The impact of Instagram on the spread of information and the large–scale societal response to social movements is indisputable. It’s getting harder and harder to miss the social media response to horrifying world events. In a never–ending cycle of tragedy followed by collective mourning on social media, our feeds have been constantly flooded with aesthetically pleasing infographics about gun violence, racism, and public health crises.
While silence may be considered violence, inauthentic allyship can be insidious and detract from efforts to amplify the voices of members of marginalized communities. Even though the cries for change should not go unheard, we must continue to question where the line between allyship and performative activism lies, and whether our digital footprints are walking towards real and tangible change for the causes and communities we care about.
Performative activism is defined by the University of Wisconsin–Madison as “activism that is done to increase one’s social capital rather than because of one’s devotion to a cause.” Like other microaggressions, its harm is subtle at first glance and detrimental in its collective impact; activism that is reactionary can become not just ineffective, but also an added barrier to the missions of social causes. When the spread of information is as rapid as it is today, the responsibility to perform the due diligence in examining if what we are posting is true and helpful falls upon us.
Social media is ubiquitous, and the platforms we use for some mix of self–promotion and social bonding are also home to movements and organizers working towards real progress. Given the conflicts of interest between social media organizations and social change advocates, it would be nearly impossible for the mission of these platforms (which is, more or less, to increase user activity and platform dependency) to not clash with that of organizers hoping to reach and inspire action in millions of users who are already incentivized into posting for likes and social validation.
On social media, showing support can easily slip into signaling insincere sentiments, which is why it is critical to consider how we can truly carry forward the mission of the movements we stand behind. For Penn students, activism can move off screen in a number of ways. According to the Penn Master of Public Health program’s recently–established task force on racial equity and inclusion, those changes must be made and maintained at the institutional level.
Leena Kasa (MPH '21), a founding member of the program’s racial equity task force said, on behalf of the group, “Ultimately, it is up to the people in power to make sustainable changes that are essential for equity and the safety of its students. Large institutions have historically caused and continue to cause harm to Black and brown communities, and our hope during the time that we are at Penn is that we look out for the safety of our peers, especially since systemic change is incredibly slow.”
Allyship is about taking action, and it is the decision to take responsibility for the power held by oneself and share it with those who would benefit. Currently, there is no University–wide forum where students, faculty, and administrators across schools and disciplines can come together to discuss, address, and improve issues of race and discrimination. Penn faculty and students carry the duty to act with empathy towards a vision of equity. The urge to act might start with the spread of a hashtag, but for true and honest allyship, the action itself should stretch outside of the echo chamber, and target creating real–world change.