Sound & Fury, Signifying Nothing: An Exploration of Modern Activism

by Isa F. Walker

An interpretation of Instagram in June 2020 following George Floyd’s murder and the rise of the #BLM movement.

“Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.”

― William Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 5

It is the illusion of engagement that plagues the vessel of activism. This vessel operates from behind screens through mere clicks, shares, and retweets; a sad but truthful epitome of modern-day activism. Counterfeiting the drive of genuine activism, it steers amidst the sea of movements such as Black Lives Matter and #MeToo as well as refugee crises and other global injustices. Whilst online activism presents a convenient way to express solidarity and raise awareness, its impact on real-world change has sparked controversy and debate. Its allure is undeniable: a sense of empowerment, a contribution to change; it has become a virtual norm to display a digital badge of honor, entailing filter overlays and catchy hashtags, an indicator of awareness and nobility. People revel in the applause they receive from their peers, their profiles adorned with symbols and signposts of their chosen causes. Nevertheless, this vessel strays far from its intended destination, and in reality, is doomed to head straight towards the mirage of illusioned engagement, plaguing productive real-world activism.

Online activism, known in its diminished form as “slacktivism,” has become a product and prisoner of virtue signaling: the expression of opinions to show off one’s conscience and morality. As an example of this, we can look at what happened on June 2nd, 2020, when the entirety of Instagram went dark in response to the killing of George Floyd and the ensuing protests against racial injustice. The posting of black squares, though done in support of the #BLM movement, did little if anything to amplify voices within the Black community. It is worth noting that the discussion at hand is subjective, and that this does not negate the validity of those who conducted important protests and reached out to policymakers—criticism primarily stems from the performative nature of individuals who posted a black square or changed their profile picture on Instagram. Establishing itself as a trend rather than genuine activism, the demonstration of the bandwagon effect through this phenomenon overshadowed more substantive efforts towards unraveling systematic racism and social injustice. The movement thus became indivisibly tied to egocentric tendencies; the online displays of outrage merely a consequence of competitive virtue signaling.

Another issue of slacktivism is that it frequently minimizes issues to better catch the audience’s attention. When talking about a certain issue, slacktivists often abbreviate or omit important information and messages for change into simplified, aesthetically-pleasing versions, allowing them to be squeezed into single hashtags or minimalist 1080×1080 Instagram infographics. This generally also involves sharing or participating in online campaigns, petitions, or hashtags without sufficient understanding of the issues at hand. The preference of brevity on online platforms saturated with content leads to distorted representations of facts and histories; the fast-paced, cutthroat environments of social media apps such as Instagram and TikTok (where slacktivism is most prevalent) making it near impossible for posts to gain traction without gross oversimplification. Quantity is prioritized for clicks and shares over quality, and in the ensuing overload of poorly-researched, misinforming content, interested viewers are led astray from the true depth of social causes.

In societal terms, the nature of humans to crave validation through positive engagement with their work, however minimal the effort put into it, is not entirely to blame for this. Rather, it is the nurtured attention economy cultivated on social media, spurred by the bandwagon effect and peer pressure, that rewards these slacktivist behaviors. When individuals perceive others engaging in online activism, they may feel compelled to join in to avoid missing out or to gain social approval as quickly as possible. The subsequent proliferation of shallow, often-unclear information in favor of instant gratification not only endangers the initiatives and integrity of real-world activists, but also creates an image of superficiality that strips the validity of the cause away. This scene of moral competitiveness further promotes the diminishing of real-world activists who do not have the capacity to maintain an online presence, let alone ensure their voice is not drowned out by surface-level slacktivism. 

Hopping on the bandwagon does not only satisfy the desire to demonstrate one’s social conscience, but also creates openings for large corporations to implement new marketing strategies. Companies are able to align themselves with certain causes and leverage the surge of online activism to promote themselves, incentivizing like-minded consumers to purchase their products and utilize their services. As companies commercialize activism for profit rather than genuine justice, the core values of activism itself are further endangered: their targeting of slacktivists who subsequently advertise them as “woke” or “allies” only serving to strengthen lazy activism both online and in the real world. 

This issue, however, is complex and nuanced in that the bandwagon effect can also function as an advantage in certain aspects. Though bandwagon bias plagues the plausibility of most effectively-contributing activists, allowing for corporations to capitalize on causes for change, it also permits for a wider reach in audience size and demographic, effectively raising more awareness for the cause. Think about some of the social, environmental, or political causes you may have been informed about. Was it through the education of your school or through word-of-mouth from family and friends? Most likely, much of the knowledge accumulated on these issues was through social media, carried by the driving force of herd mentality. While it is undeniable that the commercialization of activism poses significant threats, the worst of these threats can be kept at bay so long as consumers are able to critically assess the authenticity and impact of corporate engagement in activism to ensure that it is conducive to meaningful change—only then can the vessels of slacktivism be put to good use by propelling real-world activism forward. Similarly, while it is also easy to fall into the trap of supporting slacktivism and ignoring activists who truly care about their cause, slacktivism and the bandwagon effect it perpetuates can serve as a useful, if limited, introduction to pressing issues so long as one is careful of the posts they come across and are willing to engage with these issues on a deeper level.

With this in mind, take the time to educate yourself. Think twice before you repost a hashtag out of mere obligation, and be aware that this would be participating in the plague we call slacktivism. This phenomenon cannot be solved overnight, but it must start with awareness and simple initiatives that go beyond online displays. Be open to comprehending the causes or issues you care about. Understand their complexities, root causes, and potential solutions, all whilst being mindful of what you can do given your own circumstances. Be wary of participating in actions that provide only the illusion of support. Avoid solely relying on sharing social media posts, liking or retweeting content, or changing profile pictures as your primary means of involvement. These actions alone rarely lead to tangible change. 

Be a start. Eradicate the plague we’ve all been absentmindedly spreading. End slacktivism.