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Social Media and the Performance of Protest

The day after the testimonies of both Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and the woman accusing him of sexual assault, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, I received a text message from a friend. She sent me two images, one of pink writing on an orange background saying “I believe her” and another of the same sentence but this time in purple font on a green background. “Which one is cuter,” she wrote, “to post on Insta?”

Social media has become an integral part of the country’s political discourse. While it may seem harmless, the new phenomenon of using political movements as social media content alters these campaigns, diluting and weakening their message by prioritizing style over substance.

The average American teenager spends 9 hours a day on social networking sites. Since so much of Americans’ lives are spent online, it is unsurprising that now so much of the nation’s political conversation happens there too. Much of the nation’s political discussion lives on the Internet, occurring on platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Reddit, Youtube, Tumblr, and more.

Social media’s influence has only grown with the ascension of Donald Trump to the presidency. Trump has been a uniquely controversial political figure, making many controversial statements that often target women and minorities. He often does this through his infamous Twitter page. Never before has such an influential political figure been so outspoken on social media. His Twitter has become a major tool in both his campaign and his presidency, with him announcing multiple major policy decisions on the platform.

This combination of social media’s increasing ubiquity and Trump’s far right rhetoric has completely changed the nature of modern American political protest. There has been an outpouring of anti-Trump energy that has manifested itself in a variety of marches and campaigns like the Women’s March, the March for Our Lives, and the March for Science. Before, these protests would have only been able to be experienced by the people at them. Now, through social media, people from across the globe can follow along with these movements in real time.

Protest and political activism have become mainstream. Countless celebrities have used their social media platforms to speak about politics. Superstar Taylor Swift posted on Instagram about voting for Democratic candidates in the upcoming midterm elections. Young Hollywood darling Zendaya shared multiple Instagrams of her at the Women’s March. These “tastemakers” posting about politics have helped make it appear fashionable and trendy.

Now, average Americans partake in sharing their activism online too. More than 300 thousand Instagrams were posted with hashtags like #womensmarch and #whyimarch during and in the wake of the 2017 Women’s March. Documenting their presence or support of a demonstration seems to be a top priority for many march-goers. As more and more celebrities engage in online political activism, they make it seem cool. This has created a culture in which normal people want to seem as cool as the celebrities they admire so they too share their political actions online.

To many, the increasing accessibility and opportunity to engage in activism is positive. Social media is making activism mainstream, and allowing supporters of a specific movement to be more informed than ever before. However, social media glorifies style over substance. Images carry more social capital than text-based posts. On Twitter, tweets with images recieve 89% more favorites. Images can certainly be compelling, yet they cannot cover the same depth that writing allows. For many on social media, images are posted for vanity purposes, allowing a way to simply show support for movement without having to engage in nuanced discussion about it.

For example, the hashtag “I believe her” (in reference to Dr. Christine Blasey Ford) on Instagram has 61.1k posts. One of the most common images linked to this hashtag is a photograph of Dr. Ford, with her eyes closed, raising her hand as she swears to tell the truth. The image is certainly powerful — yet alone, without discussion surrounding it, sharing this image does little to engage with the issue. Communicating about complex topics only through pictures dilutes the true meaning of an event.

When text is the primary medium of discussion online, short and direct phrases are more effective than lengthy but detailed accounts. Slogans and sentences that can fit into a tweet have more social capital than those that can’t. Many of the images labeled #ibelieveher are simple one-sentence statements or phrases written in trendy fonts and posted on colorful backgrounds. Images with slogans such as “Girls are not collateral damage in boys’ coming of age stories,” “boys will be boys  held accountable,” or “each time a woman stands up for herself, she stands up for all women” are abundant on social media. These posts look cute, are catchy, and are direct. Unfortunately, once again, they do little to actually move the collective conversation forward. The main reward is that they allow the person who posts to look “hip” without having to do much actual political work.

Social media has made so much of protest performative. By definition, everything someone does, writes about, posts, or shares on social media is primarily to be seen by other people. Unlike physical marches or demonstrations which are meant to catch the eyes of those in power, most social media action does little to reach people beyond one’s follower list. It is more about showing your involvement to peers than it is about actually making change.

Protesting and political action should be done for the sake of bringing about change, not for the purpose of enhancing one’s social media presence. Social media is a starting place. It is a way to first learn about issues and political action. Online activism is easy. But it is too easy. It oversimplifies and drains conversations of their nuance. In order to actually change the world in the ways they outline on their Twitters and Instagrams, people need to engage in the gritty, laborious, un-sexy work of real-life political activism, like voting and volunteering. It may not look as cool on a profile, but its actual results will have a far greater impact.

Photo: “IMG_1565”

About the Author

Katherine Dario '22 is a Staff Writer for the Culture Section of the Brown Political Review. Katherine can be reached at