The Ill Motives Behind Online Activism

Taruna Anil, Investigations Assistant

Activism has taken on many different forms over the past several decades. 

In the 1960s, President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam war inspired massive change. Ordinary people took their concerns to the streets, and activism grew prominent, bold, and sustained. 

That same spark was seen in the summer of 2020 when the visual of a police officer’s knee on a Black man’s neck was broadcast across the country, which sparked massive outrage. According to Civis Analytics, approximately 15 to 26 million Americans participated in protests associated with Black Lives Matter that year.

As of Sept. 13, 2021, police in the United States have killed 705 people this year. But unlike 2020, there has not been another wave of black squares or neon Instagram infographics.

Online, millions posted black squares under the hashtag #blackouttuesday, a movement to protest police brutality through social media platforms. The posting and reposting “culture” became increasingly common─in fact, it was simply inevitable to not click on an infographic that was related to protests, legislators, and bail funds. 

As of Sept. 13, 2021, police in the United States have killed 705 people this year. But unlike 2020, there has not been another wave of black squares or neon Instagram infographics.

With all this sporadic change, the question remains: Did online activism spike so much simply for social media platforms to regress to silence? 

Desensitization to Tragic Events 

An influx of graphic content overwhelmed the social media community in June 2020. Regardless of content warnings implemented by both social media platforms and news outlets, avoiding videos of brutal events was near impossible. 

To Black individuals, this repetitive cycle of reposting police brutality was traumatizing. As stated by Mental Health America, many people of color will face racial trauma, or the mental and emotional injury caused by encounters with racial bias, in their lifetime. Witnessing violent hate crimes is a prominent trigger of race-based trauma, and because these occurrences were heavily publicized, the effects multiplied. 

To non-Black individuals, it caused people to accept these instances as a social norm. It was no longer surprising to go online and see cops abusing their power. When the series of unjust events oversaturated social media platforms, people gradually began developing the mindset: this is just how it is, I guess, instead of acknowledging the significance of such injustices. 


Many accepted that the death of George Floyd was an awakening. Seeing a black man die a slow, painful death in broad daylight made millions of Americans question their justice system. As the tragic deaths due to police brutality grew exponentially, the problem became crystal clear. 

Yet, the enthusiasm for change plateaued. When observing a Civiqs survey of over 270,000 registered voters, net support for Black Lives Matter dropped to 2 percent as of Sept. 23, 2021. A week after George Floyd was murdered, net support peaked at 24 percent –the day Derek Chauvin was convicted, net support hit 6 percent. 

The data continually shows trends of decreased support after pivotal events. These issues are treated like cycles–a jarring event happens, mass media coverage kicks off, and communities fall back to silence in the blink of an eye.

So, why is activism a trend? 

“Trendivism,” or trendy activism, has many roots. It has become increasingly common to post simply to let people know you are not a bigot. Or, it feels like a compulsory action because everyone else is doing it. 

Those who claim to advocate for social issues through online platforms must remain consistent with their messages. Only “caring” about these topics when a significant event happens perpetuates the idea that these issues are temporary–when in reality, subjects like systemic racism plague every corner of the world.

Informing v. Doing 

A survey of U.S Adults conducted by Pew Research showed that 36% of social media users posted a picture on their profile to support a cause. Due to how efficient it has become to share information through these platforms, social media has become a primary form of “advocacy.” 

Even so, there are many ways one can share their support for these causes without social media, like participating in mutual aid, protesting, and contacting elected officials. 

Activists who continue to do significant work for a particular cause may be looked down upon just because they do not post about their work. These avenues of activism have existed before the internet–but because social media is so accessible, many assume that individuals who do not show their support online simply do not care. 

Social media “activists” must understand the perspective of those who do not voice their support online but continue to help their cause in different ways. Though they might be silent on the internet, taking the initiative in one’s community requires an extra level of effort and support. There is a hard line between “informing” and “doing,” and with “activism” being more accessible than ever, that line has become obscured. 

What Are the Intentions?

Amidst the chaos, it is vital to stay engaged in current events. But when considering supporting a cause, ask: “Why am I supporting this cause? What am I doing to help my community and educate others? Why do I care? How can I change my behavior to be an ally to these marginalized groups I’m supporting?”

Online activism can be helpful, accessible, and straightforward. But viewing Instagram infographics as the epitome of advocacy might be the downfall of individual and widespread activism.