who you were, you could create an explainer about anything with little accountability and hide behind its eye-catching, polished veneer.
To explain the viral phenomenon of Instagram infographics, we need to take a look at the evolution of Instagram’s user interface in the past few years. In mid-2018, Instagram rolled out a notable update which allowed users to repost other users’ public posts to their own stories, mirroring a “re-share” or “retweet” button found on other social media platforms. At this point in time, an influx of advertisements and sponsored posts had already been slowly slipping into the app. However, this new story-reposting feature was the spark for the collapse of Instagram as simply collections of self-contained visual diaries. It marked the true beginning of the app’s transformation into a full-blown marketing app, with the replacement of linear chronology with algorithmic “relevance” following soon after. The novel ability to share posts to your own story enabled content on Instagram to go viral – a phenomenon that was once reserved for platforms more conducive to content-resharing such as Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, and the like.
The new allure of Instagram virality watered down some of the creative and marketing work on the platform into more simplistic, shareable eye-candy that would be more attractive and trend-following upon a first glance. Instagram’s favoring of color and imagery over text is expected. After all, the platform was not built for text in the first place, but for photo and video sharing. Any attempts at written communication and explanation on Instagram is already stifled on the visual platform, relegated to a brief caption space.
Instagram posts created by @iamcardib, @champagnepapi, @johnmayer, @justinbieber, @badgirlriri, @madonna, each featuring a simple black square with no caption.
Therefore, I was not surprised by the brief #BlackOutTuesday phenomenon, which surfaced among the infographics during the first week of protests. What initially began as a call for a “pause” within the music industry exploded into a viral trend. Within the span of 24 hours on June 2nd, millions of users posted plain black squares with no captions or simply the hashtags #BlackLivesMatter or #BlackOutTuesday, clogging calls to action, donation pleads, and other vital resources that existed within those hashtags. Its virality was a stark example of Instagram’s favoring of symbolism and visual minimalism over the messiness of traditional political activism and signal- boosting. The hashtag was a fitting introduction to the virtue signaling that would be present for the rest of the online Black Lives Matter movement.
Commodification and memeification of Black death were further seen in the response to the death of Breonna Taylor, an unarmed 26-year old medical worker who was fatally shot to death by police officers in her home of Louisville, Kentucky. What began as an outcry against mainstream media’s failure to report on her story transformed into a competition among users to insert her name into every corner of the internet possible. There were Instagram posts, Tweets, and face masks reminding you to “wash your hands, wear your mask, and arrest the cops who killed Breonna Taylor.” On TikTok, the video app fueled by a marketplace of catchy audios and their accompanying trends, a monotone rasp over an electronic beat reminded users to “Arrest…the killers…of Breonna…Taylor.” after a clickbait introduction. An online jewelry store rolled out a $240 necklace called “The Breonna”. Riverdale star Lili Reinhart posted a photo of her posing topless on Instagram with the caption, “Now that my sideboob has gotten your attention, Breonna Taylor’s murderers have not been arrested. Demand justice.”
Black death cannot be reduced to a caption, a meme, a trend, or a hashtag.
- An Instagram post featuring a shirtless Lili Reinhart staring into the camera with the caption “Now that my sideboob has gotten your attention, Breonna Taylor’s murderers have not been arrested. Demand justice.”
- Text reading “You guys, I looked closely at the characters’ feet in Toy Story and -” above four separate images displaying the words “Arrest the..Cops..Who Killed…Breonna Taylor” on separate soles of shoes.
She was everywhere. A caption stapled onto a beach picture. Etched into the shoes of an animated Pixar character in a meme. Used and used and used. The calls to action against injustice had quickly devolved into a punchline, an insult to the late Breonna Taylor’s memory. Breonna Taylor did not die to become a contextless hashtag. Breonna Taylor did not die to become an indication of social consciousness. And yet, the trend-obsessed social Internet repossessed and hollowed out the full, real life of this young Black woman and began to use her as a catchphrase, often without grappling with what her death truly meant.
While many of the social media posts made during the Black Lives Matter movement were not made with ill intent, there is real harm in subduing and re-marketing radical movements in attempts to make them digestible and palatable to the Instagram algorithm, whether that be in the form of a meme or a simple, eye-catching graphic. There is a serious danger in condensing generations of Black-led resistance, grassroots organizing, and critical race theory into bite-sized, sickly sweet and saturated squares.
Philosopher and media theorist Marshall McLuhan proposed in a 1964 text that “the medium is the message”. He understood that in order to fully understand a message, we must also consider the modes of expression that it is presented to us in. So, tell me, what message is being communicated when a conversation about Black death is packaged in the same pastel hues and visual language used to sell makeup products and athleisure to Millennial women online?
Sugar-coated Black Lives Matter posts: Hello Kitty for ACAB, defunding the police explainer from popular liberal infographic account @soyouwanttotalkabout, “aesthetic” Black Lives Matter wallpaper
- Hello Kitty over a glittery purple background wearing a shirt with the words “ACAB” on it
- Text “So you want to talk about…Defunding the Police” over dull rose background
- Text “Black Lives Matter” over peach background. Each word is accompanied by two hands signing “love”. Text color and Skin-tone moves down a gradient and progressively grows lighter by each word.
Of course, it is unfair to completely dismiss these social media infographics and their genuine impact on bringing the Black Lives Matter movement into the mainstream Internet, especially amid a global pandemic. The palatability of these graphics was able to spark conversation and a new awareness among even the most politically unengaged. However, my fear lies in noticing that many of these streaks of change still exist under the glare of an Instagram filter, with #FOMO (fear of missing out) coming before the outrage. I fear that no truly long-lasting change can arise from saccharine posts created to hop onto a “slacktivism” bandwagon.
Cultural critic and writer Jia Tolentino remarks that as a medium, the Internet is “defined by a built-in performance incentive.” In my opinion, to exist on the Internet in any capacity is to perform, to curate. Glimpses of true authenticity on the Internet are rare, perhaps even impossible. So to some extent, almost every gesture of activism on the Internet is simply that – performative. It is performative if you do not open the readings or engage with the resources from the infographic you just reposted. It is performative if you share thoughtlessly without changing the way you treat Black people in your proximity, without fully addressing the anti-Blackness that lives within yourself and within your communities.
The revolution cannot be an infographic. Sharing, liking, and raising awareness about racial injustice is not a means in itself of correcting the injustice. An aesthetically pleasing slideshow of color and text cannot replace restorative social work, organizational change, and structural reparation. Non-Black people of color and white people who create these graphics must also interrogate the ego’s desire to be validated in the conversation for Black lives, and how much space they take up in it. Many of these social media posts serve only to be commentary about privilege and power without ever having to sacrifice either. And this creation and consumption of beautiful but empty sentiments often de-centers the real lives and needs of the Black community.
If anyone can make a palatable, colorful Canva infographic, what does it mean to be a non Black person making these shareable graphics? What non-Instagrammable lived experiences are not brought to the table in these eye-candy explainer posts? What work of scholars and activists go uncredited?
Text over Canva template: white background, with overlapping abstract peach and green shapes.
“Please Be A Conscious Consumer on Instagram. Graphics like this can be a helpful teaching tool, but some of the “racial justice explainer” posts that go viral…
- Grossly oversimplify complex ideas in harmful or misleading ways, or flat-out misstate facts.
- Are not attributed to any transparent person, people, or org who can be held accountable for errors.
- Draw on the work of scholars and activists who go uncredited.”
Gil Scott-Heron’s 1970 poem and song, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” delivered a sharp critique of the relationship between the media and political uprising that still rings true half a century later. We cannot simply curate and consume the idea of revolution from our bedrooms. We must preserve our energy so that it translates off screen and into our day-to-day lives, again and again, long past the summer’s end and after Black Lives Matter is no longer a trending topic.
Amid a global pandemic when the Internet may at times be our only battleground, we must become more critical of the ways we engage with politics online, especially when these conversations are mediated by corporations like Instagram. Most recently, in the beginning of November 2020, the app rolled out a controversial update that replaced the classic create button with a new “shopping” tab. Such a major shift in the interface design mirrors the major shift in the company’s motives, from stripped back photo-sharing app to glossy marketing app that increasingly treats Instagram users as commodity, rather than human.
While our online experiences may increasingly be possessed by capital, market, and algorithmic desires, we must learn to question these systems of digital creation and sharing that we exist within. Creative minds have never shied away from politics, and often have been keen to disrupt traditional and corporate imagery with designing a new visual language for political revolution.
Let us challenge the very aesthetics that we help shape and uphold. Let us share with care. Let us reimagine the very modes of expression we use to voice our demands. Let us reclaim the narrative from these algorithms and find our way into the radical futures of our dreams, together.