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Just Because You’re an Influencer Doesn’t Make You an Activist

Updated: Oct 4, 2021

By Áine Mulloy

To say the last year has been tough is an understatement, for many it has been one of the toughest years of our lives. We’ve collectively navigated a pandemic – to varying degrees of success –, communities were hit by natural disasters, economic hardship was rife, and the brutality of racism reared its head again, and again, and again. March heralds the annual celebration of International Women’s Day, but as it does the same old questions also rise again: Who gets to speak when, where, and how. Today everyone has a platform, a personal brand, and a voice. But in the world of a constant news cycle and virality does a large social media following indicate anything beyond just that? Does follower count mark integrity, quality, nuanced conversation, or merely just those who have managed to shout loudest, longest, and had some wins along the way. If everyone has a megaphone how do you filter out the noise?

In the arena of social media, we’re seeing a new trend emerge. Influencers who feel compelled to speak on social issues. While of course, there is importance and merit in those with platforms speaking up about injustice. However, this does what social media tends to do and filters out nuance, while glossing over trauma and grassroots works. These are instead replaced by clicks, likes, and campaigns with good intentions that invariably fall apart. Sometimes with hundreds of thousands of dollars going missing in the process, diverting funds from registered charities and aid organisations. Do those who have built their platforms on content, spicy tweets, and the odd nod to feminism really need to be at the fore of such conversations. We are told to smash the patriarchy, fight injustice, and be fully-fledged feminists without blemish. But, when the lines between influencers and activists blur we need to be cautious.

That’s not to say there aren’t influencers doing good work, but activists play a different role. Activists are well versed in the spaces in which they work, are focused primarily on grassroots organisation and the goal is collective justice. They favour the whole over the individual, which is at odds with the current influencer culture- where a few rise to the top, funded by the many. This may seem rather doom and gloom, but it’s quite the opposite. In fact, with a little digging, you can find incredible people doing amazing work in and for their communities. They may not have the biggest followings but each has plenty we all can learn from. The people I’ve listed here- some influencers, some activists, some writers, but all are challengers. They challenge us to think differently, which may sometimes be uncomfortable, but always eye-opening.

1. Racial Inequality – Opal Tometi, Alicia Garza & Patrisse Cullors

Given the year that’s just been, it would be remiss not to start this list with Opal Tometi, Alicia Garza, and Patrisse Cullors cofounders of the Black Lives Matter Network. Founded in 2013, the project started as an online platform providing activists and supporters with guiding principles and goals, but without a hierarchy or centralised system. Initiated after the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin, the movement protests police brutality and racially motivated violence in all forms. While figures vary from source to source it is estimated between 15-26 million people participated in the 2020 protests – making it among the largest movements in the USA’s history. It also sparked a worldwide conversation with protests being held under the slogan all around the globe. Today the group has over 40 chapters spanning across the US.

2. Sustainability, Fashion & Privilege – Aja Barber

Aja Barber is a writer, consultant, and stylist whose work deals with the intersections of sustainability and the fashion landscape. Exploring privilege, wealth inequality, racism, feminism, and colonialism. Eschewing the fast fashion models of over-consumption, Barber encourages people to assess their own shopping habits. Seeking a world in which people don’t become billionaires through fashion, Barber encourages her readers to make more sustainable choices. Shedding light on the terminology, performative advertising, and more on fashion corporations.

3. Digital Ethics & Self Care - Seyi Akiwowo

A British-Nigerianactivist and campaigner, Akiwowo is the founder and director of Glitch, a non-profit campaigning to end online abuse. She famously delivered a speech at the European Parliament calling on countries to atone for their colonial pasts only to be booed by the audience and racially abused on Twitter when the video went viral. Her organisation, Glitch is a UK charity working to bring awareness to online abuse and advocate for systemic change from tech companies and governments. In 2019, she delivered a TedTalk How to fix the glitch in our online communities and has been previously selected as the Amnesty International Human Rights Defender and the Digital Leader of the Year.

4. Sex Educator & Social Justice Disruptor – Ericka Hart

As a Black queer femme activist, Ericka Hart’s work tackles racial, social, and gender issues. As an educator, their work brings to the foreground the damage and limitations of oppressive systems. After going viral for going topless at Afropunk, revealing the scars of their double mastectomy – Hart is a breast cancer survivor –, she realised the importance of including disability and chronic illness in conversations around sex. Pushing for a move towards a more human and transparent approach to sex education.

5. LGBTQ+ Rights – Charlene Carruthers

Founder of the Black Youth Project 100, Carruthers identifies as a “Black, queer, feminist community organizer and writer.” Focused on Black liberation, her work brings together grassroots community groups to advocate and share power. Through the Black Youth Project, Carruthers aims to build a member-led organisation of Black 18 to 35-year-olds dedicated to freedom for all, fighting for immigration rights, economic justice, and civil rights all around the world. And in 2018 she published her bestselling book Unapologetic: A Black, Queer and Feminist Mandate for Radical Movements.

Each of these people are helping to change how we perceive the world and each other. While we have come a long way, there is still work to be done and it’s important that doesn’t get lost in the shuffle as people clamour to appear informed.

Over the last few years we’ve seen a rise in feminist lite content, pink pussy hats marching on Washington, badass boss babe emblazoned on t-shirts, and #girlboss slapped on coffee mugs. As the shine of these began to wane, we saw podcasts after podcast emerge, viral Twitter threads being spun off into books, and the poaching of content – generally from older, minority, researchers/writers/activists – spun into a twirly font and reposted in a sea of millennial pink Instagram tiles. This is done without context, nuance, or shame. We’ve been told to lean in, take a seat at the table, build platforms and take up space but when those from marginalised communities do so, they often fall prey to the same vicious cycle. Their content reaches smaller, and oftentimes more engaged audiences, only to be picked up and reposted without credit.

Movements such as the body positivity movement, founded by fat Black women are now fronted by thin, white women who hunch over and puff up their stomachs to show how unflattering the camera can be and that they are “real too.” The founding voices of the movement have been completely erased. The radical act of self-love removed and rebranded to sell everything from make-up to weight loss pills. The real and political act of fat, Black, oftentimes queer, women taking up space and just loving themselves in a world that tells them not to was swept away in a filtered sea. And this is the problem. When everything and anything can become content nothing is real. It’s all been reduced to clicks.

Part of the problem, of course, is that social media is not really about the conversation. Of course, it will be sold as space to “find your tribe” and build a community, but it’s purposefully designed to do the opposite. It’s not about thoughtful discussion, it’s about reaction and nothing drives virality like anger. Outrage is actively rewarded and every interaction becomes polarising. Either you are with me or against me. To question is to invite anger and harassment.

This division can also be seen in how interactions are framed, everything has become a debate rather than a conversation. Debate inherently implies a winner – and therefore, a loser. It is a point-scoring exercise which favours those in positions of power. Those with an extensive vocabulary, and the stereotypical indicators that command attention regardless of content. It is also much easier to debate topics when they are separate from your existence. Debating whether or not you deserve basic human rights is exhausting and upsetting. But of course, there’s no place for emotion in debate as to show vulnerability is still largely seen as a sign of weakness. To crack under pressure is “ to be owned”, “destroyed” or similar. Again, it doesn’t actually matter what either person is saying because perception is all that matters. With everything up for debate, we are saying that those who are marginalised need to play by the rules of the majority to try to win crumbs. In turn when complex, social topics are reduced to sound bites and character limits and played out publicly, it’s clear who will lose.

It is in this murky space then, that influencers are continuing to weigh in. Acutely aware of how algorithms work, the importance of reach, and being seen to be doing something part of the conversation. What they have to add is questionable but there are enough Angela Davis quotes floating around to pull together a caption and call it a day. With access to unlimited information, everyone is informed, but very few are knowledgeable. And unfortunately, in this gap, the real work is left in the shade.

To counter this we are seeing communities spring up that are embedding basic principles and readings into their work. Similar to how the Black Panthers used to operate, this ensures a base level of knowledge from participants – and requires attendees to actually do the work. While all people might be equal, not all opinions are and that’s important. If you haven’t done the work, and cannot contribute to the discourse then you simply cannot engage. This might seem like it is exclusive, but it carries an important message, activism is not easy. It’s hard, unpaid, emotionally and physically taxing, and often undervalued. Therefore, to become an active part of the solution it is imperative that people equip themselves with the right information to become active, positive participants in a space, and in doing so you are also caring for others by showing the process respect and continuing to build your own arsenal.

Aine Molloy, a joint friend of E&E, is actively engaged in promoting societal change, a Forbes Top 100 EU female founder to follow, and was a co-founder of GirlCrew. We asked Aine to pen an opinion piece, knowing her voice was one we truly wanted to amplify as part of Toastee’s Herstory’s edition. With her own words on contemporary activism, she shows a fine balance between content creators and activists, and the importance of active participation.

Check out her 2018 Tedx Talk here. Make sure to follow her @aine.simone on Instagram.

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