Coronavirus pushed us immediately into an online state of existence last March. In-person interaction was outlawed and it became a civic duty to see as few people as possible, so we got on our phones and addressed our social spheres from Instagram and Facebook. Young people were doing this anyway, but lockdown put into perspective the value of at least the occasional face-to-face discussion on current affairs or politics with a real life group of friends, as suddenly, we were without it. It wasn’t supposed to last this long, and what was initially seen as a temporary break from reality in which we existed purely online, has entrenched itself as a new reality altogether. The longer this lasts, and the deeper it goes, the less informed and the more divided we will be.
As social animals, where we would usually express opinions and debate issues at school, at work or at dinner parties, we’ve been forced instead to take them to social media, where we’re busy nurturing an online moral and political profile, and doing our best to seem engaged. A year ago, our peers would know roughly where we stood on an issue, and what kinds of things we were engaging with, because they would see us around to talk to. There was no pressure or expectation to exert these parts of your personality onto an Instagram story. But after a few weeks of nomination trends, dance challenges, fundraising gimmicks and the circulation of endless lockdown content that provided a backdrop to the stale and lifeless environment created by being at home all day, we grew to accept this new state of being. As our real life platform for engagement collapsed, we began building a new one by reminding all of our followers who we were and what kinds of things made us tick. The fear of slipping off the radar pushed us into meaningless postings, as blank reminders that we still exist. Soon, though, this new platform would be used for something far more impactful, and more dangerous.
George Floyd was killed on May 25, 2020, nearly two months into lockdown. It didn’t just prove to be a watershed moment for race relations, but it birthed a new standard for how we express ourselves in the wake of such incidents. His death, and Breonna Taylor’s, and Tamir Rice’s, and what they all represented, should have been something to rationalise and digest in a normal setting. Kids should have been able to go to school and speak to peers and teachers, older students should have taken it from their uni halls to their seminar groups, and parents should have banded their opinions around at work, in their cycling groups, on their coffee mornings. For the first time, a major incident had ignited a debate in a setting that virtually prohibited its discussion. What unfolded was in strict keeping with the themes of the previous two months: screenshots, hashtags, thought bubbles and black squares.
When we talk in person, there are codes to follow. At the very least, we are expected to be decent. There are social pressures that force us to be polite and courteous, to not say or do anything too outrageous, to articulate ourselves in a way that encourages a response, and to have conviction in what we believe enough to invigorate ourselves into opening our mouths in the first place. Fail to meet these standards and we risk social embarrassment, a fallout with a friend, or a smack from a stranger. When we solely exist on social media, these pressures are lessened. We can afford to be more extreme in our language, we can take an argument to a place we couldn’t in person, we can be as lazy or engaged as we like, we can afford to not really know what we’re talking about as we can just end a discussion whenever we like, and nobody can hit us if we’re rude. A study by Pew Research found that 84% of Americans agree that social media are places where people say things while discussing politics that they would never say in person. 53% agree that conversations are less respectful, and 49% thought they were more angry. This is all assuming, of course, that what we’re doing can actually be classified as conversation, because the real issue with the environment on social media is that there is actually no discussion at all.
Instagram and Facebook are designed for creating a profile. How you come across on social media and how you portray your thoughts and feelings is more important than what those thoughts and feelings actually entail. In other words, what you write is more important than what you read. The environment on social media has created not a need to absorb and reflect but to regurgitate and spread. It is more important to prove to around a thousand people you don’t know very well that you’re not racist than it is to read and reflect on your internal dispositions. It is also much easier. What we are left with is not a dialogue, but a mindless, repetitious set of insistent, self-gratifying declarations, and what starts as a worthwhile conversation saturates itself into an unintelligible bog. If the conversation was taken straight from Instagram and dropped into a public place, you wouldn’t be able to hear what anybody was saying. Emblematic of this was the hashtag #BlackoutTuesday. It was an ostensible display of solidarity consisting of a simple black square, a hashtag, and a promise not to post anything else for a day, taking the time instead to reflect. What it actually did was drown and silence other important resources, other hashtags and information outlets. Everywhere anybody looked they just saw black squares. So keen were we to jump into performative allyship and declare ourselves to be on the right side, that we made a critical tool for communication completely unusable.
This immediate issue only lasted a day or so, but a deeper effect of this kind of saturation is the reductive atmosphere it creates in the long term. All guilt can be absolved with a black square, and no more engagement is required because you know that all your friends have seen it. This kind of behaviour also easily leads to hostility, giving cause to opposition that should never have had cause. Pressure from peers online to perform wokeness, and to do it in the right way, proved detestable. What should have remained a battle fought by unified anti-racists, quickly splintered into simultaneous battles between the vocal ally and the quiet ally, the woke and the woke-er. Soon there was criticism of what should have been an infallible movement, and the conversation was relegated to a freedom of speech issue, dragged far from its roots in racial injustice. The discussion on male treatment of women following Sarah Everard’s abduction and murder, and new data on the scale of sexual harrassment, has, sadly, already seen similar blowback. Fragile egos are threatened when our position on the issue is evaluated through our social media output, or lack thereof; when we are enemies until we declare ourselves allies. Resentment of this position pushes the conversation out of its proper context. Then, there is a semantic debate about how we show solidarity, whether all men are to blame, and again, an issue that should see no logical resistance, becomes combustible.
Facebook and Instagram reward the extreme. The measured and rational headline will not be clicked on, and nobody is ever entertained by a balanced summary of events. What gets bumped up the algorithmic agenda is only the hottest take, the spikiest message. Hundreds of people flood the comments in disgust? Good. More user traffic, more clicks, more profile growth and more ad revenue. People laud the message and share it with peers? Also good, for the same reasons. These pages and their writers are paid by the click, and it’s not a surprise that independent activism pages are seeing a steeper growth than the pages of regulated news media like The Guardian. It is also not surprising that in an environment that rewards the extreme, and suffocates the moderate, we disagree with one another so much. Not only is everyone shouting and nobody listening, but everyone is shouting things from the furthest end of what they believe, in the harshest English they can muster. The study by Pew also found that 51% of people think that social media conversations are less likely to come to a resolution, showing that the circulation of radical, clickable ‘news’ items is eroding common ground.
This is not to condemn online activism. Instagram and Facebook have long been vital tools for sharing information and raising awareness. And seeing as my overarching message has been that life is now being conducted online, it would be self-defeating not to recognise the surge in online activism as another symptom of this state change. This is also not to belittle the issues currently plaguing us and being spoken about on social media. The atrocities and their preceding histories rightly justify the scale of the outcry, and shows of unity on a large scale have been very impactful. But what is divisive and unnecessary is the emerging culture of competitive activism. Despite Instagram assuming the form of real life while we couldn’t go outside, it isn’t real life. Our moral and political profile doesn’t end at the full stop in our caption. To be thought less of for a failure to repost the currently trending Guardian article is absurd, and all that social pressure will do is cheapen an incredibly severe issue that deserves to be recognised as more than a wave of thought squares designed to attract shares and garner ad revenue. Everyone should care, everyone should read, everyone should be keen to be a part of change, but a lazy groupthink that starts and ends with a right-click and a share is not going to get us there, and it will drive us all mad.