IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

A social media 'blackout' enthralled Instagram. But did it do anything?

The blackout is the most recent example of why activists and academics greet similar social media efforts — widely known as "slacktivism" — with skepticism and criticism.
Image: A protester raises his fist while surrounded by black squares.
AP; NBC News

For one day last week, parts of Instagram suddenly went dark in support of Black Lives Matter. And just as quickly, they went back to normal.

Protests and social unrest over the death of George Floyd in police custody have extended to social media platforms, which have been flooded with calls for changes in law enforcement and societal structures that have entrenched racism. But the most visible social media effort came June 2, when about 28 million people posted plain black squares to Instagram as part of #BlackoutTuesday, according to a Facebook spokesperson.

The action was the most striking digital evidence yet that the Black Lives Matter movement has galvanized national attention, with many users finding that their entire feeds had turned black.

But it also backfired. Activists pointed out that the posts drowned out organizing efforts, and others called out people who posted black squares but had done little to advance the Black Lives Matter cause. Chelsea Miller, a leading organizer in New York who helps run Freedom March NYC, said it was clear that the #BlackoutTuesday effort didn't consult with activists on the ground and became a social trend.

"What it ultimately did is it muted the conversation," she said. "And in a time when we are trying to amplify our voices, we were inherently silenced."

We apologize, this video has expired.

The blackout is the most recent example of why activists and academics continue to greet similar social media efforts — widely known as "slacktivism" — with a heavy dose of skepticism and plenty of criticism. As the Black Lives Matter movement hopes to sustain mainstream attention, it grapples with how to include those who are just coming to the cause.

Activists who spoke to NBC News said people who post the occasional message on social media aren't doing much to bring about the structural change the Black Lives Matter movement is striving toward. But some academics say it could be a place to start.

"I would push for our moment right now to extend some grace to people who, for the first time, are thinking beyond themselves," said Nadia Brown, a politics and African American studies professor at Purdue University.

Liberal movements, at times, grapple with how to respond to people who are still learning and developing attitudes about a subject, she said.

"It's not giving a pass to people," Brown said. "When you see bad behavior, you need to call it out. But it doesn't mean you throw the whole person away, that no one is irredeemable."

Full coverage of George Floyd's death and protests around the country

The word "slacktivism" traces to 1995 as a portmanteau of "slacker" and "activism." As elements of life have moved online in the 25 years since, slacktivism has come to represent halfhearted social media-based activity, along with other terms like "virtue signaling" and "performative allyship."

The harms of slacktivism are considered relatively limited, in part because they are difficult to measure. But with last week's blackout attracting so many people, Black Lives Matter organizers ended up seeing their messages drowned out.

"#HashtagActivism" author Sarah Jackson, an associate professor at the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, said the dynamic reminded her of the Kony 2012 campaign, a viral video that led to a widely criticized social movement. Many people jumped quickly into a digital campaign without having the background knowledge of what they were really doing.

It becomes a matter of intention versus impact.

"A big problem is people say: 'I'm on your side. I'm trying to be on your side. I'm trying to support you,'" Jackson said. "And they think because their intentions are good, they should be spared the critique."

Activist Nupol Kiazolu, president of Black Lives Matter of Greater New York, called #BlackoutTuesday "frustrating" and "counterproductive." She encouraged people to see the blackout posts as just a small part of what they can do from the comfort of their smartphones, such as donating money and items to organizations that are facilitating the marches.

"Posting is just one step," Kiazolu said. "If you can't come out to the front lines, there's always something more you can do besides post."

The silver lining to activists' frustrations is that social media posts can often lead to other actions.

People who are active online during protests are measurably effective in disseminating information about a movement's message, according to a 2015 study led by New York University researchers. It found that a person who is even on the periphery of a movement can still contribute to the greater cause by informing others on social media, expanding awareness and mobilization. A new study from researchers in the Netherlands found that there was a positive correlation between a person's online and offline activism efforts.

And there's some evidence that social media activism has spurred donations. Online fundraising efforts for bail funds and nonprofits in the wake of protests over Floyd's death have received significant donations online, with experts crediting the power of a social media call to action and the collective desire for social accountability.

"It's often a false dichotomy between online and offline activism," said Rachel Einwohner, a sociology professor at Purdue University who studies social movements. "A lot of people who are posting are also doing something offline, whether it's the high-risk activism of going into the streets or it's donating some money or having conversations with people who need to be educated about the police and about racism."

But slacktivism can only go so far. Education and broadening of horizons have taken on greater importance as the Black Lives Matter movement emphasizes the societal dynamics that have led to systemic racism.

If people truly want to protest for the Black Lives Matter movement, they should follow black women organizers, the Black Lives Matter Twitter account and the activists who have long been on the front lines, Jackson said. But above all, she said, it's important for people to shelve their hubris about the movement and be willing to admit when they are wrong.

"It's hard to become an activist when you've never become an activist before," she said. "It's hard to humble yourself and talk to people and follow other people's leads."

For Miller and Kiazolu, correcting frivolous social media activism, as they navigate how to organize and mobilize the most populous city in the country, is part of a longer discussion about what happens in the future.

"At a certain point, we need to shift the conversation to talk about sustainability," said Miller of Freedom March NYC. "What does it look like to make sure that the message does not end when the lights and the cameras turn off?"