Every day, I set my alarm for 7am but, like you, I don’t get out of bed until at least 7.35am. I’m scrolling, positioning my hand just right so that my phone won’t slip and hit me in the face. I’m on Instagram, looking at my friend’s new pug, when I see it: a girl I’ve never met, standing in front of a plane with her carry-on luggage. She’s wearing a jumper that says ‘REPEAL’ and a face that is halfway between a sneer and a stare: a face that says ‘Come at me.’ She is showing her support for women in Ireland who are forced to leave their homes and travel to Britain to access a safe and legal abortion. The caption reads: “12 women a day.” There’s a churn in my stomach.
You’ve noticed this, right? Instagram, the place you once used for poring over shoes and hot people is becoming a platform for grassroots activism and real change. I used to stay away from Instagram because – as I would proclaim – it was just a meaningless void of pretty pictures and half-arsed captions. Twitter, I maintained, was where smart people hung out.
But the emphasis on words and brevity means that Twitter has become, for many, a never-ending s**t-slinging match of who-said-it-better? Instagram – with its 700 million monthly active users, 4.2 billion ‘likes’ per day and strong, visual purpose – isn’t about who’s saying it better, it’s about people who are doing something. To borrow a motto from the suffragettes, it’s for “deeds, not words”.
I’m not just talking about holding a sign up at the Women’s March. Instagram is where @jaz.ohara, founder of @theworldwidetribe, raised over £150,000 for the refugee crisis in the first six weeks of setting up the charity, working alongside CalAid and Amnesty International.
And it’s where @katiemeyler, founder of @morethanmeorg, directly impacted the spread of Ebola awareness in Liberia. Outraged that people were only hearing about “numbers and moonsuits” rather than the human aspect of the disease, Katie began documenting stories of the thousands of lives being threatened by Ebola, pleading with the world to intervene. Eventually, her following grew so huge that global news outlets were using her photos for their coverage.
Women like Katie and Jaz are using Instagram to change what it means to be an activist. It’s not about working hard and hoping that BBC World News shows up. It’s taking the camera and creating the agenda yourself. Ironically, the platform most famous for ‘filtering’ images has, when it comes to galvanising change, become the one most associated with being completely unfiltered. There are no editors or a board of directors. Just passion – and movement.
“The internet isn’t some shallow bird bath,” says Sarah Maria Griffin (@sarahgriffski), author and online activist involved in Ireland’s #RepealThe8th campaign to abolish the abortion-banning Eighth Amendment. “It runs deeper every year. It allows breathing room for pieces of art, writing and media that couldn’t make it through ‘traditional’ mediums because they’re too radical. Or, in Ireland’s case, because it rubs against the church in a way they don’t like.”
Those words – ‘the internet is not a bird bath’ – feels like something we should all have on a T-shirt; an out-of-office response to every person who ever left a pithy, sneering comment under an Instagram post about body positivity, racism or mental health.
Because that’s exactly how online activism gets portrayed by those who seek to devalue it – as though everyone who comments on a photo or regrams an image is just flying idly by and stopping for a quick wash before carrying on with their day. As if your interest in an issue is only three inches deep, simply because you’ve expressed that interest through the only means accessible to you: your Instagram account.
In many ways, Ireland is a strong example for the growth and success of Insta activism (Instavism). It may be small, but more young people are becoming increasingly frustrated, and both the same-sex marriage referendum in 2015 (Irish expats were encouraged to come back to vote for marriage equality) and the Citizens’ Assembly vote to legalise abortion in April 2017 showed Ireland was ready, and able, to change.
These changes were bolstered by social media, specifically Instagram. A powerful combination of images and #HomeToVote and #RepealThe8th helped spread both messages – fast. Every time a cleric appeared on the radio referring to a woman as a “vessel”; every time a respected journalist wrote a column about how voting against marriage equality didn’t make you a homophobe, there was social media. People in their thousands saying: No. You don’t have to listen to this. You don’t have to stand for this. We will stand with you.
Similarly, the international #BlackLivesMatter campaign (which began in Florida in 2012 as a rallying cry against police killings of unarmed African-Americans) continues to be one of the most significant modern social organisations in the US. With 5.4 million tags, the movement has gone beyond a social media phenomenon and since become a byword for how we refer to racism in 2017. Saying “Black Lives Matter” in conversation is as ubiquitous as saying Rosa Parks: everyone knows what you mean by it. Every use of it – whether in Florida, Baltimore or the UK – is a reminder that racism is not a problem that has gone away. As the movement’s website states: “#BlackLivesMatter is a call to action and a response to the virulent anti-black racism that permeates our society.”
I asked academic Juanita Crider (@gradgran), who was born in Baltimore and is programme advisor for the Purdue University Black Cultural Center, what she thought of the argument that ‘clicktivism’ – using social media to let your voice be heard – is just a way for people to passively engage with politics. She “totally” disagreed. As someone who was present at the riots in Ferguson, following the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by a white police officer in 2014, she witnessed active engagement through Instagram: “People were using it to send messages on how to locate someone, how to contribute to bail funds and where to get legal assistance.”
In some cases, Juanita argues that engaging online can be more powerful than voting: a tool that, post-Brexit and post-Trump, many people are becoming disillusioned with. “Social media has enabled those who feel like they live on the margins of society to feel connected to others and form communities. Their message – their voice – can go viral and affect change.”
Gritty, on-the-ground documentation isn’t the only way people are changing attitudes, though. Illustrator @rubyetc_ uses wit and art to puncture the stigma around mental illness, straight from her bedroom. Her funny doodles usually feature a woman muddling her way through life as a sufferer of depression and anxiety with, well, whatever the opposite of grace is. “I think people find imperfect, honest and silly IG accounts as fascinating and followable as the filtered ones with millions of followers,” says Ruby. “But I do think we’re hitting saturation point with the perfection thing, and there’s growing space for people like me doing something different.”
It’s interesting that Ruby is using a platform famous for perfection to poke fun at perfection when it comes to mental health. There are no hushed tones but, instead, an understanding that depression falls under human experience, and can therefore be funny. And if it’s funny, then it’s helpful.
“Longer captions and fuller images on the ’gram allows my work to be better understood, and there’s a sense of acceptance that you don’t get on other platforms,” she says. But not everyone agrees. @beckiejbrown, who has trichotillomania (an anxiety disorder where you pull your hair out), uses Insta Stories to give her 33.1k followers updates on her condition. However, she’s been told her constant online engagement is exacerbating her disorder, which she argues vehemently against. “Within minutes of logging on, I’m connecting with hundreds of people going through the same experience as me on a level I will never be able to achieve offline.”
If we’re looking for a community of support, Instagram is swarming – @pink_bitsand @hollieannhart are just two body-positive cartoonists who document and celebrate real female forms, body hair included. But, of course, not everyone is getting it right.
@katherine_ormerod, founder of @workworkwork.co, is using her account to teach young women about the failings of Instagram itself: that the ‘perfection’ they see in perfectly styled shots is not the reality of day-to-day life. “Somewhere along the line, the hard, ugly stuff was being forgotten about,” says Katherine. “I try to make a small improvement about the way women feel about themselves – and stop them comparing their real life to a fantasy.”
There’s also something unique about Instavism that almost no one is talking about. A 16 year old recently told me that she “hated Mean Girls” because “movies are just ugh, you know?” So how do you reach a generation disengaged by movies? Instagram, obvs. Something Julien Levêque, who works at French ad agency BETC, chose when Fonds Actions Addictions asked him to come up with an alcoholism awareness campaign for teenage girls. The posts featured Louise Delage, a 25-year-old Parisian with a passion for travel and expensive breakfasts. ‘Louise’ quickly gained over 100k followers, but fans failed to realise that she wasn’t real – or that she was holding an alcoholic drink in every photo.
“Before we revealed Louise’s secret, all the comments were about how cute she was, not her attitude to alcohol,” says Julien. It all sounds very existential but using the framework of Instagram (the beautiful life) to channel a real and important message sent waves to other brands, charities, advertising agencies – and to the world – about how young people relate to addiction.
Traditional media knows it’s competing with social media more than ever. Designers are putting plus-size Instagrammers on their runways because their fan base proves there’s a huge market for more diverse body shapes. Lego is pulling its ads from the Daily Mail after the #StopFundingHate campaign. The Amazon show Transparent was criticised for its lack of trans writers and has since recruited trans activist @JacobTobia to work on the show. Real differences are being made here: whether that’s shining a light on ignored problems, pushing for marginalised groups to have a say or pressuring businesses to do the right thing.
And so, I keep setting my alarm for 7am. I scroll through the pugs, the peonies and, in between, I get tasters of something magnificent. Someone starting a revolution in their bedroom or taking a camera to a war zone. Someone who decided that they are going to do something now. Instagram is for deeds, not words. And those deeds keep getting more ambitious every day.
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