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Who are the influencer-activists really helping?

  • Words 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 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...

( 1 ) Responding to the backlash over The Activist, would-be show judge Julianne Hough tried to save face by praising it as “a powerful demonstration of real-time activism.”

( 2 ) The commercial, in which protestors hold up generic signs such as “Peace," “Love" and “Join the Conversation," was an attempt to capitalize on the aspirational face of activism. It backfired, and the company was obliged to pull the ad and apologize for its cynical bandwagoning.

( 3 ) Martin Luther King was the most charismatic of a group of activists involved in the civil rights movement. The role of other leaders has been less studied: For example, it was only recently acknowledged that Dorothy Height, president of the National Council of Negro Women, was a key organizer of the March on Washington.

( 4 ) Online activism also raises questions about what counts as acceptable activism. In the case of Breonna Taylor, a Black woman killed by police during a botched apartment raid, influencers have been accused of trivializing her death by turning it into a social media punchline, selling merch and, in one case, organizing a conference called BreonnaCon.

( 5 ) Online activism is also more accessible to people with disabilities. For example, during the 2017 presidential election, the hashtag #cripthevote was used to draw attention to the need to make voting more accessible to disabled people.

( 6 ) It is easy to think of the internet as a neutral platform, but it is not. In November 2021, after Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai accused a senior political leader of sexual assault, censorship saw all potential search terms, including “tennis," banned from the nation's search engines.

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