How Effective is Instagram Story Activism, Really?


Megan Brennan, Contributor

In recent months the average college student has likely noticed their Instagram feed looking a little different. The practice of posting about activism on one’s social media is not new. However, since June there has been a major -influx of college-aged students who have taken to their social media, in particular their Instagram stories, to share posts about topics they are passionate about. The origins of this recent influx of posting can be traced back to the death of George Floyd in May of this year and the ensuing protests demanding justice and equality. In the days following, Instagram was flooded with stories supporting the Black Lives Matter movement and educational resources about systemic racism in the US. These posts continued to dominate Instagram posts and stories for weeks after. The surge of “Instagram story activism”, as some have come to call it, surrounding the Black Lives Matters movement has served as a catalyst for college students to utilize their own Instagram stories to promote causes and political ideals (especially with the 2020 election rapidly approaching) on a more regular basis. This has led many to wonder what impact these Instagram stories actually have on activism, and while there is no clear answer it seems that most can agree that it depends on what the owner of the profile is trying to accomplish, who they are trying to reach, and what they are posting.

One of the biggest distinctions between these posts can be action versus education. If the post calls for action, it may not be as successful as reaching that goal as if it solely is to educate. This could be clearly seen in the infamous black square challenge on Instagram following the death of George Floyd, in which people posted a black square in solidarity with the movement. However, when comparing the number of people who posted a black square and the number of people who signed the petition calling for the arrest of the officers there was a significant disparity. In fact, the number of pictures tagged #BlackoutTuesday was double the number of signatures. Many were quick to point out the blatant performatism of this action, saying that people were treating the movement like another Instagram “challenge” to be deleted or posting to make themselves look or feel good.

So, why do people post on their Instagram stories? Vanderbilt student Zack Sherwood says that he will, “Post something on an Instagram story that [he] feels personally connected to…or something [he is] passionate about. Either something with a conservation effort, a political view or something a friend is supporting that I agree with, I’ll post that on my story.” Junior, Will Weaver, says  “I think that social media activism, and specifically Instagram story activism, can be a super helpful tool when it comes to spreading awareness. Information is so important for us in this day and age and Instagram story posts only increase how much information everyone has. In that way I think it’s an effective medium as long as it’s fact checked effectively beforehand.” Sophomore Ross Rubin also notes that, “there can be a performative aspect to Instagram activism, in terms of posting something and doing nothing to back it up. However, you can use it as a first step and to raise awareness for issues that people may not know much about.”

These thoughts and conclusions are not limited to Vanderbilt students. A student at Wake Forest University, Petra Musallam said, “I feel like a lot of people post on Instagram and are like ‘OK, I’m done’ when that doesn’t really make much of a difference”. Another student, Abby Sutton, who attends University of Richmond, commented that, “Seeing everyone post on their stories has made me more aware of everything that is going on. But, I do think people get caught up in what they see on Instagram because obviously you can’t believe every post without a source as fact. I think a lot of time you aren’t getting the whole picture.” Columbia University sophomore Sarah Consodine comments that she thinks, “[posting on Instagram stories] can be meaningful and productive, but I also think there is a large portion of individuals who post things to hop on a bandwagon. Posting Instagram photos of tributes to people that provide no information or insight, in my eyes, does not seem to do anything to help solve the issues, and make the issue more about the person posting than the issue itself- meaning that it only permeates the problem in the first place. Rather than engaging with it you end up posting something to show people that you care about it rather than actually impacting the issue and helping make a change.”

To many college students, posting on Instagram can be a great tool, but there seems to be a general consensus that realistically it is more informational than tangibly impactful. However, tangible impact may not always be the goal of Instagram story activism. As we near the election, an average college student can expect to see more and more Instagram story activism. This begs the question: just because someone is posting about activism does it mean that they really care? Does it mean that they’re having an effect on others? That, of course, is not easy to tell.