BY COLIN CRAWFORD
This past summer, as the United States grappled with systemic racism after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, a new kind of activism took social media by storm. While the traditional forms of protest were evident not just in cities across America but around the world, social media slideshows went viral on apps like Instagram. The repurposing of Instagram as a social justice outreach project has changed the way people protest, and it has grand implications for the future.
The year 2020 has been by almost all accounts an awful year, and two glaring aspects of this are the dual pandemics of COVID-19 and systemic racism. However, fear of getting sick could have prevented people from physically showing support by attending a protest. The answer: promoting the cause on social media through online petitions and colorful PowerPoints. This means that people can spread awareness safely, but at the same time, users have no way of knowing if the information being presented is factual.
The problem with these slideshows is that while they serve an essential purpose now, the long term consequences of publishing information and people sharing that information without knowing if it is true or not are quite serious.
Some accounts — like @soyouwanttotalkabout — understand the gravity of the situation and include their sources to create their presentation. The fact of the matter is that some accounts misstate information or provide no proof to back up their claims; sometimes, they break down cerebral topics in ways that are not constructive.
Slideshows should not be the end all be all for information. People must check the facts themselves or check that the information presented is from a credible source. Instagram is also at fault here. They should be able to label content as misleading or containing manipulated media as Twitter does. Facebook, the parent company of Instagram, has handled misinformation on its site poorly and has been subject to justified ridicule and scorn for not handling the situation better.
Russian bots targeted Facebook during the 2016 election, and these fake accounts spread false information and conspiracy theories. Who’s to say the same kind of interference can’t happen on Instagram? It isn’t hard to imagine a bot account on Instagram, promoting misinformation about racial justice efforts. One would think that after such backlash since 2016, there would be better policies.
While aspects of social media slideshows are problematic, they do generate visible societal good as a result. Civil Rights organizations like the NAACP have had massive increases in follower counts due to increased focus on social justice. These accounts educate more people about white privilege, systemic racism and colorism. The slideshows have filled a void and serve as an alternative to endangering health by attending a protest.
Hardly anything has all pros and no cons, and Instagram is no different. These Social Media PowerPoints are not perfect. Some are better than others when it comes to accountability/transparency. While they disseminate essential and necessary information, the opportunity to spread misinformation is real.