Black Squares: A Brief Takedown of Online Performative Activism

Blue for Sudan, Red for Kashmir and now Black for Black Lives Matter. This colour changing trend has its origins in performative activism for social media since Pride celebrations on the internet were made mainstream by consumer brands. And yet, despite repeated valid criticism, it seems to go on.

There are many brilliant analyses of the ‘black square’ debacle now by black activists and writers, which I will urge everyone to read. It played out the same way in Indian audiences. It began with musicians sharing the idea of a day when they stop the music. A rather poignant thought, I must say. It ended up being co-opted by nearly everyone associated with the industry, which included fashion models, photographers, designers and eventually, the (supposedly) politically outspoken social media influencer.

So let’s look at this from a wider lens for India. Ever since the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act, National Register of Citizens and and police brutality against students broke out, there has been an incredible rise in the following of some accounts. Pro or anti? Either way, the gain in followers for many of these accounts has been anything between five to 10 times the norm. No promotional budget or communication strategy could ever get you this sort of spike in internet fame. It was an unmatched period of topicality in India’s social media history.

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Barring artists and organisers who have been working on social justice issues for years, many new accounts emerged as progressive political personalities with their posts commenting on the unrest in the country. Activists had been working tirelessly – building their online platforms through protecting personal information, making creative educational content and practicing ethical ways of online sharing. But these new entrants in the internet famous microcosm have felt no hesitation in taking on a public persona at the opportunity of being seen as a leader of a movement.

They have photographs of Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, Angela Davis and B.R. Ambedkar, with easily available quotes from the internet. They will repost memes, tweets and art from other people’s accounts, and all talking of the trending issue at hand on a given day. The hard pivot of their content theme is easily visible on their profiles – marked to the occurrence of countrywide student protests.

What a lot of people forget is that this is basic content aggregation – a tactic through which all major influencers have created their massive platforms. Therefore this is a well documented playbook, which internet savvy, smartphone owning youngsters easily copy from. And there is no evidence to predict its end, however many times the most influential of people have tried to protect their original content.

While aggregation may be considered harmless when it comes to copying jokes, this has now been proven to be an impediment to real activism being done by many through social media. Real activism provides aid, helps amplify on-ground voices, creates agitation through education and organises resources. This is not something which can be achieved easily. It requires a lot of labour and a continued dedication to social causes over the years. The depth of activist commentary comes from lived experiences, and not a quick online search of relevant posts. The ability to execute solutions comes from accessing real life networks of professional and personal influence.

This is something our social media influencers are adequately aware of, even if they do not acknowledge it. They continue cherry picking causes they want to speak about and leave out any which may not suit their “personal brand” or disrupt their “aesthetic”. A black square therefore being a very interesting way to circumvent both of these issues for influencers. We have seen and commented on this performative activism time and time again – so why won’t it stop?

I think this has to do with the temporality of mass produced content. It is created with a simple message, with extremely limited relevance, posted exclusively to ride the algorithm waves and drive profiles on top for getting noticed. It was popularised by brands which churn out quick conversation enablers through their glorified creative agencies. It has then been replicated by anyone who can write one line of copy over an evocative image. As many Indians started following brand and marketing pages, this came to be seen as the standard measurement of quality content. It required not a lot of effort, more like a crunchy bite, than food for thought.

So sadly what clout chasers now consider “engaging” with a social movement, is them referring to engagement metrics for their social media posts about the movement. Beyond that, they have dramatically limited understanding of arguments and nuances.

Incredibly, this is completely antithetical to actual social movements, which are not at all temporary in nature. They have vast histories and intricacies that can not be summarised in an Instagram square.

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Simultaneously, we have become poor consumers. Our collective obsession with social media numbers has led us to believe many lies, in the process, numbing us to the truths we were normally exposed to by journalism. People online consume only a portion of what goes on out in the real world, because they restrict themselves to following accounts from the same circles. So they are heavily unequipped to speak on any occasion of social urgency – simply because it is not their area of expertise and they have stopped educating themselves on current events.

A key part of our natural behaviour on social media which has been changed by mindless consumerism is a lack of curiosity. We are no longer seeking information to understand the agenda, and where we truly stand in context. We are simply jumping on the #trending bandwagon so we can be noticed; many a time employing the only tool we may have available in the playbook to get people’s attention.

I think no one is to blame, because this is after all the only way some people can express support. But the intersection of this action online with Indian culture is pertinent. Indians have always had a rather do-gooder type of thing going culturally, where they will like to believe their work is of advantage to someone except themselves. Everyone aspires for that respect from the public in our collectivist culture. Everyone aspires for salvation through a public validation of our virtue.

And educated Indians have always been experts in displays of virtue – from admissions to getting jobs. Using ‘goodwill’ as a marketing strategy is not new to them. They post photographs of themselves working in the streets, with the local people, the disadvantaged – poverty porn. Their photographs say, “Look at all this wealth I have, I use it to solve social issues. I use my intelligence to create solutions for the devastation in this world. I’m grateful for this life and this privilege. But you can not question my values. My heart’s in the right place.”

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Personally I’m amused by the hypocrisy of these individuals then labelling provocative comments against them as “virtue signalling”. They label any inquiry into a fundamentally flawed representation as “toxicity” and the people “haters”. It’s as if they’re unaware of their own need to be the ones dictating the terms of a virtuous social existence. This lack of self-awareness can’t be contested through tweets and comments.

However as content consumers we must realise, the sycophancy of the Indian influencers in aping trends has always had a US bias. As culture export has become a way to keep control of earned publicity in masses, Indians living abroad especially gain a lot by being seen as the purveyors of progressive culture. This began with a rise of meme accounts being run by “desis” which exclusively focussed on simple satirical Bollywood scenes or Indian parents caricatures – the time tested fodder for humour.

What it has currently culminated into is a deafening silence of these same accounts on local issues which affect their actually India based audiences. How easy it is for them to forget the context of their cultural origins. The word “desi” was the bastardisation of the Hindi word “deshi” and was held against the masses as a sign of illiteracy for centuries – before the affluent NRI decided to co-opt that too.

Therefore, as Indian audiences, we must conclude that our expectation of education and progress from these “artists” is incorrect and never going to be fulfilled. Instead of wasting our collective energies trying to fix their platforms, we must either resolve to create our own or simply do what the human mind does best – be curious.

There are a lot of actually good, virtuous fishes in the sea – once you decide to venture into it. It’s time to join a new school with smaller numbers, but better teachers.

Sumedha writes to highlight the need for non-conformity and for practical politics free of labels. She is also a certified cat lady.