In the midst of horrific displays of police brutality, a new presidential administration and a global pandemic, teenagers have a lot to say—and many feel that Instagram is just the place to do so.
Roughly 16 million teens around the world use Instagram. Created in 2010, Instagram is a way for users to share their voices through posts, which are a combination of an image and a caption. The app consists of two kinds of posts: those on your feed, where you see content from people you follow, and stories, which disappear after 24 hours and are typically photos of friends or recirculations of other people’s posts. Even if you don’t follow an account, a popular post is likely to come across your screen, be it through a celebrity’s or a friend’s account.
A majority of high school students, myself included, spend an embarrassing amount of time scrolling through Instagram feeds each day. Recently, in clicking through threads of Instagram stories, I’ve found that many of the people I’m following repost an almost identical collection of neatly made, aesthetically pleasing infographics in the wake of each new incident. Last year, it was news of the 2020 presidential election, and in the last weeks, it has been about vaccine administration and India’s COVID crisis. The posts typically contain similar elements: a bold image with an eye-catching title on the cover, then slides that follow with tidily laid out information set in front of a pleasing backdrop.
“An infographic spreads like wildfire because they’re so easy to spread and understand,” sophomore Jacqueline Metzger said.
Sharing posts on social media can be tricky. It can become hard to determine motivation for resharing a post, whether people are doing it because they genuinely care, or if it’s just a performative action. It can also be hard to determine the intentions behind the agendas behind certain posts and recognize misinformation. To me, posting becomes performative when a person is simply sharing a post but not taking any action based on the information it provides, doing the bare minimum to contribute to the issue at hand.
The first time I come across an informational post, I find it helpful in keeping me up to date with current events. The post is useful in giving me the facts, rather than enhancing my perspective or changing my point of view. However, after seeing the same posts dozens and dozens of times, sharing images starts to seem like more of a performative action than a useful tool in making change.
“When you see the same post rising a lot, saying the exact same thing, providing the exact same information, the exact same perspective, it does kind of feel like that person doesn’t actually have something to contribute to the conversation,” junior Noah Freedman said. “They’re just kind of showing that they’re up to date but also that they’re an ally. It can be good, but it lacks the kind of next step of activism.”
The image of the infographic becomes a vehicle for being seen as politically aware and active by your followers. Before reposting an image, it’s easy to worry that your followers may think you don’t care because you haven’t reshared a post that many of your peers have.
This urgency can actually discourage people from digesting the information that they’re sharing. Since they rush so quickly to post something because of fear of judgment, they likely don’t take the time to actively pay attention to the words on the post. We must realize that not understanding the impact of the content we share lessens its effect if we only do it to gain social credit.
“The tendency to see an interesting title and just immediately repost it to your own story is really tempting,” Metzger pointed out. “But, simultaneously, if you’re not even consuming the information of the infographics that you’re spreading, then there really is no point to it because you’re not educating yourself.”
Senior Anoushka Chander, chair of the GDS Student Action Committee, agrees.“It’s a thin line to cross between educating yourself and realizing that you need to speak up,” she said, “and just speaking up because if you don’t post something, you think people are going to think badly of you.”
Accounts like @impact and @chnge are among the most popular organizations from which I’ve seen teens repost images. These organizations self-advertise in their Instagram bios as sharing “digestible & socially-impactful [sic] content .” Informational accounts typically post infographics or inspirational photos intended to educate viewers about current political issues. (Though the topics covered may be biased in catering to a specific audience, the information that is shared is plainly factual.) While these posts can do a good job of spreading basic, necessary and preliminary information, they can only do so much to help the issue at hand.
“A lot of infographics don’t necessarily delve into the nuance of the issue or new information,” Freedman said. “Especially when a big event happens, or afterwards, it feels like it can be an echo chamber, everyone reposting what other people are reposting, it’s just the same graphic over and over.”
Chances are, if you are a student who goes to GDS and has Instagram, the large majority of your following consists of fellow students who, for the most part, share similarly left-leaning political views to you. As someone with a liberal following, I find that clicking through the same infographics over and over has done little to impact the issues that the images discuss.
“I worried that [issues] that were really personal to me would just start to be regurgitated in this machine of simple, easy infographics,” Metzger said after seeing many examples of repeated content. She feels that seeing people mindlessly post about issues like the Black Lives Matter movement can underplay the severity and importance of the topic.
So what is the solution? How can each of us use social media to truly help those in need? The answer is simple—take action.
Educating yourself is a crucial step in doing your part, but the thing that will create change regarding injustice is the action that you take. It’s important to find a balance between sharing information, sharing opportunities for others to take action and actually taking action yourself.
“The way I view social media activism is it’s a really good outward facing step, but it shouldn’t be all that you’re doing,” said Chander. “It really depends on intent and then your inward practices as well. You have to practice what you preach.”
The key is to use the education that comes from these informational posts to inspire you to make a difference. Rather than sharing the same set of infographics on your story, challenge yourself to do something about the issue at hand. Donate, protest, support minority-owned organizations, use your platform to promote unheard voices—harness the resources you’ve been given.
As GDS community members, we are given access to an incredible amount of experiences and resources. From service learning, to school clubs and even Augur Bit articles, we are presented with chance after chance to take action. As educated, informed citizens, it’s our duty to harness these opportunities and to use the platform we’ve been given in a way that will benefit those in need. We have been put in a privileged and powerful position where it’s easy to participate in the opportunities we’re given, so with our great power comes a great responsibility. Yes, it’s great to share important facts to keep you and your peers in the loop, but be careful; don’t let your well-intended reposts fade into performative activism.
So next time, before you click the add-to-story button on your phone, think: Can I be doing more?
CORRECTION (May 17, 1:22 p.m.): A previous version of this article misspelled the name of Jacqueline Metzger as Jaqueline.