Words by Moya Lothian-McLean.
There’s a meme that regularly makes the rounds on social media, which features a Twitter user replying to themselves. The first tweet is a limp message of some sort, for example, “#endracism.” The second tweet, in response, reads, “That’s enough activism for today I think.”
Unlike many memes, you don’t have to be versed in deep internet history to understand its point. The punchline plays on a certain perception—that the power of activism as we traditionally know it has been diluted by a flood of self-professed activists who exist almost exclusively online and see starting, or maybe just signing, a change.org petition as the height of civil disobedience.
In the summer of 2020, this background skepticism about the merits of “clicktivism” became a mainstream news item when CBS announced The Activist, a show in which young people would compete—X-Factor style—for the prize of “lobbying world leaders.”1 Activism as an entertainment spectacle turned out to be a leap too far; the show was quickly shelved following public outcry over its concept being the literal embodiment of performative activism.
Against this backdrop, there has been a reckoning of just what “activism” means and if the attention of corporations and the entertainment sphere is impacting work on the ground.
“When I think about the period when I started, the people who considered themselves ‘activists’ were very much grassroots and a smaller number of people doing stuff,” says Chardine Taylor Stone, a UK-based community activist who started organizing during the 2001 Stop the War movement, which campaigned against the UK’s involvement in global conflicts post-9/11. “It was very anti-corporation and there was a lot more strategy in what people did, maybe because there were less people so we had stronger networks.”
Taylor Stone, who defines activism as “strategic action that leads to some form of change in society,” says that she’s noticed a gradual shift toward activism being perceived as an identity category as well as a practice.
Ditto corporate campaigns, such as Nike’s work with race equality activist Colin Kaepernick, or Pepsi’s much derided 2017 commercial, which featured model Kendall Jenner attending a “protest” during which she hands a can of soda to a police officer.2
“You have to do something. There’s always an action, hence the ‘act’ part of activism,” Taylor Stone says. “And most definitely, no way on this earth would I have seen anybody doing anything with Nike or Adidas.”
“Now anyone who runs a meet-up club is an ‘activist.’ I think that’s why people have moved away from using the term ‘activism’ because they see it being misused.”
The commodification of certain strands of activism has led to the emergence of the influencer-activist, a figure defined by their large platform on social media, their vocal support for specific campaigns close to them—and their sponsorship deals. They are admired by some and regarded with suspicion by others for what’s seen as the prioritizing of self-promotion over collective liberation. Take the LGBTQ+ influencers and activists engaging in pinkwashing for huge corporations. Former Bachelor contestant Colton Underwood, for example, promoted “the Amazon finds that help him show off his Pride,” in a June 2021 E! News article.
“Activist” has become a selling point for those hoping to raise their profile; lifestyle magazines often add weight to celebrity profiles by tacking the word onto the list of their accolades. It’s not enough just to be an entertainment figure or a D-list celeb. You have to (appear to) be pushing for change, too.
If all this seems distinctly new, it is worth noting that a version of the influencer-activist has been around for a long time. “There’s always been the problem of what we call ‘micro celebrities’ in social movements,” explains Akwugo Emejulu, professor of sociology at the University of Warwick. “You have one person who [is] very charismatic, articulate, who is able to bring people together, like Martin Luther King. Then the media focuses on them and that causes divisions and problems within these movements.”3
“There’s always been the problem of what we call ‘micro celebrities’ in social movements.”
But Emejulu concedes that there is “something new in this moment about the commodification of activism.” She points to some activists who were involved in early 2015 Black Lives Matter protests (people who, she notes, are not “claimed” by other BLM organizers) who have been accused of profiting from their profiles.4 “They’ve garnered sponsorship deals, they have podcasts, they have all these things they’ve managed to leverage in order to increase their bank account,” she says. “An ongoing problem within activism is that in the process of joining together, some voices are amplified and some are silenced. But certainly, in the contemporary moment, we see this problem of activists being plucked from these spaces because they fit a particular frame, they’re media-friendly. And then they’re able to leverage that for their own financial security.”
While influencer-activists are a tiny minority, their disproportionate visibility has seen some impact on the wider perception of what activism is. Increasingly, people who do the groundwork are referring to themselves as organizers in order to set themselves apart. “Now anyone who runs a meet-up club is an ‘activist,’” says Taylor Stone. “If you want to start a book club, it has to have an activist angle on it. I think that’s why people have moved away from using the term ‘activism’ because that’s how they see it being misused.”
However, she’s quick to point out that activism can still come in a huge array of shapes and forms.5 “Sometimes it can get a bit like ‘If you’re not on the streets with a placard, you’re not an activist,’ which I’ve never really agreed with,” Taylor Stone says. “People can’t get there for whatever reason, so they do things in other ways, like cooking food for people when they’re [released] from [police detention].”
Emejulu agrees. “What we find is, the folks on the ground who I think are doing the most interesting work are women of color,” she says. “More often than not, women of color do not call themselves activists because they are doing the kind of unsexy work that keeps communities going, that oftentimes is derided as ‘volunteer work’ or ‘self-help stuff.’” She points to mutual aid groups which sprang up in global communities during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. “That’s a real sense of community care.”
Dr. Lynn Bennie, coordinator of the University of Aberdeen’s new Political Activism and Campaigning master’s program, wants to challenge the assumption that technology has changed everything about the way activism operates.
“It exists in parallel with traditional methods of protests,” she says. Bennie points to the classic obstructionist tactics of high-profile movements like the UK climate group Extinction Rebellion, or blockades by Indigenous activist groups in Canada as evidence. What has changed is the ability to project these campaigns to the world. “I remember looking at the activities of Greenpeace decades ago, and their major aim was to get onto the evening news,” she says. “Now we’ve got social media platforms that spread the word quicker, but it’s the same aim—to get attention.” One could almost view the influencer-activist as a part of this news ecosystem; where we once would have pamphlets or newsletters, now there are infographics and Instagram stories by specific individuals.
Influencer-activists have had an undeniable impact on communication and “awareness raising” via digital spaces: Take the renewed vigor of the global pro-Palestine protests that occurred in May 2021 after several years of the cause being relegated to the back burner. Word was spread via individuals online. The real problem organizers face now, says Taylor Stone, is a lack of collective strategy through which to channel this energy, harnessed by new channels.
“There’s a lot of stuff going on [right now] but what’s happening is boots to the floor at the moment—let’s try and raise consciousness—but where does it go?” she says. “We’ve had huge protests [and awareness-raising] but has that filtered down to organizing locally? I don’t know […] We need to think, What is our strategy?”
As for the internet, the space where the influencer-activists thrive, it’s a “useful tool,” Taylor Stone believes. But “too many people are invested in the idea that social media is enough.” At the end of the day, she adds, the internet is controlled by a small cohort of large corporations and can be “easily switched off,” taking all online activism with it.6 “Then what the fuck do we do?”