BY PATRICK R. JOHNSON
What is the moment that we are in? As we stare at our devices, watching injustices consistently play out with minimal repercussion or remorse due to privilege and power, what is revealed is a moment of noise. From the Facebook Papers and the insurrection to police brutality and social media’s damaging impacts on youth, we are positioned in a place of ample sound with many fighting for causes near and dear to them. Many of these battles emerge on our social media feeds and they spill out into our streets. I think about last summer and the black boxes on Instagram, and the stinging response that those who posted were simply performing for their peers—limiting their true act of solidarity to a post and not a protest. I come from a place of privilege. As a white man, my mere presence is arguably performative in many spaces. I could do better and be better; I challenge myself daily to know better and to act better. This case provides an opportunity for that personal interrogation and introspection.
“Aiding the Cause” addresses performative activism, political and civic education, visual communication, and misinformation. Beyond that, there is also an underlying concern about Instagram, particularly Instagram (and its owner Facebook) coming under legislative fire for its impact on the mental health of young girls. Is this case ultimately a question of Instagram’s ability to contribute to political discourse? Is Instagram apolitical? Has it ever been? I believe the platform doesn’t matter to this case. We could replace Instagram with any social media platform and the premise of this case still applies. Instead, I argue it is important to first question what we want from our platforms, and then ask what we are willing to accept for the sake of social justice activism and improving diversity, equity, and inclusion. This case forces me to ask:
- What do we define as activism?
- What is the difference between education and activism? Does one co-opt the other? Are we miseducated and therefore don’t recognize the difference?
- Who are the performative activists and who are the real activists?
- Who has the right to leverage a platform for activist purposes?
- Where does media literacy fit in here?
My commentary emerges from these questions.
Activism as Education, Education as Activism
Activism is a dynamic, engaged, and embodied practice. It requires astute attention. Education is a dynamic, engaged, and embodied practice. It requires astute attention. Both are deeply political practices, yet one is considerably more formal and institutionalized than the other. If we are to accept that we live in a hyper-connected, globalized world, with cosmopolitan and messy media choices, then we could assume that activism and education are inextricably one in the same.
To borrow from Paulo Freire (1968/2005; 2000; 1992/2014), education is political and cannot be removed from the current context of our political or social realties. Education is not, nor has it ever been or ever will be, indifferent or neutral. While Freire would not have explicitly called himself an activist, his work in education is deeply tied to more activist purposes. He dedicated his life to social justice and the pursuit of democratic education for all. He also identified teachers as some of the world’s greatest activists, claiming that the quest for education is part of the struggle to maintain democracy. And these efforts are never meant to be carried on the shoulders of an individual.
Beyond individual agency, collective purpose is necessary for education and activism to exist and thrive, and it is required for change to be made and to activate our civic responsibilities. While this collective purpose can be detrimental, such as the mob of the January 6 insurrection, it is often more reflective of a common good, like the rally behind the Black Lives Matter movement. In “Aiding the Cause,” the case of the Instagram industrial complex, is the use of education through infographics championing an activist cause? Or is the individual more performative, thus #slactivism, rather than moving toward a prosocial collective purpose? This work on Instagram has the power to establish a collective movement meant to empower the oppressed and bring people together for a common good. To see this, however, it requires a critical conscious to participate (Freire, 1968/2005). Critical conscious is a continued need for media literacy.
To Ponder: @Soyouwanttotalkabout the Undocuqueer Movement
What lies beneath the case at hand is the value we place not only on the information being shared, but also on the activist message being heard. In some respects, this case represents performative activism, which allows for it to be criticized for not actually doing something. Yet, it seeks to inform. That information isn’t bad; it is still educating in some way. If we value education, then we should at least value the attempt at hand. But there are also real activist movements on Instagram, in which those that we can properly define as activists are making a statement to provide a better life for those they are educating others about on Instagram. Take the case of the Undocuqueer movement.
I first learned of the Undocuqueer movement from Dr. Ayleen Cabas-Mijares (Marquette University), which then led me to her co-authored paper with Dr. Rachel Grant (Florida). This movement is loud and proud on Instagram. Their purpose is to provide a voice to LGBTQ+ undocumented immigrants, and it is done through colorful art and political messaging. This art is a way in which social transformation and justice can happen, usually resulting from how the community demonstrates its sense of self—including alternative forms (Cabas-Mijares & Grant, 2020). Those participating in the Undocuqueer movement aren’t just using Instagram to inform, like @Soyouwanttotalkabout is doing in the case provided. Instead, the Undocuqueer movement is seeking something transformative through representation and authentic activism. Whereas @Soyouwanttotalkabout is performative, yet still informing, the Undocuqueer population is reclaiming their identities and fighting against a system of oppression. They are activists in the most real sense. They are fighting against slacktivism and white savior complexes through the positioning of their art in a social space. However, this movement goes unnoticed and under covered (Cabas-Mijares, 2021) and their activism is confined to their art and their art on social spaces like Instagram.
If performative activism receives attention, and therefore so does the cause it is advocating for, but the true activism does not receive attention and neither does its advocacy, then can we truly say one is more important than the other? In speaking with Cabas-Mijares, she would share that those participating in activism like the Undocuqueer are doing important work. And it isn’t that those participating in the performative sense are not. It is not the lack of coverage that is at fault here. Instead, it is the ability for others to be literate in both the social media messaging they see on Instagram and the resulting coverage, or absence of, that emerges from it.
Positioning Equity and Social Justice at our Media Literate Center
Recently, Mihailidas et al. (2021a/2021b) wrote of the need to define media literacy practices in a way that shapes conversations around diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice. Media literacy should respond to the moment by creating individual agency, empowering communities, and encouraging democratic participation (Mihailidas et al., 2021a). This can be done by focusing on social justice initiatives, providing community spaces to engage in dialogue, and improving partnerships within and among organizations, families, and youth (Mihailidas et al., 2021b). If we move our discussion of media literacy to center equity, we have the capability to help build a critical consciousness that champions both education and activism. This critical lens will improve the reading of these Instagram posts, elevate discussions of performance versus action, and develop a community engaged in discourse about more impactful, imagined, and inclusive futures. It will give learners a more informed framework to approach cases like this one and others.
To truly be of the political moment and to be the force for good, one’s education—one’s activism—must include a critical consciousness. It is knowing when activism is performative. It is reading the room when alternative sites co-opt visuals for the purpose of targeting certain audiences. It is recognizing that the marginalized voices that activists are working to elevate are still being silenced, despite their attempts to be heard loudly and proudly. This case, beyond being an example of how many choose to use social media to performatively support causes, is an exemplar in recognizing a need for critical consciousness, for media literacy. Or to borrow from John Lewis, another activist and political great—if we are to truly educate, and truly be a part of an activist movement, then we must be willing to get into good trouble.
Cabas-Mijares, A., & Grant, R. (2020). “No longer interested in convincing you of my humanity:” Undocuqueer countervisualities reclaim the right to exist. Visual Communication Quarterly, 27(4), 196-209.
Ayleen Cabas-Mijares. (2021) Covering (il)legible bodies: A CDA of news discourse about undocuqueer life in the U.S.. Journalism Practice, 0(0), 1-18.
Freire, P. (1968/2005). Pedagogy of the oppressed (30th ed.). New York: Continuum.
Freire, P. (2000). Pedagogy of freedom: Ethics, democracy, and civic courage. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
Freire, P. (1992/2014). Pedagogy of hope: Reliving pedagogy of the oppressed. London: Bloomsbury Academic.
Mihailidis, P., Ramasubramanian, S., Tully, M., Foster, B., Riewestahl, E., Johnson, P., & Angove, S. (2021a). Do media literacies approach equity and justice?. Journal of Media Literacy Education, 13(2), 1-14. https://doi.org/10.23860/JMLE-2021-13-2-1.
Mihailidis, P., Ramasubramanian, S., Tully, M., Foster, B., Riewestahl, E., Johnson, P., & Angove, S. (2021b). Equity and impact in media literacy practice: Mapping the field in the United States. National Association of Media Literacy Educators. https://mappingimpactfulml.org/report.
- Patrick Johnson is a Ph.D. candidate in the University of Iowa School of Journalism and Mass Communication. He formerly taught high school journalism and advised national award-winning publications. Johnson is a Dow Jones Distinguished Journalism Advisor of the Year and the former mentor program chair of the Journalism Education Association.