In just a few short months, Instagram has gone from an influencer haven, filled with photos of colorful brunch spreads and fall outfit inspiration, to instead a social justice haven. Activists have made the platform their platform, a way to spread their messages, teachings and resources to one of the broadest audiences they have.
Especially while stay-at-home orders have been in place, social media users have been consuming more and more information straight from content-sharing avenues; first-person accounts of very real issues around the country and world are at the public’s fingertips in a way that hasn’t been possible in the past.
As much as we joke about it, 2020 has been rife with misfortune and hardship, and social media has put us in a position to consume information faster and at a higher volume than ever. While this can pose problems (poor fact-checking, burnout, strong bias), it’s also a newfound wellspring of possibilities for allyship and opportunities to enact real change.
You may not have noticed it outright, but Instagram’s carousel feature is one example of changing tides of how we process and practice social justice. Whereas the tool for showcasing 10 different images or videos within the same post has been typically set aside for things like vacation round-ups, wedding storytelling and showing off the same selfie from three different angles just for fun, we’re now seeing the carousels filled with slides of information, guidance and links out to more information and guidance.
The practice exploded in the wake of the death of George Floyd at the hand of Minnesota police officers and ensuing worldwide protests. In the few weeks following Floyd’s death, feeds were taken up by nothing but Black Lives Matter posts. Even now, months later, the frequency may have slowed some, but the messaging remains strong as ever, still sprinkled throughout your daily news feed in a way it wasn’t before. Political statements and activism used to be limited to Twitter; your views weren’t needed on Instagram. But the tides have turned, and more and more users are becoming comfortable sharing their opinions with a quick repost filled with petitions to sign and numbers to call.
Camaryn Alejandra, who goes by Cam and who recently launched her account specifically to post social justice carousels, spoke up about this same phenomenon.
“What’s interesting is that the carousel, which has historically gotten the least amount of engagement on Instagram, now has one of the highest,” she wrote. “...It’s being used to share important information and knowledge. The virality of this information has reflected the change in priorities of social media consumers.”
The latest wave of has social justice movements, spread far and wide in the lead-up to a presidential election, have been quick on the uptick of this old-but-new tool. Users will repost a carousel with a lead image setting up the topic that’s to be discussed throughout the next five, six, ten slides; in just one square, they share an article’s worth of information with their followers, and, hopefully, their followers’ followers. What’s more, these posts are curated with the basest of human instinct in mind: They’re aesthetically-pleasing. They have a color scheme, the paragraphs aren’t long, the information is digestible and understandable. Spreading resources through Instagram appeals to a broad, distracted audience.
But with the ease of consuming social justice content comes the expectation: You don’t have much of an excuse to be ignorant anymore. The days of, “Oh, I don’t pay attention to stuff like that” are over; escaping to social media is no longer an option. It’s there, in your face, and it’s so easy to learn.
The woman behind the “So You Want to Talk About” account, which has amassed over a million followers, Jess, told Vox about her posts’ aesthetic: “I’m trying to appeal to the apolitical people, the ones who’d rather stay out of it and enjoy, like, mimosa pictures. I’m also trying to reach women my age, millennials who aren’t participating in the conversation because they don’t know where to start,” she said.
The potential for trouble, of course, comes from that ease. Instagram is still about likes, after all.
“With websites like Canva becoming more and more popular, anyone has the ability to create these slides. Especially with a lot of people hopping on the bandwagon to create clickbait titles and capitalize on this virality,” Cam wrote. “We need to remember that just because it looks official, does not mean the information is right.”
Instagram’s popularity is a crucial device for the fight for any form of social justice in that its scope is invaluable, but that scope could also become its downfall. While these accounts and their carousels spread resources and action, they also remind their followers to do their due diligence and make sure the effort is going into the right places to create the kind of outcome we all want: peace.
The spark that’s been burning in so many people, activists old and new, is being stoked along by the helping hand of social media. Should it keep burning, with control and intention, the potential for success and justice will continue to grow.