Performative Activism, Corporate catfishing and the blurred lines of allyship

by Caitlin Stimpson

Corporate Catfishing Infographics
Corporate Catfishing Infographics

The last general election we had in the UK was all the way back in 2019, when the Conservatives won on an 80-landslide majority. Since late 2019, into 2020, people’s interest in Politics began to skyrocket.

This may seem like a good thing, we might even ask ourselves, did COVID19 cause the British public to become more left-wing in their opinions and politics? In July 2021, British Social Attitudes did a report on the psychological insights of current events post COVID times, particularly highlighting that 64% of British people agree that ordinary working people do not get their fair share of the nation’s wealth. This comes at a time where infographics and online ‘activism’ from people on social media hits an all-time high.

So, is the British public really leaning more left, or is it a facade? That’s for you to decide. But what we do know is that since 2020, Performative activism, also known as ‘corporate catfishing’ and ‘slacktivism’ has been prevalent since COVID, since the Black Lives Matter protest, all of which occurred a mere month after this study was published.

Performative activism is the act of showing ‘woke-ness’ or pretending to appear as an ally to a cause, an issue or a marginalised community to gain attention from it to increase one’s social status. It is a surface-level appearance of activism also known as ‘slacktivism.’ This term in particular gained its name in 1995. It has since gained an increased usage on social media in the wake of the George Floyd protests in 2020.

A good way to spot performative activism is primarily through the use of social media trends, images and mostly used through infographics. Have you been on Facebook or Instagram and stumbled upon BBC News posting about the devastating events currently taking place in Ukraine by the Russian government, and suddenly, just a few scrolls down, you see one of your Facebook friends have shared a colourful and detailed illustration accompanied by text that reads, “Swipe on this image to understand what’s going on in Ukraine right now and why it matters.”

Now, this may come across to some as a seemingly innocent and creative, visual way to display educational information which we should all be striving to acknowledge. This would of course be correct and was the initial purpose of an infographic.

But far too often do we see people spam-posting these infographics during times of ‘slacktivism’ trends. For instance, when the BLM protests were in full swing, everyone on Instagram did the #BlackOutTuesday trend – showing ‘solidarity’ with people of colour as a mark of standing against police brutality against people of colour. Once #BlackOutTuesday ended, not only did their incessant infographic posting stop, but a lot of influencers would proceed to remove these posts from their Instagram profile grids so as not to ‘disrupt the aesthetic of their Instagram grid.’

As well as instances such as these, people would constantly repost and reshare ‘things you should know about – ‘your white privilege’ and ‘things not to say to trans men and women’ but once the trend ended, they would go back to posting videos of cats doing funny things and what they had for breakfast that morning. They continue to post as though nothing had ever happened. Almost as if they got their views, and now they’re done with it.

Speaking with a St Luke’s charity event co-ordinator from Brixham, Sarah, who has had a lot of experience in creating visual activist campaigns, gave me some interesting insights into the blurred lines behind performative activism and what constitutes as allyship and activism.

Photo of Sarah

“Matching your actions to your words is true activism.”

What people don’t seem to want to do when using their voices is matching their words to their actions. This is where the performative element comes in. I’ve seen it countless amounts of times in my line of work the past fifteen years.

This is an issue we often see in real life and on social media. The #BeKind one being a major one. #BeKind activists by day, keyboard warriors by night.

What is the difference between real activism and performative activism? Sarah responds by saying, “Everything on social media is performative, and that’s not always a bad thing, but what it comes down to is your intention behind the performance. Are you spreading posts to make a wider audience algorithm aware of that missing dog in your street? Or do you have a guilty conscience about who you are as a person and are using your social media profiles to almost build a sim of what you want to be seen as by the general public?

Sarah continues: “It becomes performative when your activism ends once you put your phone/laptop or device down. You need to be actively anti-discrimination; you need to be actively making efforts outside of your screens to do what is right.

I asked Sarah if she thinks people are aware of themselves being performative. Sarah said: “We’re all guilty of it, I mean, hell there have definitely been times where I’ve only become aware or hyper-aware of a tragedy or a cause or a situation, purely because I’ve seen it via social media, and a big part of my job is to both put together visual campaigns, make infographics that random people will inevitably start to share and re-share, but I am also responsible for putting those visual marketing tools into a real-life action, which I suppose definitely helps me to challenge any biases I may have when I learn something new via social media.

Sarah highlighted the positives behind performative activism, which are small, but nonetheless important.
It’s such a blurred line when it comes to, you know, ‘is this person actually an ally or are they just drumming up some engagement on their socials?’ But you know, I don’t think it’s all sinister.

Sarah continues: “Yes, actions matching with words is definitely the most important thing, but something else I think is hugely important to note is that this kind of surface-level activism can also be quite useful, especially when it comes to giving a voice to topics certain communities may not be able to. Showing empathy online and wanting to help but not necessarily knowing how to is still a good thing. If one person shares your crowdfunding page on a whim, you may unexpectedly generate revenue. There are pros and cons to it, but it’s a surface level performance that should always be challenged by action.”

Whether it is COVID that’s’ challenging views on equality and activism, perhaps the rise in influencers willing to sell everything and anything to gain views and money drives this world now more than ever, social media can both be an amazing tool and a damaging one, and finding a good balance is something newer generations to come may only be able to solve.

© 2022

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