This final paper was part of the coursework for the Ethnographic Practicum course, “Ethnography of the University 2020: Focus on Knowledge”
In the summer of 2020, the phrase “why is no one talking about this?” and aggressive awareness campaigns for social justice began popping up in my social media feed. I found this curious, as this sentiment often accompanied stories that had made international news, or at the very least had found viral popularity on social media. As a self-identified millennial-Gen Z hybrid, social media has always been a natural part of my life. In the early years of social media’s development, I was a pre-teen making amateur websites, posting blogs and vlogs online with my friends on our clunky smartphones. Recently, social media has shifted to a generative source of content, and this essay will seek to address the social media trend of social activism online through the presentation, curation, and creation of informational posts on Instagram. The rise in social activism online has developed alongside a direct relationship with the internet’s tendency to sensationalize and gatekeep information, adding an air of exclusivity and valour to being aware of global issues.
Originally a photo-sharing app, Instagram has evolved over the years to include various forms of short-form interactive content, making it a popular site to host social justice information-sharing accounts. Over the course of four months, I explored the world of Instagram social activism. In an attempt to mirror my personal experience with the platform, I utilized many of Instagram’s algorithmic tools such as hashtags, the explore page, recommended content, and suggested profiles. Due to the global pandemic throughout 2020, the majority of my interactions have occurred online – and my experience with ethnography has been no different. To my benefit, the world of social justice gained momentum during the pandemic as many were forced to move their interactions online. During this study, I was able to utilize my position as a digital native to navigate the online phenomena of information and knowledge sharing. The main focus of my research was to understand how social activists engage with identity politics, current events, and global activism to curate or create informational social media posts for their followers.
Through this work I will demonstrate my experience performing an online ethnography in the world of Instagram social activism. I will begin with a literature review of some relevant works, identifying the key thinkers and concepts that have informed my research. In sections 2 and 3, I define the Instagram field site and explain my methodology. Finally, in part 4, I explain the relationship between identity, marginalization and veridiction in online social activism, ending on an analysis of 3 different social activism accounts.
1. Literature Review
Foucault defined veridiction as truth verified on the reasoning of a particular world view (Blanco, 2018). In social media, this can be seen as a polyphonic democratic process through which new trends and new cultural things are validated and put into social consciousness (Milner, 2016). The polyphonic democratic process occurs when the general social consciousness online takes hold of a viral concept, the most popular opinions are reproduced and reinforced, whether they are factually true or not. The truth that is created, shared, and re-negotiated in online communities is verified through likes, follows, and support of individuals, groups, or movements.
In researching truth and ideology, Overell and Nicholls identify the current epoch of social media as heavily influenced by ‘post-truth’ and reality mediation (2020). Overell discusses the phenomenon of ideological meaning and media texts in leveraging politics, pointing to the Trump campaign’s ‘fake news’ sentiment as an inciting incident in discourse on false narratives online. Cvar and Bobnic continue this discussion within the phenomenon of neoliberal reality perception, identifying the affect of social media on political and social ideologies in post truth (Overell, 2020). Overell et al’s conception of post-truth relates to the convergence of traditional media (TV news, publications, press conferences) and online media in the individual’s perception of truth and reality. The neoliberal individual is a conceptual representation of someone influenced by sensationalized liberal media both traditional and online in opposition to the biases of traditional media. Post-truth acknowledges that all forms of media have some sort of bias or agenda, and many individuals seek multiple online resources to come to their own conclusions – but may not be aware of the biases within certain online echo-chambers. This is another result of the polyphonic nature of discourse online, truth and reality can be warped through the veridiction of online popularity.
Millennials and Gen Z are the most likely demographic to use social media sites, and their opinions are formed by their direct and constant access to online communities that support multiple gender, sexual, and racial identities. Kaplan 2020 describes the role of youth in social movements, bringing up the antiwar sentiments of baby boomers, the black youths who were the first to desegregate American schools, and the Gen X and Millennial support of LGBT identities – something that is amplified through access to social media communities. Young people and their experiences are inextricably connected with the greater social and historical context in the sense that mobilization and social activism have always been associated with youth culture. Students in particular are attracted to online activism, and social media has been proven as a useful tool for young people to engage with complex issues in politics, amplifying their voices and increasing engagement and dialogue (Kunnath 2019). Addressing the Gen Z approach to crowd-sourcing opinion, Ghobadi and Clegg (2013) apply a critical mass approach to online activism on youtube. Through critical mass theory, Ghobadi and Clegg identify that online communities are able to organize, initiate, and mobilize crowds with active engagement. Once a group has reached a certain mass, they gain authority and presence, as there are always enough individuals with the desire to actively engage. The mass information and awareness approach is one commonly applied by Instagram activists, who utilize the app’s unique features to engage with their audiences. Almost all current Instagram activists include some sort of active crowd sourcing through petition or donation, with the intention to create real change on a global scale.
2. Defining the Field-site
Instagram is a photo-sharing social media platform, popular amongst individuals, businesses, and government agencies as a visual communication tool. Instagram attracts a demographic of mostly young people, over 60% of their users are between the ages of 14-30 – not accounting for users who lie about their age to avoid Instagram’s 13+ age restriction, or to ‘catfish’ other users with a false profile. Amongst its users, Instagram hosts a rich cache of social-media influencers, who use their position as popular internet personalities to recommend or advocate for products in fashion, makeup, and lifestyle. Alongside these, meme-curation accounts that re-post popular funny tweets or memes cultivate massive followings. Although it started as a photo-sharing platform, the methods of engagement that Instagram employs have increased to include videos, direct messaging, and other ephemeral content that can be commented, shared, or reacted to.
Users on Instagram are required to create a profile, where others can access their displayed name, profile picture, follower count, biography, and their posts. The bio section provides users with a space to present their identities to other users. Many involved in social activism, or those that identify within LGBTQ+ choose to display their sexuality and gender alongside their pronouns, ex: Queer, she/her. The identity of individuals online have an importance in the conversations an individual is allowed to have, an argument under a politically or racially charged post can eventually include personal attacks basked on what is available on a public profile – not limited to gender, sexuality, age, location and other identifying aspects. While having an active profile can make one more trustworthy to other users, any part of the profile aside from the name and picture can be set to private. Instagram users can express themselves through posting, commenting, and interacting with other profiles on the site, and express their support for certain posts and individuals through their engagement.
Posts can be made in multiple ways but mostly fall under the categories of permanent or effervescent. A permanent post in the main ‘feed’, which users can scroll through, comment, and like/heart publicly, or via Instagram stories that appear for 24 hours. Permanent feed posts can also include multiple pictures in a ‘carousel’ or ‘slides’ post, to allow users to emphasize or elaborate on the information shared. Instagram stories, direct messages and other effervescent content can be augmented by fun filters and interactional features such as votes, polls, and q&a, where followers can interact with posters in an informal, semi-public way. Interaction between accounts can be utilized in a multitude of different ways, and many users have their individual perceptions on what each interaction can mean. Interactions that do not generate new content or involve minimal effort from users (e.g. a button), such as passive views, likes, or emoticon reactions are generally referred to as micro-interactions. Micro-interactions make up a large part of social media life, as they ‘push’ content for the algorithm.
Instagram accounts who seek to inform their followers contend with the elusive Instagram algorithm – a technocratically hidden concept that Instagram users only vaguely understand but constantly refer to. The algorithm decides which posts a user is most likely to see based on their prior interests and activity on the app, as well as other’s interactions with the posts. The algorithm can also choose to push a certain post or page to a larger demographic via the ‘explore’ page. While information on the algorithm is fairly exclusive – most social networking sites rely on an algorithm to drive engagement and therefore ad sales, the algorithm is often discussed. Curation accounts online that seek to collect and share particular types of posts such as art accounts, meme accounts, and social activism accounts, often discuss the algorithm amongst themselves and their commenters, sharing tips and tricks to improve the engagement on their posts.
To participate in the online discourse of social media, I created a new Instagram profile with the username here.to.ask. My original intention of creating this new profile was to identify myself as a researcher to others online, those that I engaged with could easily navigate to my page bio where I briefly explained my project. I have owned my personal account for almost a decade, meaning that Instagram has a decade of data on my personal preferences and online activity to personalize my experience on the platform. By creating a new account, I was able to tailor my experience to focus on social justice, which also helped me to keep my focus and avoid consuming the inevitable entertainment content while conducting research.
I used the hashtag feature to search for phrases such as #blacklivesmatter, #yemencrisis, and #activism to find social media activism accounts, and I also utilized my personal Instagram account to see what movements were gaining momentum among my peers, as well as some of the popular accounts and posts. After following several social media accounts, the Instagram algorithm responded to my perceived interests, and my explore feed was filled with social activism and posts about mental health. While I have no real understanding of how the algorithm works – this information is relatively hard to find as social media sites are protective of their algorithms, I relied on the algorithm to show me more posts and more accounts related to my interests through Instagram’s ‘explore’ feature.
Over the course of 4 months, I would regularly check in on this account whenever I felt the urge to use my personal account – in an attempt to mirror a ‘natural’ interaction with my research account. After logging in, I would watch Instagram stories, making sure that I at least watched the major accounts that I focus on in this work. Then I would scroll through the feed, and finally I would check the explore page for any trending topics that I may or may not have missed. I supplemented my research by trying to engage in the comment sections of popular posts, either responding to popular comments or making my own.
In interacting with other accounts, I would send emails/direct messages to major accounts in the hopes that they would respond to me. Through this process I was able to find a few interlocutors that agreed to Q&A through email, as well as one online interview. In the early stages of my research, I was mostly interested in looking at the ways that online activism accounts would choose to make their branded posts, but I soon realized that accounts that curated activism content were far more popular than accounts that created original content. Curation accounts had the ability to post more frequently, making them more visible in Instagram’s algorithm because they had more posts for users to interact with. However, many curation accounts would rarely engage with critical literacy, and focus on memes, jokes, and popular culture instead, in comparison with creation accounts that would often engage with academic sources, perspectives, and discussions outside of social media culture.
To compile this research, I utilized many of Instagram’s unique features. The ‘save’ function on Instagram allows users to save posts in labeled folders. I also made use of screenshots and screen-recordings to augment my notes. I took note of major events that happened throughout the course of my using this account, curating information on each subject. I took note of the posts that gained a lot of support and participated in whatever active comment sections I could find. Through my general use I was able to participate in some live interactive activities such as story Q&A’s, where accounts would allow followers to submit questions to be answered, and live votes.
Halfway through my research I noticed I was paying the most attention to a few specific accounts, dailydoseofwokeness, shityoushouldcareabout, and soyouwanttotalkabout – and began to focus my research on those. All three accounts combine elements of curation and creation, and all share a common goal of informing their followers of social activism causes that they should support.
4. Social Media Activism: Veridiction, Identity, and Marginalization
Social media activism on Instagram is currently focused on US politics and issues, due to most of its users being from the US and Canada, and the platform’s origins as an English-language site. When I subscribed to accounts that focused on social activism, I expected the algorithm to respond with accounts on human rights, showing me discussions on race, culture, and politics. I was shown these things alongside accounts that advocated for mental health, and sexual health, emphasizing the compassionate nature of online activism, which generally seeks to maintain the mental health and stability of those who choose to participate in it. As previously addressed, social activism online received a boom in interest due to the BLM protests over the summer. Social blade, a website which tracks social media account statistics, evidences a huge increase of interest for nearly every social media account I followed – particularly during the months of June and July. During these summer months I saw an increase of mass-mobilization through petition, donation, awareness campaigns and writing campaigns to US senators and other political officials. However, activism online emphasizes the international aspect as well, with many accounts including activism on the Hong Kong protests, addressing Yemen, the Middle East, and more recently Indigenous rights and the farmer’s protest in India. During my time amongst social activist Instagram accounts, I noticed the extreme popularity of displaying support for international causes continue to gain momentum.
Across all the Instagram activism accounts I followed, major trending movements were always addressed. Though accounts generally had a focus, any mainstream event that gained momentum online, was eventually shared, referenced, or reposted by everyone I knew, including people on my personal account. One such situation was the death of Joyce Echaquan. Joyce was an indigenous woman who died in a Quebec hospital, after live-streaming her gross mistreatment. Following her death, Instagram and other social media sites rallied behind indigenous women, one of the many posts I saw directly asked, “why is no one talking about this?”, though every major media outlet in Canada had already posted an article about it. Social media activism requires a sense of sensationalism, as it thrives on micro-interactions and sharing across multiple sites to gain momentum. The stories that catch on in the public eye are those that have shareable and emotional elements, such as the shared experience of public outcry and disgust over the mistreatment of others. When a story such as Joyce’s reaches high popularity, it also gains importance in the overall discourse – activism accounts that are even vaguely related to the situation are expected to address popular social justice narratives, and will otherwise be considered as “ignoring” the situation.
Veridiction online is directly associated with wokeness and clout. I define wokeness as the knowledge of the correct social movements, with correctness being defined by the popularity of the respective movements. On Instagram, users can demonstrate their wokeness through their public support of marginalized groups. Online this demonstration is often explicit, with a hashtag, following a social justice challenge, or sharing a social activism post. Wokeness is one of the ways that users can gain clout online. Clout can be classified as followers and likes, but also the amount of influence and authority that an individual holds amongst their followers. In the democracy of the internet, what is popular is right, and the wokeness and clout of an individual can lead the veridiction of their opinion.
In social media posts, sources are often difficult to find. With the prevalence of curation posts, discussions that gain traction on social media are frequently reproduced, but each reproduction continues to omit the original source with its own spin and crop of the image. Verification of fact is difficult, and sources can be vague. Without a centralized source of information, users online reach their own conclusions, taking into account the wokeness and clout associated with each position.
In social media activism, the negotiation and democratic process can be exemplified through celebrity clout. Celebrities online can be individuals who rose to prominence through traditional media such as film or music, but also social media celebrities who built their own following online. Celebrity accounts on social media directly interact with their fans, and many users are aware that celebrities directly profit from their popularity online through ad-revenue, or corporate sponsorships. While celebrities can bring real-life clout such as international acclaim for music or video media, their clout can also be challenged by their followers. During the summer of 2020, many celebrities were ‘called out’ for not publicly supporting social activism movements, or for their vapid commentary on current events. For example: Gal Gadot and many other celebrities participated in an off-key group recording of John Lennon’s Imagine, the video was immediately trashed and ridiculed throughout the internet as a tone-deaf response to the devastating effects of Covid-19. The negotiation of clout is even more evident with social media stars, where fans directly address the crowd-sourced fame of social media influencers, threatening to take it away if the star misbehaves by retracting their support or ‘cancelling’ the influencer by spreading harmful information.
The discourse I witnessed and participated in throughout my four months on social media tended towards the importance of representation of marginalized communities. Marginalization in the form of government persecution, racism, sexism, ableism, and an assorted host of other social injustices creates narratives of high importance in social activism. The nature of veridiction in social activism values a lived experience of a marginalized individual over that of scientific fact or mainstream media, responding to a lack of representation in social voice. The under-represented are usually characterized as anyone non-white, and non-cis, and their marginalization directly correlates with their distance from these identities. This culture of pushing marginalized identities has a two-fold reaction, while under-represented narratives can be pushed into the worldview of thousands, and can increase understanding across difference, difference can also be amplified. Several of my interlocuters commented on the victimization of certain identities, such as the normalization of seeing injured, murdered, or brutalized black individuals during BLM’s most popular eras.
In response to this, many accounts have begun to utilize content warnings for graphic images, while others have stopped posting such images entirely, choosing to represent these situations in verbal form. Marginalized communities have also begun to trend towards discussing the positive traits of their communities, focusing on celebrations of culture rather than depictions of injustice, as exemplified by the current movement of “Native tiktok”. “Native tiktok” refers to one of several cultural groups on tiktok, where creators that identify as ‘Native’ make informative content about their cultural regalia, music, and traditions. Movements such as “Native tiktok” emphasize positive traits of culture and in turn help shift narratives of injustice from victim-hood to humanization.
4.1 Curation VS Creation Accounts
Informational accounts generally post via curation or creation, and many use a combination of both to ensure a constant flow of content, meaning that some accounts create their own informational posts, while others focus on collecting or curating these posts for their followers. These accounts see a high amount of popularity, boosted each and every time a social-justice issue receives attention. Commenters on these pages often thank the poster for providing information, and comment that they wouldn’t have learned certain information in school, referencing issues in public education on indigenous studies and the colonial history of formalized education. Comments also reflect a distrust in traditional media, seeing it as biased either towards or against the Trump administration. Through creating and curating informational content, Instagram activists seek to inform their followers, utilizing the sensationalist style of internet content, alongside the engagement features that Instagram offers. Meanwhile their followers are navigating vast amounts of information being constantly uploaded into these discussions. While these accounts may address serious topics, they also take advantage of the less-serious reputation of online discourse, allowing for both light-hearted and in-depth conversations to co-currently exist.
Curation accounts are likely run by US individuals in high school. These accounts tend to post tweets, infographics, and memes related to social justice issues. Creation accounts are likely run by groups or artists and graphic designers at a post-secondary level, and post content generated by the owners of the account. While some creation accounts are solely text based – sharing short essays and blogs on social activist issues, others are aesthetically focused. Aesthetic in creation accounts is extremely important. Utilizing the style of Instagram infographic popularized across the platform, creation accounts use simplistic and aesthetically pleasing statistical presentations to prove a point. A unique element of Instagram activism is the adherence to a ‘brand’ – and the importance of maintaining a pleasing aesthetic across the social media feed.
4.2. Analyzing Three Social Activism Accounts
Throughout my time on my here.to.ask social media account, I followed dozens of accounts that promoted social activism. I have chosen to focus my analysis on three accounts that I feel best exemplify the styles of social activism that are most prevalent and popular online, out of the many accounts with similar sentiments.
@Dailydoseofwokeness is run by a high-schooler named Sofia, who I was lucky enough to interview via Zoom. Sofia’s account is clearly a site of curation, and its popularity was jump-started by it’s support of the BLM movement during the summer of 2020. Dailydoseofwokeness mostly re-posts tweets, including the context of discussion. Sofia focuses her curation on US politics, with many recent posts addressing the US election, as well as the US’s influence on the environment through corporate greed. Other than her highlight section, Sofia makes very few aesthetic choices on her page, her typing style is also casual, using mostly lower-case letters and minimal punctuation characteristic of a Gen Z internet user. DDOW is a very typical Instagram activism account, featuring seemingly superficial levels of activism, however Sofia’s real work is hidden in the resource link in her bio. Sofia’s resource link curates dozens of social activism movements, alongside links to other resource links, Sofia provides a one-stop shop for her followers to sign petitions and donate to causes. While her account does the work of attracting social media followers through light-hearted memes and humorous takes on social problems, she also encourages her followers to take real action and mobilize while engaging with critical literacy through her available resources.
@shityoushouldcareabout is a collective curation and creation account, run by multiple individuals with connections to a blogging website. Although this account is located in New Zealand, they also focus heavily on US politics, alongside global content. As a curation account, SYSCA uses a daily no-bullshit news roundup, where they curate news titles for their followers as a quick update. SYSCA exemplifies an account that directly engages with the Instagram medium, utilizing carousel posts, stories, highlights and IGvideo functions to create a constant flow of informational content. While SYSCA curates tweets and memes similarly to @dailydoseofwokeness, SYSCA takes care to aesthetically bind their posts – tagging with a watermark and sticking to core colors of red, lavender, mint green and black. SYSCA’s original content is largely crowd sourced, providing engagement tabs for their followers to submit their own blog posts onto the SYSCA website. SYSCA represents curation and creation accounts that explicitly interact with the Instagram algorithm. By asking followers directly to like, comment and otherwise engage with their account, SYSCA uses the pull of social activism to gain clout, with the intention of using the gained clout to continue to spread knowledge and awareness.
Throughout the time that I followed SYSCA, their posts generally remained lighthearted while only vaguely hinting at the larger issues that they wanted to address. I noticed that over half of the content on SYSCA’s Instagram page are simply flattering images of popular left-leaning personalities such as Harry Styles and Michelle Obama, or unflattering photos of Donald Trump, with the majority of the rest being simple virtue signalling alongside the most popular trending social justice topics. Though SYSCA mainly identified as a social activism page, I found that their original posts rarely moved beyond simple summary, and while they had the most interaction and engagement, they seemed to have the least amount of actual information.
In complete contrast @soyouwanttotalkabout is an account exclusively focused on creating content. Run by a single university student, SYWTTA is a ‘slideshow’-activism account that posts regular original content on social activism, US politics and worldwide events. In concise point-form, SYWTTA creates shareable content that summarizes points of interest in social justice online. Although SYWTTA does not take care to engage frequently with their followers, their comment sections are active and host lengthy discussions from their followers. Unlike many creation accounts that I have come across, SYWTTA’s aesthetic is almost completely uniform, and provides sources on all the information given. SYWTTA makes very little use of Instagram’s engagement features, preferring instead to focus all their efforts on their informational posts.
SYWTTA directly addressed their followers only once in the time that I was following them. After posting an informational post about the trans rights, they received death-threats and multiple hate comments. In response, SYWTTA hosted a Q&A session in their Instagram stories, allowing multiple trans people to express their personal narratives to SYWTTA’s hundreds of followers. Rather than allowing hate to prosper, SYWTTA utilized their platform to provide a voice for their followers.
By observing these accounts amongst others of their type, I have noticed that curation accounts are far more popular than their creation counterparts. The level of dedication of individuals or groups has little to no bearing on their popularity. Most users tend towards casual content, superficial activism, and humorous approaches that are far more accessible and attractive to Instagram users, especially those that are young. Accounts that promote activism online are also subjected to the game of clout that occurs with social media use – with an overwhelming volume of information and content seeking to be seen by the overwhelming volume of users. In order to express the issues and gain attention for the right causes, Instagram activism accounts have to engage in the practices that will allow for the algorithm to show their posts to more people. By collecting content, curation accounts are able to post far more frequently and therefore experience higher levels of engagement – which pushes them forward in the Instagram algorithm in comparison with creation accounts that require intensive labor over each post: research, synthesis, visual presentation.
The implications of online activism lie in the veridiction of these accounts. While the marginalized identities and narratives that gain clout and attention through their circulation in social media activism, the information that is shared about these is not often true or easily verified. The sensationalized and highly aestheticized nature of social media adds the possibly of warping or mis-representing the narratives that social activism seeks to aid.
On Instagram, users access information from multiple sources and come to their conclusions based on the posts they come across in the context of their personal experience and information. Rather than trusting a single source as authoritative such as the news or their teachers, users look for non-traditional authority: such as the authority of a queer person to explain the queer experience. ‘Information’ is a diverse goal for the average Instagram user, the result of collaboration and communication across multiple individuals to inform a personal outlook on social justice. Instagram users are faced with an uncertainty in the current political and social climate and seek those with personal experiences to inform their opinions. The general skepticism that an individual online has, requires more work than watching the news or reading the paper, acknowledging that an informed view must be a diverse view. The popularity and continued prevalence of social activism accounts on Instagram reflect a desire for a changed society, but also leads to the possibility of sharing sensationalized information rather than sharing fact.
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