Instagram used to be where people escaped the news. The Black Lives Matter protests changed that.
How Black Lives Matter finally pushed Instagram into politics.
Emily Stewart and Shirin Ghaffary
Jun 24, 2020, 11:20am EDT
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Instagram used to be where people escaped the news. The Black Lives Matter protests changed that.
This story is part of a group of stories called
Uncovering and explaining how our digital world is changing — and changing us.
For most people, Instagram has long been the social media platform where they escape from the real world — and politics — to share a curated highlight reel of their lives. But recently, that’s changed. It’s become an increasingly political platform amid Black Lives Matter protests across the country. In fact, Instagram has become the platform for widespread conversations in the United States about racism and how to combat it.
“I think there is a shift where everyone feels guilty for not posting anything black,” said Thaddeus Coates, a Black queer illustrator, dancer, model, and animator who uses Instagram to share his art, which in recent weeks has focused on racial justice and supporting Black-owned businesses. “People aren’t just posting pictures of food anymore, because if you’re scrolling through and there’s a picture of food, and then there’s someone who was killed, and then you scroll up and there’s a picture of a protest — it’s weird.”
As the US has grappled with a reckoning over systemic racism after the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and other Black Americans, Coates nearly tripled his follower base, and he’s been reposted by celebrities, featured by Instagram, and commissioned to do custom illustrations.
Coates’s experience fits into a larger pattern: Established racial justice and civil rights groups are also seeing their Instagram bases swell. The NAACP has seen a record 1 million additional Instagram followers in the past month. Black Lives Matter Los Angeles’s account has gone from around 40,000 followers on Instagram to 150,000 in the past few weeks, surpassing the popularity of its Facebook page, which has about 55,000 followers.
As Facebook has seen a stagnation in user activity and an aging user base, Instagram, which Facebook owns, has become the online space where comparatively younger people — many of them white — are getting an education in allyship, activism, and Black solidarity. Compared to Twitter, which has 166 million daily active users, Instagram is huge. Its Stories feature alone has more than 500 million daily active users. And while TikTok is on the rise, it’s still maturing.
“It’s not surprising that Instagram is becoming more political if you think about who’s using it. It’s generational. The past couple of years, the main people who have been protesting and organizing — millennials and Gen Z — they’re on Instagram,” Nicole Carty, an activist and organizer based in New York, told Recode.
Instagram’s focus on racial justice feels like a pronounced change in the usual mood on the platform
Of course, political activism on social media platforms, including Instagram, isn’t new. The Arab Spring in the early 2010s relied heavily on Twitter. Facebook is full of political content. And since its inception, the Black Lives Matter movement has used all these platforms to organize and spread its message.
But to many organizers, activists, and artists, Instagram’s focus on racial justice feels like a pronounced change in the usual mood on the platform. Intersectionality, a theory that explores how race, class, gender, and other identity markers overlap and factor into discrimination, is as much a topic of conversation as the usual funny memes, skin care routines, and fitness videos. It’s a shift that users, creators, and Instagram itself are embracing.
There’s a performative element to some of this because posting a black box or meme about racial injustice is not the same as making a donation, reading a book, or going to a march. Some argue that the performative wokeness can hurt, rather than help, the cause. But for many activists, it’s also a way to meet people where they are.
While activists acknowledge that Instagram’s increased engagement with racial justice issues will likely pass, right now they’re focused on leveraging the momentum and taking advantage of the unique ways Instagram can help their movement.
Instagram gets political
Facebook and Twitter have typically been the main platforms for political discussion and organizing in the US, but savvy politicians and activists have sometimes turned to Instagram to connect with voters and constituents. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) sometimes educates and answers questions from her followers live on the platform. During the 2020 primary, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) connected with voters while sipping a beer on Instagram Live. In 2018, organizing and activism around the national school walkout to demand action on gun violence took place on the platform. And during his failed 2020 presidential bid, former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg poured money into an awkward meme campaign on Instagram.
But generally, serious issues have been a sideshow on Instagram.
No longer. Scroll through your Instagram in recent weeks and you’ve probably seen a lot more political and social justice-related content coming from fitness models and food bloggers who have steered clear of those issues in the past. Same goes for the friends you follow, and perhaps your own account — a lot of people are waking up to the realities of racism in America right now and feeling compelled to speak out.
There are multiple explanations for this shift. A feature Instagram introduced in May 2018 that lets you share other accounts’ posts to your story makes it easy for people to participate. Before that, and unlike other social media platforms, Instagram had no easy, built-in option for reposting content.
And during a pandemic, as many people are still living under lockdown, many are more likely to have the time and motivation to start posting about topics outside of vacation photos and aspirational lifestyle shots, said Aymar Jean Christian, an associate professor of communication studies at Northwestern University. You can only take so many pictures of the bread you baked. And after months of quarantine, you might not be feeling super selfie-ready. People can’t go on vacation; nobody’s going to brunch or the gym. The attitude is, “all of those things are closed, so I might as well post about politics,” Christian told Recode.
But this surge in political content on Instagram isn’t just coincidental. It’s intentional.
Leading civil rights groups working on racial justice and policing issues, such as the NAACP and Black Lives Matter Los Angeles, are seizing on the Instagram shift. They’ve been using Instagram as a way to mobilize followers into tangible political action — getting them to attend protests, sign petitions, call their legislators — and to educate them about systemic racism.
“We’re surprised and encouraged by how many non-Black folks are posting and demonstrating support. A lot of the DMs that we’re getting are from non-Black people,” Melina Abdullah, a co-founder of Black Lives Matter Los Angeles, told Recode.
“We’re getting overloaded in our DMs and trying to wade through and make sure we don’t miss things that are important,” Abdullah said. “Stuff we don’t want to miss is people volunteering to donate things, like ‘Can I bring granola bars to the protest?’ or ‘Can I bring a new sound system?’”
Gene Brown, a social media strategist for the NAACP, told Recode he’s seeing a more racially diverse set of followers in the organization’s expanding Instagram follower base.
“This [racism] is something the Black community has been dealing with forever, and we’re looking for white allies to help facilitate this movement,” said Brown. “Now it’s, ‘Wow, this large group of people who aren’t necessarily in my wheelhouse are not only paying attention but engaging.’”
The cause has been helped by some celebrities, who have asked Black activists and organizers to take over their Instagram accounts to reach their massive follower bases. Selena Gomez, for example, has handed over her account to professor and author Ibram X. Kendi, former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, and lawyer and advocate Kimberlé Crenshaw, who developed the theory of intersectionality.
“To know that [Gomez’s] massive audience is getting this kind of political education on Instagram is really exciting and definitely not what people associated with Instagram before,” Christian said.
On June 10, 54 Black women took over the Instagram accounts of 54 white women for the day as part of Share the Mic Now, a campaign aimed at amplifying Black women’s voices. Political analyst Zerlina Maxwell took over Hillary Clinton’s account, Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors took over Ellen DeGeneres’s, and Endeavor CMO Bozoma Saint John took over Kourtney Kardashian’s. The Black participants had a total of 6.5 million followers on their personal accounts, while the white women had 285 million. The campaign vastly expanded their reach.
Nikki Ogunnaike, deputy fashion director at GQ, said yes immediately when she was offered the opportunity to participate. After she was matched with Arianna Huffington, “She truly handed me the keys in a way that I was actually shocked,” Ogunnaike told Recode. Huffington “was honestly like, ‘Okay, here’s my password, let me know when you’re done,’” she said.
Ogunnaike used Huffington’s account to host an Instagram Live with her sister Lola Ogunnaike about their experiences as Black women in media. “The campaign is just really smart. Instagram always has so many eyeballs on it,” she said.
“As we continue into the 2020 election, we have to go where people are, and Instagram is it”
Instagram is also a way many people are figuring out where to send donations and how to protest where they live. In New York City, an account called Justice for George NYC has become a go-to source for people to find out about demonstrations. The account is run by a small team of anonymous volunteers and relies on local activists and organizers to stay informed on what’s happening and when, and to document images of the protests.
A representative for the account told Recode that compared to Twitter, which is more overtly political, Instagram feels like a better fit for the current moment. “This movement was about so many more people than that [Twitter]. It’s about reaching a wider audience,” she said. “As we continue into the 2020 election, we have to go where people are, and Instagram is it.”
With the election on the horizon, the momentum behind the Black Lives Matter movement on Instagram suggests it will continue to be a place for political discussion and engagement in the months to come.
How Instagram is — and isn’t — primed for this moment
In many ways, Instagram is poised to meet the moment. Its visual focus is particularly useful for sharing complex ideas more simply, via images rather than blocks of text.
“Instagram has always been Blacker, more Latinx communities, younger, groups that are on the front lines right now in a number of ways and are more on Instagram than they are on other platforms, like Facebook proper,” said Brandi Collins-Dexter, senior campaign director at the civil rights organization Color of Change. “For us, the personal is political, and it’s hard to untangle those two.”
That personal-political has a specific look and feel. Vice’s Bettina Makalintal recently described the kind of shared visual language of protest that has developed on the platform, evidenced in bright digital protest flyers, stylized illustrated portraits, and block quotes with activist statements.
“I’m creating a looking glass so people can see and understand visually what Blackness is,” Coates said. “Blackness is not a monolith, and it’s really cool that I can use colors and patterns and rhythms to invoke that conversation.”
Popular posts on Instagram recently, like the “pyramid of white supremacy,” break down complex topics: intersectionality, the surveillance state, structural versus individual racism, and the nuances of privilege among white and non-Black people of color. It’s a deceptively simple way to educate people on complex topics that some academics spend their entire lives studying.
“We think that this can help to educate folks. Sometimes people aren’t willing to read books but can really quickly take a look and learn on Instagram”
“We think that this can help to educate folks. Sometimes people aren’t willing to read books but can really quickly take a look and learn on Instagram,” said Abdullah.
But not everything can be explained in a single Instagram story. For more thorough conversations, racial justice advocates are using Instagram’s relatively new IGTV tool to post recurring shows, like the NAACP’s Hey, Black America.
Instagram has embraced and elevated these types of conversations, placing an Act for Racial Justice notification at the top of millions of people’s Instagram feeds in early June, which linked to a resource guide with links to posts from Black creators and Black‑led organizations about racial justice. CEO Adam Mosseri on June 15 committed to reviewing Instagram’s algorithmic bias to determine if Black voices are heard equally enough on the platform.
Instagram’s parent company, Facebook, launched a new section of its app with a similar goal of uplifting Black voices, pledged to donate $10 million to groups working on racial justice, and committed an additional $200 million to supporting Black-owned businesses and organizations on June 18. But it has also faced intense criticism from civil rights organizations and some of its own employees for allowing hateful speech to proliferate on its platform. Many took issue in particular with the company’s inaction on President Trump’s recent “shooting … looting” post, which many viewed as inciting violence against people protesting George Floyd’s killing. In response, Facebook has said it is considering changes to some of its policies around moderating political speech.
Instagram’s most formidable competitor, TikTok, has also been accused of suppressing Black creators with its algorithms, seemingly restricting results for #BlackLivesMatter. (It later fixed this, apologized for the mistake, and donated $4 million to nonprofits and combating racial inequality). Instagram, meanwhile, has been widely viewed as a largely supportive and meaningful space for creators who care about blackness. It’s a reason, sources told Recode, why overall, it feels like there’s more of a productive conversation about Black Lives Matter happening on Instagram right now than anywhere else.
The performative activism problem
As much as Instagram may have helped facilitate racial activism, it has real limitations. Namely, Instagram has always been a performative platform, and many of the racial justice posts people are sharing won’t translate to action to dismantle systemic racism in the US.
Take, for example, Blackout Tuesday, when throngs of Instagram users posted black boxes in support of Black Lives Matter. Many people started sharing the boxes using the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag, which ultimately overshadowed valuable information activists and organizers needed to share with protesters. And beyond the hashtag confusion, many questioned the value in posting a black box.
“When I’m thinking, what would help me feel safe in this country? It’s not ‘I wish everyone’s Instagram squares were black,’” author Ijeoma Oluo recently told Vox. “I can’t feel that. Especially when coupled with the disengagement — people do this performative gesture and then disengage. People aren’t even open to the feedback of why that’s not helpful or what they could be doing to be helpful.”
“A lot of people share memes and think that’s enough, and it’s really not”
The question of performative wokeness is always an issue on social media, but activists say sharing memes about racial justice gives them a way to meet people where they are. If an Instagrammed image breaks down the issue, makes it easier to digest, and helps people feel less alienated from the movement, that’s good, said Feminista Jones, an author, speaker, and organizer. But to really be effective, people need to go beyond that.
“A lot of people share memes and think that’s enough, and it’s really not,” Jones said. “They share it, and it’s really performative and them wanting to be a part of something and they see everybody else doing it, and they don’t want to be the ones who didn’t do it. So that can be problematic, too. But that’s every social media platform.”
What happens next
Jones’s follower count has more than doubled in recent weeks, and she said dealing with that new base has been an adjustment. She’s had to remind people she is not a “fact portal” but a multifaceted human being who also posts pictures of herself, her plants, and her child, just like everybody else. She has also noticed that some of her posts about her work projects, such as her podcast, aren’t getting as much attention as some of the memes or Black Lives Matter-related content.
“If you’re here to engage my work, you need to engage my work. Read my books, buy my books, take them out of the library, listen to my podcast — it’s free,” she said. “It’s about really engaging and supporting the work we do.”
When asked how they plan to keep their new followers engaged when protests die down, many activists and organizers said they weren’t sure, but that they will keep posting about injustices.
“For groups like ours, Black Lives Matter, we’re a bunch of people who don’t get paid for this work — so this is work that we do because we believe in it,” Abdullah said.
And then there’s a secondary problem. Even if recently politically engaged Instagram users maintain public solidarity, and Instagram becomes the permanent social media network of choice to discuss racial dynamics in America, will it eventually face the same scale of issues around polarization, harassment, and disinformation that Facebook has?
For now, activists are taking advantage of the moment and looking at it as an opportunity to enact change.
“There’s a balance between symbolic and instrumental organizing. Just because people are feeling a lot of pressure to do actions other people may feel are symbolic or superficial, that actually is an indication you have power to win instrumental demands,” Carty said. “Rather than thinking of it as an either/or, think of it as a both/and. It’s really powerful for millions of people to be taking some small action on social media, and there are ways to build off of that power and to transform it into instrumental, real, meaningful change.”
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