Online activism: A philosophical perspective

In the current climate, online activism is one of the easiest tools to utilise in our attempts to make a difference. Black Lives Matter is at the forefront of our minds right now – hopefully staying there for longer than the news cycle – and has consequently been commodified to fit into Instagram squares and Twitter character limits.

We are distracted with patting ourselves on the back for simply uttering the words “black lives matter”

Many have pointed out that this risks making Black Lives Matter, and similar social movements like #metoo, a trend, not a human rights revolution, as such small spaces of media will not adequately represent the issues at hand. Instead of engrossing ourselves in resources to learn about the history of black oppression, or the political systems that sustain it, we simply repost and retweet pretty fonts with catchy captions.

This does not encourage the kind of long-term change that would have real impact where structural forces are reckoned with, because we are distracted with patting ourselves on the back for simply uttering the words “black lives matter”.

“But it’s raising awareness! Isn’t recognition enough?” I’d argue no, recognition alone is not enough. Recently, Instagram was overcome with a tag trend: tag 10 friends who won’t break the chain for Black Lives Matter and repost it on your story.

Another one was #blackouttuesday, a movement originally intended to be #theshowmustbepaused, created by two black women, Jamila Thomas and Brianna Agyemang. It had the intention of bringing the music industry to a halt for the day, in order to reflect upon how music owes so much to black history and give time for everyone within the industry to think about how they could better support the black community. Instead, it resulted in black boxes being posted all across Instagram, with a measly #blacklivesmatter in the caption. This was not only a weak contribution to the movement, but actively harmful. By filling the hashtag with empty boxes, resources were buried and made inaccessible to users who were using it as a place to find information.

I understand the desire to show public solidarity with the movement, and the belief that any awareness is better than none. But, as some pointed out, this can become an easy way to engage in the movement without genuinely putting in any effort.

But obviously empty black boxes are not really activism, they are simply giving the illusion of it

In a way, the black box is an easy ‘get out of racism free’ card. But empty black boxes are not really activism. Instead, they are giving the illusion of activism; they are performative. Without the actions to back it up, black boxes alone will not change much apart from save our egos.

Here the idea of performative and genuine activism comes into play, helping to identify real attempts to make a change, which are differentiated from self-publicising acts with little or no genuine impact and significance.

Performative activism is pretty, suits the theme of your page, is quick to be posted and even quicker to be forgotten about. Genuine activism, however, has resources, places to donate like bailout funds and charities, educational recommendations like books or articles, links to Black owned businesses. It’s having difficult conversations with family and friends. It’s actually reading those books or listening to those podcasts.

Understandably, in our media climate today, flashy cartoons and tweets can raise awareness quickly. But it’s doing only this that is performative. To show why we should always strive to do more, we need to understand the philosophy around doing good.

Areas of ethical philosophy point out how we should best engage in charitable donations and do the most good. Following the philosophy of effective altruism, for example, would morally obligate us to donate to the most effective charities, which would maximise welfare. Effective altruists recommend sites like GiveWell in order to support various organisations. This philosophy takes an empirical approach in terms of activism and support, arguing that once is money donated, we are morally obligated to ensure that we support the best charities and organisations who can maximise welfare and the impact of our support.

Once we decide to engage in activism, we are obligated to engage in the best kinds of activism we can

I believe this can be applied to how we view activism, whereby once we decide to engage in activism, we are obligated to engage in the best kinds of activism we can. This doesn’t mean posting everything you do online, nor spending your life savings on a few bailout funds. It’s simply focused on the idea of personal cost.

In the essay ‘Future Generations: Further Problems’, published in 1982, British philosopher Derek Parfit outlines different ways of doing ‘good.’ As a philosopher of personal identity and ethics, Parfit engages with the different ways individuals can choose to take positive action, through the analogy of ‘saving an imagined stranger with two arms’ from impending harm.

The three options available in this situation are to either save one arm, save both arms or save neither arm. Choosing to engage in saving the arms comes at a personal cost, but this cost is the same whether saving one arm or saving both. Though it is an analogy usually applied in ethics, I believe that it can be applied to the different ways we view activism.

According to this analogy, it is not gravely wrong to do nothing, for it is within our autonomy to decide that the cost is too much to engage. However, once we have made the decision to bear this cost, it seems it would be morally impermissible to not save both arms, because the cost of saving one versus saving both is identical. Therefore, it wouldn’t cost us any more to do the greater good.

A similar thought experiment comes from Shelly Kagan (author of The Limits of Morality, published in 1989). Suppose a building is on fire, where upon making the choice to enter, there is both a child and a bird trapped inside. If we can only save one, it seems we are morally required to save the child as this would be promoting the greater good. Again, once taking on the cost of entering the building, we should maximise the good if it doesn’t cost us any more to save the bird as well as the child.

Obviously, neither thought experiment is an entirely perfect analogy to online activism. To not engage in any kind of social activism does not seem permissible in the way that not engaging in either analogy’s situation would be. This is because the cost to ourselves of trying to fight racism is clearly never too much to justify inaction, in the same way that we could justify choosing not to take the personal risk of entering a burning building, for example.

In terms of activism, though, it seems justifiable to choose to not engage in certain kinds of action. For example, choosing not to engage in online activism is perfectly reasonable, given that people can engage and educate themselves behind a screen. While doing nothing seems wrong and inappropriate, acting in other ways is perfectly valid.

We are morally obligated to be genuine and not performative

In terms of online activism, I believe Kagan and Parfit’s philosophical perspectives can be used to ensure that our actions and posts are genuine and not performative. Performative activism (the non-committal Instagram posts, the generic tweets) is like choosing the option in both of the analogies to act but not to maximise the impact of your actions. Posting something and then ending your engagement with the issue there is like choosing to take on the risk – entering the burning building – but only doing the bare minimum, when doing the maximum would come at no greater cost to you.

Being genuine with your activism, especially online activism, comes at no greater cost to you than tweeting #BlackLivesMatter. Linking to interesting articles or fundraising pages is no more difficult and strenuous once you have already taken the decision to post on the internet.

W have to be clear, though, that being genuine in your activism is not down to who donates the most money or who gets the most likes on their posts. Instead, activism means fully engaging and sharing all the aforementioned resources. It involves posting blunt and often uncomfortable resources and pointing people in the right direction to educate themselves further.

Once you have decided to post something on your personal page, it is not any more strenuous an effort for you to provide more than a black box

Yes, this does take a little more effort and time than posting a black square on Instagram, but I don’t think that the personal cost of engaging in genuine online activism is greater than the personal cost of engaging in performative activism. The internet puts so many resources at our fingertips. It means we can have those uncomfortable, but necessary, conversations with friends and connections across the world. The internet gives us a tool to ensure that our activism and online activism can always be genuine at no extra personal cost to us.

You can engage in activism offline, and we should respect that not everyone posts their whole lives. Some of the most powerful acts of campaigning and solidarity can take place without a camera even present. But if you do decide to engage in activism online, you should recognise how easy it is to fully engage and maximise your impact.

The unfortunate thing about much of online activism is that it moves at an unrelenting pace and is often in synch with the news cycle, which can move on to a new story or cause within a matter of days. Making meaningful change takes more time than this. Recognising that our commitment has to go beyond the time period that the issue makes the headlines is also part of genuine activism.

Social media can be flooded with posts about LGBTQI+ rights during Pride Month, but the same issue can receive little support for the other 11 months of the year (in the UK, hate crimes have more than doubled in the past five years, with prosecution numbers dropping).

At the beginning of this year, posts about Australia’s bushfires that once flooded our social media feeds are now rare, even though the impact of the natural disaster on the environment is still devastating. Tributes to those affected by natural disasters often disappear after a few days, even though survivors live with those scars for a lifetime.

When it comes to online activism, we should always choose to maximise what we can do. Parfit and Kagan’s analogies are not perfect, but they demonstrate the fact that we have a philosophical and moral obligation to engage in genuine, positive activism.

In an age of technology and social media, promoting resources, donating to fundraisers, featuring inspirational stories and people is easier than ever. Is it really so much more difficult to share the work of Angela Davis or repost Reverend Al Sharpton’s powerful eulogy to George Floyd than it is to type #BlackLivesMatter?

Real, genuine online action is not at a personal cost and it’s easier than ever. Online activism is a gateway to support and collaborate with causes and campaigns across the globe from our own mobile phones. Rather than opt for hollow posts, let’s maximise our good by being meaningful, genuine and positive.


The feature image shows a your woman, standing in the street, wearing a leather jacket. She is looking down at her phone and smiling.
Photograph by Danny Molyneux , used under the Creative Commons License

The first photograph depicts a Black Lives Matter march. It shows an activist, wearing a blue shirt, with their back to the camera. They hold a placard reading ‘Black Lives Matter’ in black text.
Photograph by Jenny Salita, used under the Creative Commons License

The second photograph shows another Black Lives Matter march in Minnesota. A group of activists can be seen marching and in the centre, one activist holds up his fist.
Photograph by Fibonacci Blue, used under the Creative Commons License

The next photograph shows Helsinki Pride in 2014. A young woman can be seen, signing something. She wears a rainbow hat and a black top.
Photograph by Amnesty Finland, used under the Creative Commons License

The final image shows a mobile phone against a dark background. On the screen, there are different social media apps, including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google and Pinterest.
Photograph by Jason Howie, used under the Creative Commons License.