Phillipian Commentary: Instagram Slacktivism

If you’ve been on Instagram over the summer, chances are you’ve seen a friend’s account with a blue profile picture. In place of the latest Kardashian craze, #BlueforSudan trended as a way to express solidarity with the people of Sudan after a police crackdown early this June killed as many as 100 peaceful protestors. There were nearly 120,000 posts and tweets supporting the movement, and household names such as Rihanna, SZA, and Cardi B all changed their profile pictures to indicate their support. But is changing your profile picture enough to call yourself an activist? After contemplating this question, I realized that I, like many others, was unlikely to follow up, in information or donations, to the cause in Sudan. So, is it disingenuous to change a profile picture with no intention of alleviating or learning more about the situation?

Slacktivism, as defined by the Oxford Dictionary, refers to “the practice of supporting a political or social cause… involving very little effort or commitment.” Such movements on Instagram are just that — a way to displace responsibility to someone else. You convince yourself that by changing your profile picture, others will learn more and support the movement–even when you haven’t done anything of the sort yourself. However, this creates a spiral of inaction in which accounts repost the same image, giving the burden of actually creating change to the next person. Slacktivism allows us to settle at doing the bare minimum while believing we’re activists.

Take, as a cautionary example, the account @SudanMealProject. Posting a blue image, it stated that it would “provide one meal to starving Sudanese children” for every person who followed the account and shared the post. A simple glance would probably have been enough to deduce that this was account was in fact a scam. The owners never made clear how the meals would be given to the children, charity organizations were nowhere referenced, and even the post itself, with its poor quality and generic white text, looked suspicious. And yet, the account amassed almost 400,000 followers before the account’s creator revealed it was a scam–claiming that they had no idea it was going to blow up like it did. A double take would’ve been sufficient to realize the inauthenticity of the post’s claims, but for almost 400,000 people, this extra second was one too many. The very same people who were priding themselves on being activists and engineering change had not taken the time to investigate the information that they shared.

Of course, none of this is to say that nobody who’s changed their profile picture is making a difference. Actress Sophia Bush uses her platform to share real ways people can make a difference in Sudan — providing a trustworthy GoFundMe page, giving a script for a call to congress, and supplying the names of organizations to donate to.

Alas, we cannot continue to foster a culture of blind reposts and recycled words of support. We should not let ourselves be content at applying minuscule amounts of effort into things we claim to care about. Though it isn’t disingenuous to change your profile picture even if you don’t really know what’s going on in Sudan, you cannot consider your mission fulfilled if that’s all you’re doing. None of us are happy with the humanitarian crisis in Sudan, but to pat yourself on the back, call yourself an activist, and furthermore to disapprove of those who don’t participate in the #BlueforSudan campaign, is completely misguided.

Solidarity is different than activism, and while both are admirable qualities, one doesn’t necessarily affect the other. The next time you’re tempted to support such a movement, perhaps first take it upon yourself to become better informed about the subject and avenues to provide applicable aid.