Image description: A phone with the Instagram app open being held.
From dissecting political issues into more manageable chunks, to raising awareness about injustice, the positive potential of the Instagram infographic is impressive. Yet it seems that what began as a well-intentioned means of education and clarification has slowly devolved into performative and empty online activism that detracts from the importance of the matters being discussed.
Instagram infographics are designed to educate; but it is also important to remember that they are a form of content, designed to be absorbed and consumed by users, and thus benefit from engagement in the form of shares, likes and comments. The visually pleasing branding of infographics makes the user more likely to be drawn to them, much like an advert. In fact, the former global design director for Nike, Eric Hu asserts “there isn’t much of a relationship between content and aesthetics. If anything, the content is just interchangeable like an ad, for better or worse”. Appealing to the nature of Instagram, infographics often appear to glamorise and aestheticize human rights issues, transforming important information into content that the user will want to consume. This raises concerns about the long-term neutralising effects of making advocacy more digestible and palatable for a larger audience. Excessive exposure to these stories and statistics means that there is the potential to digress into empty ‘slacktivism’ which sees the passive engagement of online activism, and ultimately achieves very little.
The visually pleasing branding of infographics makes the user more likely to be drawn to them, much like an advert.
However, this is not to detract from the importance of Instagram infographics altogether. Specific accounts such as @diet_prada, @soyouwanttotalkabout and @shityoushouldcareabout provide excellent and well researched information that successfully explain complex issues such as critical race theory, qualified immunity, and the US funding to foreign militaries in layman’s terms. Other accounts like @simplepolitics post with the intention of providing information away from the noise of tribal politics. Yet it seems that on Instagram it is all too easy to become swept up in the emotion. A lack of regulation on Instagram provides a medium for unverified accounts to share false and/or exaggerated information. Posts that harness the ‘shock factor’ through statistics and sensitive images are far more likely to gain traction and engagement even though this information often fails to represent the full picture. Such content is problematic for younger generations, whose main source of news is increasingly social media platforms. Rather than taking the time to become fully informed, many rely heavily on Instagram or TikTok.
Generation Z in particular faces pressure to be the generation of change, and an offhand repost of an infographic on an Instagram story offers an easy solution. Online validation through being politically vocal on social media, and the pressure to appear ‘woke’ contributes to a culture of misinformation and creates an online space that becomes hard to navigate when searching for objectivity on political issues. On a base level, performative activism can help to platform issues that would otherwise remain unpublicised, however excessive reposting has led to an oversaturation of information that detracts from the original aim. Social media culture propagates the need for instant gratification and social capital, and online activism has slowly become a means to achieve this. Rather than engaging in real action, users tend to adopt a more passive stance, and this draws away from the positive intentions of useful, well researched information. This engagement contributes to necessary conversations, but the tangible change that it achieves is hard to measure. The toxicity of ‘woke culture’ exhibited itself in the form of ‘Blackout Tuesday’ where users took a break from posting regular content and opted instead for a black square to show solidarity against racism and police brutality.
Nuance is often lost on the average user and flattened into a repost.
Reducing complex issues into 10 slides of information can often be damaging, which is evident in the case of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Oversimplification of such long-standing and emotionally charged issues such as this, demonstrate that Instagram does not deliver news organically and cannot achieve the neutrality that legitimate news sources can. Instagram can become reactionary and intensely polarising, perpetuating a cycle of misinformation. Due to the sensitivity of the issue, passive activism can cause extreme harm. This is shown by the influx of antisemitism exhibited online, which has transformed Instagram into a negative and damaging space for many users. Moreover, seemingly well-intentioned posts that refer to Palestine as a “’state’” in quotation marks rather than a “state” carry political implications that are often missed because of ignorance, perpetuating a sense of hostility. In terms of engagement, Forward magazine reports that posts and accounts that have been critical of Israel vastly outweigh pro-Israel posts and accounts in terms of likes, follows and shares. This means that in combination with Instagram becoming a news source for younger generations, the average user is more likely to be exposed unintentionally to an unequal view which can cause problems.
Infographics and ‘PowerPoint activism’ are a useful teaching tool and demonstrate how our consumption of information has evolved over time, and how it is likely to in the future. They are an excellent starting point and can broaden the user’s horizons on issues that were previously inaccessible. However, we have reached a crucial turning point. On the one hand, the ability to harness this information as a tool for active engagement and activism could lead to the emergence of a more informed generation of users; on the other it could result in complete passivity. Superficial engagement to keep up with the ever-changing carousel of issues motivated by the fear of appearing unaware ironically prevents actual engagement that could lead to deeper levels of awareness. Graphics and posts that deliver surface level information should not be the only source, and it is wrong to assume that complex issues such as the Israel-Palestine conflict can be summarised in just 10 slides. The intention behind the infographic is important, but the nuance is often lost on the average user and flattened into a repost.
Image credit: Georgia de Lotz via Unsplash