The Instagramification of the protest movement

[Illustration by Dewey Bryan Saunders]
ByMarshall Bright

Scrolling back through Celisia Stanton’s Instagram feed, it’s easy to see the moment things changed. Prior to June, Stanton’s feed was a mix of shots from her clients and a few snaps of her own life, like her cat and the debate team she volunteered with. Then, on June 2, there’s a black square. Unlike many of the all-black squares from Blackout Tuesday, hers contains text: “Your black square doesn’t help me.” Stanton, a Black wedding photographer in Minneapolis, Minnesota, was used to discussing race in her personal life but, until that post, hadn’t been open with it on her professional account.

“The popular advice is ‘don’t share about politics’ because you’ll lose customers,” she tells Mic. But Stanton, who lives close to where many of the protests occurred this spring in Minneapolis after George Floyd was killed by police there, sensed early on that something was different in the local and national response to Floyd’s death. She recalls looking at a Facebook event for a memorial and comparing it to the RSVPs to a memorial for Philando Castile, who was shot by Minnesota police in 2016. Despite the pandemic, the RSVP numbers for Floyd’s memorial were far higher.

Stanton had already been thinking of ways she could address the lack of representation within the wedding industry. But the response to Floyd’s death galvanized her. Since then, nearly all her posts have focused on anti-racist work, like explainers on the protests in Portland and how white people can be better allies. Initial posts reached her friends and friends of friends, but as she kept posting, her following grew — first to 10,000 followers, then to 20,000, and now over 38,000.

As Stanton was shifting her focus, other creatives and activists were doing the same. Fledgling Instagram accounts, as well as established accounts from activists and grassroots organizations, saw followers surge as they posted text-based slides addressing the protests, racism, and activism. While some creators design their own slides in programs like Photoshop, many rely on Canva, a mostly-free graphic design platform. Using templates, activists, designers, or just about anyone can quickly put text into slideshow formats that are perfect Instagram bait: pastel colors; sans-serif font; bold, graphic lines.

Some accounts in particular sought to combat a kind of “optical allyship” — the idea that a single, vague post counts as some kind of meaningful action. Like Stanton, Eiselle Ty, a designer in the California Bay Area, was frustrated to see black tiles devoid of context or information flood social media on June 2. She began creating posts about places to donate to in support of Black Lives Matter, or about resources people could learn from as an alternative to the “beautiful, hand-lettered Maya Angelou quotes” she says she was seeing from fellow designers. Eventually, she shifted her focus to more explainer-based posts, mostly about race and white supremacy.

While accounts like Ty’s and Stanton’s position themselves as alternatives to beautiful quotes and contextless black tiles, they have not been exempt from the same criticisms: namely, that they enable virtue signalling for white liberals who then don’t have to fully engage with anti-racist work. Vox wrote an explainer about the phenomenon, concluding that it was well-meant but often misguided; a piece in The New Republic dubbed the posts “lazy liberalism” that ignores reform ideas that may make a white audience uncomfortable, like prison abolition, in favor of easier-to-swallow explainers on microaggressions.

“From style alone, one might infer that the ostensible target audience of one of these graphics is white liberals who can be counted on to react positively to social justice-oriented content so long as it is presented in an anodyne, non-threatening way,” Rachel Hawley wrote for TNR. “This phenomenon has especially troubling potential at a moment when liberal co-option of the newly mainstreamed abolitionist discourse is in full force.”

There is also the criticism, perhaps made most popular by an Instagram post of its own, that these accounts can be consumed non-critically, and that poorly-sourced or oversimplified posts can gain traction merely because they fit the sanitized Instagram aesthetic.

Stanton acknowledges that a portion of her audience may just be engaging in performative activism. But, she tells Mic, “I really don’t view education and learning as performative. I view it as the foundation for the ways in which you will show up.” And while there are certainly examples of poorly-sourced posts that have gone viral, oversimplification and feel-good messaging isn’t the only reason Instagram graphics work. Stanton says that her audience is overwhelmingly female and majority-white, so she writes posts with that in mind. She doesn’t want to create a place for white people to feel comfortable, she says, but one where they can learn. She also sees many of her posts get shared by other Black women, whom she imagines might be using her page to share their own experiences with white coworkers and friends.

There is no credentialing required to do this work, and in fact many of the pages — like the popular account So you want to talk about... — are run by anonymous creators. The lack of context in some of these posts can certainly feed into criticisms that they are simply another form of optical allyship. But there are also plenty of popular pages, like Millennial Black and It’s a Great Day To Learn About, which are run by BIPOC creators and activists.

One of those creators, Leah Thomas, who goes by @greengirlleah on Instagram, made a Canva illustration in late May. Reading simply “Environmentalists for Black Lives” in rainbow colors, it was shared and viewed over a million times. In response, she and fellow environmentalists launched a separate account, Intersectional Environmentalist, and began to grow a community aimed at dismantling systemic oppression within the environmental justice movement.

Without advertising or any real budget, Thomas and the rest of the operators of Intersectional Environmentalist have been able to grow the page to over 100,000 followers in a short period of time — something Thomas credits to the use of bright, attractive graphics. Environmental spaces remain overwhelmingly white, and Thomas and her fellow activists hope to use the success of IE’s Instagram to integrate racial justice fully into environmental justice.

In their posts, IE not only looks at the ways marginalized groups are most affected by environmental destruction, but also at how the traditional environmental movement has ignored non-white people. Through donations on Patreon, IE is also supporting and amplifying the activism of diverse voices within the environmental movement. In September, the team matched grants distributed by In Solidarity, another organization committed to diversity and inclusion in the outdoors, to support people working to elevate marginalized communities in the space.

Actionability is also what drives restorative justice coordinator Jorge Santos, who runs Restoring Racial Justice. Santos’s posts include explainers on the racist roots of standardized testing and how teachers can support LGBTQ+ students remotely, but many also act as prompts for teachers directly, urging them to write down how they will carry the values of Black Lives Matter into their classrooms. His following is comparatively modest — just over 6,000 people right now — but it has still sparked conversations with educators who want to do better in their teaching, Santos tells Mic.

He plans to create digital spaces where educators can continue to meet and discuss issues around decolonizing education as the school year progresses. And, he says, teachers have reached out to him for specific advice on how to bring these issues up with their school administrator in order to effect lasting change. “It’s truly motivating to see the support and the commitments educators are making as we return back to our schools,” he says.

Grassroots organizations that existed well before Instagram’s social justice pivot have also excelled at tapping into the newly created market. Jae Rice, the communications and outreach coordinator for Brave Space Alliance, a Black- and trans-led LGBTQ+ center on Chicago’s South Side, has seen an overwhelming surge in support, particularly from new followers.

Rice maintains a regular posting schedule on BSA’s page and responds to DMs (around 100 a day) and comments to show the kind of engagement that helps posts perform better in Instagram’s algorithm. As a result, BSA has been able to use Instagram to put out calls for advance supplies for protesters as well as jail support and supplying community pantries. “We wouldn’t be able to sustain that without social media,” Rice explains.

Many Instagram accounts that focus on education do provide suggested actions as well: government agencies to call, places where you can send money. On BSA’s account, Rice does the reverse. Because the organization is primarily focused on grassroots activism, Rice often highlights more education-focused accounts in BSA’s Instagram Stories, pointing followers who want to learn more to pages that focus on that work. It’s a kind of pleasing symbiosis to think about: education flowing into action, and visa-versa.

Of course, in reality this does not always happen. There will always be performative allies, or even would-be allies who are simply disruptive to the work. Stanton has published a response to the white liberals who follow accounts like hers only to try to argue with and lecture her. Rachel Cargle, an author and activist, has been annotating white liberal responses to her posts as part of her popular “Saturday School” series.

In the immediate aftermath of Floyd’s death, there was an outpouring of interest from white people wanting to know how they could help, what they should do, who they should follow. Websites created databases of Black-owned businesses, anti-racist reading lists were shared, and people crowded the streets in the middle of a pandemic to protest.

But the initial intensity has died down. If these Instagram posts are associated with the worst of their consumers — the doe-eyed white liberal who doesn’t actually want to do anything — it’s easy to see them as just another way we can be lulled back to normalcy. But there is also a way in which these posts present a way forward: a way to fold learning and activism into your everyday life.

These accounts do show the potential for real, widespread mobilization; consider Thomas’s Patreon to promote environmental justice, or the conversations Santos is having with educators every day. For creators like them, Instagram is a way to maintain momentum and to keep people engaged who might otherwise have dropped off from the movement. Even if it creates opportunities for performative allies, it’s still worth it for the real work that gets done.

Stanton, the wedding photographer, has no plans to stop posting. Her account now might feature more block text than banquets, but for her the goal is clear:“I am doing this as a way to do my part to try to create a safer world for Black people to exist in.”