The rise and fall and rise again of the virtual protest

Written by Bea Taylor

No-one wants to stay silent, but how do you speak up as an ally and not a performer? This last week has shown how ignorance and trend-activism can change discourse for the worse.

When the devastating news of George Floyd’s death reached the world and images of the riots started to percolate throughout various social pipes, the virtual protest started to ramp up. At first, it was the politically charged and the passionate that spoke out and decried the injustice. The hashtag #justiceforfloyd was the first to circulate the virtual protest realm. Beyoncé, Zoë Kravitz, Cardi B, Chrissy Teigen and John Legend, to name a few, were among the first voices to be heard.

“GEORGE FLOYD my heart breaks for you and your family. #policebrutality needs to stop. #sayhisname”, said Kravtiz.

Quickly, posting tributes and backing for #blacklivesmatter was trending. Fans were calling for celebrities and influencers to post in support, or stop posting altogether. Desmond Tutu’s famous quote was widely circulated with great popularity; “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”

This spurred even more posts on the subject. Chains started to emerge on people’s feeds, posts encouraging those tagged not to ‘break the chain’ and to repost to show their support were everywhere and anywhere. But, these chains, however great their intention, had a familiar, somewhat tainted, ‘trendy’ feeling to them — not too dissimilar to the #run5donate5nominate5 and #untiltomorrow trends that circulated in lockdown. 

When the #blackouttuesday black squares started to emerge, the virtual world was, again, quick to jump on the bandwagon. Whilst the tidal wave of support was clear and felt widely, the overwhelming response to #blackouttuesday, in fact, drowned out important voices and messages on Instagram. As quickly as the black squares arrived, posts declaring “don’t hashtag #blacklivesmatter” and “you’re silencing our voices” were disseminated.  

Activist and social worker Feminista Jones told Vox, “this performative ally stuff is not helping, and [blackout Tuesday] really catered to the people who want to show they care. They thought this little black box was going to be solidarity. This is not how movements work. This is not how we’re supposed to be using social media. And people fell for it because it takes minimal work and minimal effort.”

Jones hits on a phrase that has begun to creep in following the staggering amount of support for the Black Lives Matter movement; “performative allyship”. It’s also been referred to as “performative wokeness” or “performative activism”. These terms describe activism, wokeness or allyship that’s done to increase one’s social capital rather than because of one’s devotion to the cause.

Emma Watson was among many celebrities and influencers accused of performative activism. Her white-bordered, black square posts were slammed for being edited to fit her Instagram aesthetic.

“The fact that Emma Watson didn’t say a single word about BLM ‘til now and today she’s posting three black squares with white borders to maintain her aesthetic… and she calls herself an activist,” one fan wrote.

But, some came to her defense; “Emma Watson has been speaking up about racism since 2015 but y’all want to cancel her because she posted six posts in order to amplify a movement. Don’t talk about aesthetic when your fave never address issues on their Instagram. Emma’s whole feed is giving voice to minorities.”

It’s troubling when the discourse changes from important messages about the movement, to center on who’s — for want of a better term — been good, and who’s been bad. 

Watson later shared two new posts to her Instagram, the first of artwork and a poem by Dr Fahamu Pecou from the series BLACK MATTER LIVES. Her second post was a statement from herself, where she acknowledged her white privilege and announced that she would be sharing links to resources in the coming days.

The conflicting directives on how to be a good ally has led to confusion and subsequent paralysis from those wanting to spread the message. There are cries of ‘silence is violence’ but one wrong post, one wrong word and you’re dragged for your ignorance. White influencers are told to confront their privilege but then slammed for centralising themselves in their statements. 

Big brands, who are already brought to task by social media watchdogs, have been put under the spotlight even more aggressively. If they’re slow to post in support of the movement, they’re criticised for taking too long. When they do post in support, they’re immediately reminded of all the times they’ve failed to support the black community. If they don’t post at all, well, you can guess what happens then. 

Eat Lit Food’s Albert Cho wrote a letter to his followers in which he said; “in the past few days I’ve received quite a few messages from followers who are understandably frustrated with my lack of contribution to the Black Lives Matter movement… “use your platform” is what I’ve been receiving the most and what I have to say is, but to what extend? I know I have a responsibility to address the current problems instead of turning a blind eye. But this is not because I have a platform. It’s because I am a person.”

“I don’t want to participate in the virtue signaling and performative ‘wokeness’ that celebrities and influencers do just out of the self-serving interests of appealing to the newly woke market and saving their own skins in the wider cancel culture that surrounds it.”

“What I can do is use my platform to vocalise my anger at the tragic murder of George Floyd and honour his memory, spread his name. It is the unequivocal truth that black lives matter.”

We should all know by now that staying silent isn’t the answer. Discourse around this topic should be encouraged, but speaking up for the sake of being seen to be speaking up, is just as harmful to the movement as not saying anything at all. If it’s a trend, then by its own nature, it will be here today, gone tomorrow. 

Whilst it can’t be denied that posting a photo of five different-coloured emoji hands does spread a message, activists have been calling for people to post readings, links, videos — basically anything that will actually inform as well as inspire. And, with guides on white allyship going viral, there’s less excuse for ignorance.

So far, the deafening voices in the virtual protest have been heard. The encouraging posts via Instagram to donate to the cause saw over US$20 million raised for the Minneapolis Freedom Fund in just four days. The widespread rhetoric on the injustice of Floyd’s murder has finally led to all four officers who were involved in the event to be charged. The officer directly responsible for Floyd’s death has had his charge increased to second-degree murder. But, that’s no reason to stop. 

Jones has some good advice to those with hesitancy for posting, “I want people to keep their heads up, keep focused, really start educating themselves, listen to the organizers who have been doing this for a long time, stop with the performances, and focus on the tangible and direct actions that will help the people out here doing the work.” 

Take a look at these Instagram accounts to help educate yourself:


blm protest

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