Activism on Social Media: What’s performative and what’s real?


As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, many in-person classes and events have been cancelled throughout the past two years – leaving students with no choice but to spend extended amounts of time on social media.

In 2020, the country not only witnessed a large number of protests after a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd, but lived through the anticipation of the 2020 presidential election as well —  both of which caused a rise in social media activism.

Throughout this time, students posted infographics, sharing information on ways that their followers could help or support different causes. Although social media activism existed before this, it surged in popularity in 2020. 

As a Black student coming to Lehigh University, a predominantly white institution, it was refreshing to see that my peers had been resharing these informational posts. It created a false sense of security and allowed me to think that Lehigh represented the same core values that I have. 

However, that is simply not true.

Throughout my two years at Lehigh, I have experienced many microaggressions from students, as well as faculty. People who have posted infographics on uplifting Black voices have been the same people to silence mine. 

There have been moments when faculty members have asked me to show my Lehigh ID while paying no attention to my white peers. There have been times where I would find myself uncomfortable at parties, feeling that did not belong due to the countless looks that I would receive.

From these experiences, I was able to realize that performative activism works hand in hand with social media activism. Performative activism is when someone supports a cause to gain attention, support or money from others rather than actually caring about making a difference. 

In the sense of social media activism, I feel as though many of my peers posted those infographics simply because they felt they needed to. But what is the purpose of resharing and posting things that you do not believe?

I have the same question for Lehigh as a university. Students had begged the administration to rescind Donald Trump’s honorary degree since 2016. Despite how harmful Trump’s words have been to many members of the Lehigh community, however, Lehigh only decided to revoke it this past year after the attack on the U.S. Capitol. 

The Lehigh community needs to do better. Infographics are made so that people can understand certain issues in simple terms and thereby spread awareness. Yes, they can be helpful but posting them does not automatically mean that you are incapable of harming marginalized voices. 

Social media is not a reliable source of knowledge in regards to activism. Although infographics sometimes present information that is commonly known, they fail to fully present ways that one can effectively contribute to the movement. We need to look beyond Instagram, Twitter and TikTok, and instead look to books and articles that teach us how to educate ourselves about our own privileges. 

Posting our activism on social media should not be something we do simply because it is trendy. Contributing to the movement does not only mean resharing posts — it also means taking the time and putting in the effort to actually educate ourselves on various topics. 

If we want to advocate for a cause online, we have to make sure that we are not afraid to embody those same sentiments in real life. As students and members of the new generation, it is important that we take our activism seriously so that we can create real change. 

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