Around five years ago, the typical teen scrolling through their Instagram feed would have encountered brightly saturated vacation photos, Tumblr-esque fashion inspiration posts, cute animal videos, or cheesy inspirational quotes over a galaxy background. I personally remember trying to capture artsy, colorful snapshots of my Starbucks Frappuccino and slapping a vignette filter over my sunset just like any other 13 year old back then.
Nowadays, Instagram looks quite a bit different. The platform has evolved into a favored space for activists to share their perspectives and for youth to receive these messages. These new posts range from bright pink slideshows promoting gender equality to tribute artwork for victims of police violence to lists of resources and petitions supporting various causes. The variety of posts is endless and readily repostable for the average Instagram user.
In the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020, “Instagram infographic activism” has become a phenomenon that has changed the focus of the app. Traditionally a platform dedicated to aesthetic vacation and lifestyle pictures, it now offers a space for activists to share information through aesthetic templates and ten slide posts. The new wave of activism has drawn both acclaim and criticism, ranging from scorn at perceived “performative activism” to praise about how these campaigns elevate marginalized voices to the general public. Perhaps the answer to how we perceive this new type of activism lies somewhere in between. Instagram infographic activism should be dependent not only on the actual content that is posted, but on how users choose to interact with it, both online and in real life.
The roots of this transformation sprung from the need of activists for a platform to amplify their message digitally. Surprisingly, these activists told NBC News that Instagram was the perfect platform to share content and organize in-person events. 1 In part, this is because Instagram is widely used among teenagers for entertainment, education, and information. Rather than reading publications or watching the news, a teenager is much more likely to be exposed to new information while scrolling through their feed. Similarly, young people are accustomed to hearing about local issues through word of mouth on Instagram, making it an ideal platform to organize protests and events.
Raising awareness on platforms such as Instagram allows activists and ideas to reach audiences that normally would not be exposed to these social issues and allows youth who are limited in traditional avenues of protest and activism, such as protests, to get involved online. Although their contributions might be limited at this stage, their presence is essential in the success of a movement. In fact, as a study from New York University’s Data Science Center confirms, peripheral participants (defined as the “immense majority of users who surround the small epicenter of protests”) are essential to maximizing the reach of messages from the core participants of a movement. 2 Overall, the researchers found that these peripheral participants aren’t as useful to a movement individually as a core participant, but the numbers they provide help spread the message far beyond its initial audience. Since Instagram provides a way to increase these peripheral participants to a young, eager audience, it has become the ideal platform for activists to invigorate a new audience and build a robust movement.
Additionally, Instagram activism provides a more accessible avenue for activists to share their experiences than traditional venues for discourse such as newspapers, academia, and publications. This is especially applicable to marginalized voices and perspectives. Historically, for instance, media outlets have been unable to show full clips of violent police interactions due to sensitivity guidelines. These censored clips dulled activists’ messages and made it difficult to communicate the severity of the situation. Beyond that, many local news outlets prefer to stay apolitical, meaning it’s hard for activists to utilize this media without being censored for potentially polarizing opinions. Instagram and other social media platforms provide an undivided space for activists to share specific calls to action, primary source footage, and commentaries on policy change without violating the terms of service.
The more expansive opportunities for expression afforded by Instagram and other social platforms have resonated especially with communities of color. In a survey by the Pew Research Center, black people were more likely than white people to believe that social media sites are important for getting involved politically and expressing their opinions. 3 In fact, most black and Hispanic users believed that social media was important for their political engagement. Specifically, around half of black social media users said that “these platforms are at least somewhat important to them as a venue for expressing their political views or for getting involved with issues that are important to them.” The use of social media activism through #BlackLivesMatter allows people to share their own experiences with police brutality while @blackivystories on Instagram detail the microaggressions and racism black students face on Ivy League campuses. Instagram essentially allows the unfiltered truth to be exposed with primary source clips and stories directly from affected communities. Having this ability to discuss, organize, and share content online freely rather than passively observing sustains activist communities. Social media essentially allows people to create affinity networks that are much smaller and intertwined than traditional media audiences
Although Instagram activism has certainly grown in popularity, critics have raised a number of concerns about it as a form of organizing. One of the most prominent and justifiable concerns is the spread of misinformation and misrepresentation online, an issue that platforms such as Facebook and news publications have grappled with already. When someone creates an infographic, there are no systems of checks to ensure the information they’re presenting as fact is actually true. If an infographic containing misinformation becomes viral and gets reposted all over social media, many people may get misled about the cause that the post is advocating for. Even when a creator is not intentionally trying to spread misinformation, posts that try to boil down complex geopolitical situations into 10 slide posts tend to oversimplify and misrepresent them.
Similarly, when a page posting infographics isn’t transparent with their identity, it can lead to outrage. @soyouwanttotalkabout, which was created in response to Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020 on Instagram, was criticized for speaking out on race issues and using the name of a book by a black author, all while not being transparent about the fact that the account operator was white. 4 This type of misrepresentation is harmful as it lends a large audience to voices that aren’t actually part of the affected community. In an interview with a Stanford ‘25 student, Julia Biswas, who started her account @activismgirl with the intent of informing people about issues that mattered to her and talking to people around the world, I asked her how she prevents the spread of misinformation through her own graphics and page. She said she always cites her sources and conducts thorough research before making her infographics, but if someone points out something that may not be true, she’ll always amend her captions to reflect it. Misinformation can harm activists’ cause by hurting their credibility, so they have an incentive to forward the most accurate information. Beyond that, these posts are supposed to serve as primers on subjects, not the sole source. It’s the responsibility of the user to actively engage and research on their own time.
As a social media user herself, Julia says when she sees an infographic, she’ll always go to the article the infographic used and read through it to actively fact check and prevent misinterpretation. Just like how we expect users to read petitions before signing and vet GoFundMes before donating, we should expect users to examine the information they’re seeing on the platform. After all, it is not the fault of the platform that people abuse misinformation. Essentially, their initial attention to an issue can be sparked from an infographic, but the brunt of the reading, educating, and understanding falls on their shoulders, not the person creating the infographic.
Beyond that, critics often characterize infographic activism as “performative” and unable to create actual change. In some cases, the true intent of influencers and brands sharing and creating infographics about social issues is debatable. Some merely want to increase their own engagements and create a positive public perception as someone who cares. However, this shouldn’t discredit the fact that these infographics do have the ability to educate and drive people to create action in the real world. Julia argued that one cannot consider themselves an “activist” just from reposting online, stating that she believes “using Instagram to advocate and inform can only work if both those who make the posts and those who read them are open to growth. In her words, true activists are “always willing to learn.”
Social media solely serves to provide a platform for users to disseminate content: in this case, infographics or other media that activists want to share. But, organizers and the audience shoulder the responsibility in converting online engagement into in-person action. While the infographic serves as the first step in identifying the problem, organizers should forward opportunities to affect change, including fundraisers, meetings with local officials, and petitions. Audience members should take an active role in further researching, both verifying the claims of the infographic and seeking out next steps. In a study from last year, researchers in the Netherlands focused on the relationship between online activism and offline collective action. 5 They discovered that online activism and offline activism actually have a positively related and intertwined relationship because online activism tends to encourage people to take action in real life. Evidently, online activism seems to serve as a stepping stone into real activism, but it’s an important step for those who don’t have experience with traditional forms of activism. Once people are exposed to social issues online that may resonate with them, they’re more likely to act on it offline, bolstering the overall movement.
Instagram infographic activism has ushered in a new era for social movements and activism across the world. While it’s a great tool to ignite change, activism-related content on Instagram should be just that: a starting point. From there, organizers and audience members alike should work to transition their online passion for a better world into offline action.