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Productive or Performative? How Social Media Has Transformed Activism

While mindlessly scrolling through TikTok, I stumbled on a video of climate scientist Peter Kalmus chained to Chase Bank. In the clip with nearly one million views, Kalmus pleads for unity in face of the climate breakdown crisis. Thousands of comments reading “I’m scared”, “We need to stop this”, and “What can we do to help??” flooded the section. The hashtag #peterkalmus rapidly accumulated 11.3 million views. 

The Outspoken interviewed Peter Kalmus one year ago before his movement went viral on TikTok.

In any other context, 11.3 million impressions point to a long-term movement that would revolutionize the world. It seemed like climate apathy had finally been challenged on a mass scale. Yet, two weeks later, the number of posts about climate change drastically diminished across all platforms. It was as if the climate craze had died, like any other TikTok trend. Similarly, content concerning the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine surged in February, only to decline to the point where people started to forget the ongoing conflict altogether.

The importance of Kalmus’ message concerning climate breakdown, or the suffering of Ukrainian refugees, has not changed at all.  To be blunt? They’re no longer seen as “trendy” as they were a few weeks ago. It’s time to change how we use social media in our activism, because – unlike a hit song or fashion fad – political or social causes need prolonged, sustained attention for us to experience actual impact. 

Social media has changed activism for the better in several ways: people can create networks for change, inform others, and encourage others to take part in efforts. Yet, this does not erase the downside. Our goldfish attention spans worsened by performative culture get in the way of the meaningful activism – activism we could be achieving if we recognize the power of intention. 

For these reasons, ensure your actions on social media are focused on larger movements rather than how you benefit/are seen by others after taking part. Making activism a “competition” can be counterproductive, and only supports movements when they are “trendy.” Form deep connections and passion for causes, while working to create real change. Understand the nuances of a topic without letting social media define it for you. By redefining the reasons we care, we can ensure meaningful change by giving activists like Peter Kalmus the continued dedication they deserve.

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