Jun 15, 2024

I can't open Instagram anymore

I can't open Instagram anymore
Photo by Azamat E / Unsplash

I can’t open Instagram anymore

By Preeti Kulkarni

I can’t open Instagram anymore. Every time I do, I see a line of infographics reposted by various well meaning acquaintances, designed to spread awareness about the various evils plaguing our society but that always feel one-note and performative. 

I think it’s important to preface that I have no problem with people using their platforms to spread awareness about the causes or issues they value. I also don’t think that using social media as a platform for that expression is inherently bad — I think digital spaces serve an important function in our current societal landscape. Social media can provide a means to connect with our loved ones and find communities beyond the bounds of physical spaces, which was especially valuable during the COVID-19 pandemic, and can provide access to perspectives that we would otherwise disavow. The ability to connect across distances through multiple platforms is incredible; it’s foundational to how people in my generation interact with each other. 

However, interacting online often convolutes important conversations, promoting a lack of critical thinking that could be possible if given more room. Instagram only allows for ten slides of content for a typical post, usually needing an image of some kind to capture an audience’s attention and limiting the amount of text on those slides to cater to our plummeting attention spans. Instagram Reels and TikTok allow for 2-3 minutes of content maximum. I have also succumbed to engaging with oversimplified or biased content. I have reposted one-slide graphics that present colonial powers as inherently bad. While I agree that colonialism itself is inherently reproachable, I can now see how it has contributed to ideas ingrained withhin society that I value, such as modern liberalism, after engaging with those ideas more critically. 

Very few issues can be summarized or discussed in such short-form content. Thus, consumers of this content — myself included — often miss the bigger picture of what well meaning creators want to emphasize. These kinds of creators — ones who will use phrases such as, “I can see if you view my story and don’t repost” — push others to engage and express vehement support for causes that require more analysis than a 10-slide infographic to begin to address. Often, these kinds of posts create a bandwagon for users to jump on, leading to the phenomenon of “brigading,” where users will band together to antagonize someone with a varying idea. The threat of the click-mob often leads to excessive self-censorship, a phenomenon Tim Urban described in a piece on The Free Press.

A blog post by the University of Sussex splits digital activism into two categories: citizen journalism and viral campaigns. Citizen journalism is when “members of the public use social media to document and share breaking developments of protests on the ground or acts of violence as they’re happening.” Social media users then create hashtags that spark viral campaigns, often in response to citizen journalism. 

Digital activism of this kind creates a marketplace of ideas and empowers voices that would not otherwise receive a platform. However, it also heightens a phenomenon called “slacktivism,” a fleeting and often insincere form of engagement that leaves little lasting impact. Reposting an infographic or using a viral hashtag can only amplify a voice for a limited time. Without consistent and critical engagement with the societal issues the activist is amplifying, social media activism becomes little more than virtue signaling. 

Mishima Nixon, a student and writer from the University of Iowa, talked about this concept in an article in Teen Vogue in 2021. “A popular line that gets thrown around: “No one’s talking about this,” in which “this'' can mean a lot of different things,” Nixon said. This sentiment could not ring more true, especially in a post-pandemic world. In fact, I believe this pressure that Nixon described to “become passionate activists in response to every global event” has intensified and reached a boiling point. 

I would be remiss to ignore the impact of algorithms in this conversation. Social media algorithms are designed to feed users content that the platform thinks the user will engage with. The rise of facial recognition algorithms and artificial neural networks has led to a prevalence of false content, such as deep fakes. The social media ecosystem can thus promote misinformation and perpetuate silos of information, known as filter bubbles. Not only does the restriction placed on content not allow for nuance and pressure people to engage without analysis, but the platform’s design makes it difficult for users to access other kinds of information altogether. 

Before I began to engage with content from intentionally unbiased or bias-conscious news outlets, I was stuck in an information silo. I was being fed the content that I engaged with the most, which limited my perspective on a multitude of issues, including reproductive care, the economy, and more. However, as I began to engage in news sources and content that allowed me to see multiple perspectives, my database of information expanded exponentially, allowing me to form more informed opinions that I feel more confident in. 

By engaging in “slacktivism,” we are stifling our intellectual growth, backing ourselves into an information corner that reinforces our preconceptions. While researching this issue, I found an NBC News article that defined a key aspect of effective activism as “inviting other perspectives to the table.” Without breaking away from our filter bubbles, we cannot critically engage with information and other perspectives, which renders digital activism pointless. 

That’s why I can’t open Instagram anymore. I cannot stand to see important conversations consistently diluted without reproach. We must make a conscious effort to engage with other perspectives when learning about issues online. Otherwise, we will be stuck in a constant loop of frustration and superficial understanding. 

Preeti Kulkarni is an incoming sophomore at George Washington University studying International Development. She has been involved in the bridging space and youth nonprofit space for the last few years and is interested in how to combat political polarization and foster healthier democracies. 

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