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Can Performative Activism Actually Make a Difference?

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Looking woke online can seem pretty selfish and empty, but can it ever become real activism?

TEACHERS: Get your students in the discussion on KQED Learn, a safe place for middle and high school students to investigate controversial topics and share their voices. Click to see this video and lesson plan on KQED Learn.

What is performative activism?

It’s usually defined as activism done to increase one’s social capital rather than because of one’s devotion to the cause. I translate that to LOOKING like you care, even if you really don’t. It’s putting the spotlight on yourself, many times for those glorious, delicious likes!

What is virtue signaling?


One of the core complaints about performative activism is that it’s a kind of virtue signaling, where you publicly express an opinion to demonstrate just how woke you are. Like, when Pride Month comes around, and a bunch of people slap a rainbow on their profile pics, but then on July first, they’re gone.

What’s an example of online performative activism or virtue signaling?

For a lot of people, performative activism hit a peak during the BLM protests last year. Do you remember Blackout Tuesday? It stemmed from an original campaign by two Black music executives after the killing of George Floyd. The point was to raise awareness around police brutality and systemic racism. Then the black squares happened. Millions of people were swapping out their profile pics for solid black squares to show solidarity. But there was a backlash because it seemed like a bunch of people were just jumping on a trend to make themselves feel good for participating.

Are there any positives when it comes to performative activism?

It can be helpful when it comes to spreading awareness about a cause and attracting other people who might have never engaged in the first place. When it comes to BLM, there are some pretty solid data supporting this. When George Floyd was murdered on May 25th, 2020, a large sample of Americans were asked, “Do you support or oppose the Black Lives Matter movement?” 45 percent answered that they supported it. Just nine days later, the day after Blackout Tuesday, after huge amounts of action on social media,52 percent of people answering that question supported the movement. That’s a pretty massive swing in a short period of time.


Activism Or Slacktivism? How Social Media Hurts And Helps Student Activism

The Subtle Ways That ‘Clicktivism’ Shapes the World 

Why People Are Posting Black Squares on Instagram

Who Are the Black Squares and Cutesy Illustrations Really For? 

The Nature of Slacktivism: How the Social Observability of an Initial Act of Token Support Affects Subsequent Prosocial Action

False Equivalencies: Online Activism from Left to Right

How Public Opinion Has Moved on Black Lives Matter 

Racial Justice Groups Flooded With Millions in Donations in Wake of Floyd Death

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