Social justice slideshows are going viral on Instagram - here’s what to remember about what they’re sharing

Infographics are valuable as long as they are a starting point for research, not an end in itself.

Adam Smith
Thursday 13 May 2021 16:32
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Online activism is spreading on Instagram, with more people sharing striking, vibrant graphics to inform their followers about the issues that matter: Climate change, voting rights, Black Lives Matter and, recently, the Israel-Hamas conflict.

These graphics use different colours and styles, but there are consistent patterns between them: they are mostly text-based, using large and clear fonts against dark or pastel backgrounds to be visually striking, consist of up to ten slides that users can swipe through, and are designed to go viral.

The intersection between art, politics, and social media is far from new; last year, Instagram was filled with black squares in protest of police brutality against Black people. But for the designers making these vibrant infographics this is “art with empathy” - the “complete opposite” of posting a black square.

Many of these Instagram accounts have seen rapid engagement and growth, accumulating millions of followers in a short space of time.

There are a number of reasons for these posts’ popularity.

“One of the great things about infographics is how digestible they are. A lot of people are visual learners. Long form articles can be daunting, dependent on how educated the reader is, so simpler language and illustrations can be really helpful. Since social media platforms work on the basis of choosing who you follow, you also get a more curated view of the news” explains Martyn Ewoma, a writer, creative director and photographer who uses Instagram to raise awareness on political issues.

This need for digestible news has been a boon for the platforms. Half of all adults in the UK get their news from social media. The most popular source is Facebook, followed by WhatsApp and Instagram - both also owned by Facebook – as well as Twitter. Instagram in particular introduced tools to share “wellness content” that focus on curated posts, especially because the click-through format is one of the most difficult to get people reading.

“The carousel is one of the least successful formats to share information, since users rarely go onto the next slide,” New York-based graphic designer Eric Hu told Vox, but because the platform is “very predictable” and because Instagram privileges content such as vacation photos and inspirational graphic messages in users’ feeds, “infographics [are] trying to Trojan horse these tropes to trick the algorithm.”

The tools to do this are widely available because the format these slideshows come in are very similar to content from direct-to-consumer brands that target young people with the same flat aesthetic.

The style is often called “Corporate Memphis” – squiggly, cartoon figures with disproportionate limbs set next to clear-cut, easily-readable font – and has been criticised for the homogenisation of the internet’s visual language.

But with that market increasing, tools such as templating apps have sparked into existence, giving users the ability to create professional-looking content with ease. That also opens the door to people - either intentionally or naively - spreading simplifications of complex subjects that may not encompass the whole picture or may simply not be from a reliable source.

It used to be that scam websites could be easily detected by a less-than-professional design and sloppy grammar; with more intuitive, more accessible tools for designing websites now available, this has changed. A similar process has pushed the influencer market to where it is now, when everyone seemingly needs a personal brand, and there are scant tools for checking what is or is not accurate.

Moreover, as vital as social media can be to the movement of progressive and noble causes it is also a trap for performative activism, where sharing an image can make the user feel better but does not tangibly affect the struggles being faced. “Sometimes when things become trends people just share them without actually reading them or even agreeing, it’s just fashionable”, Ewoma says, which can give a “skewed perspective” on how much real activism is happening.

“We know that people are more likely to believe and share information that triggers a strong emotional response”, Pippa Allen-Kinross, Deputy Editor of Full Fact, told The Independent, “so whether it’s information about climate change, vaccines or ongoing conflicts—people should always take a few moments to verify before sharing.

“It may also be natural for people to place extra trust in information which is presented in the style of professional media, and this is also something to be aware of.”

Unfortunately, with political posts there is often more than meets the eye no matter how aesthetically-pleasing it might be – and especially with ones seeped in histories of imperialism, profit, and religion.

“The purpose [of these infographics] is also to reframe the narrative and changing the discourse”, says Inès Abdel Razek, director of the Rabet organization.

“Most of the negatives of social media information sharing can be aided by remembering what social media is. Infographics should be a catalyst to go and do actual research, not research in of itself”, Ewoma says, saying his best advice is “reading news stories from the region a story is actually happening in” because of Western government’s own interests.

It is also vital that audiences keep in mind of the media’s own biases. One study of 100,000 news headlines finding significant bias towards Israeli sources than Palestinian ones from US publications. “The purpose [of these infographics] is also to reframe the narrative and changing the discourse”, says Inès Abdel Razek, director of the Rabet organization.

Mona Shtaya, Local Advocacy Manager at Palestinian digital advocacy group 7amleh, said: “Fake news greatly affects political movements, especially in light of the Israeli aggression in which we are living, and with the increasing use of social media platforms, the fake news spread has become easier, which makes them more dangerous. This kind of news may terrify activists and increase tension, which indicates the need to verify any news before it is published.

“To combat fake news, there is a set of measures that can be taken in the short term, such as verifying and checking any news before it is published, asking activists and people on the ground, following up on their news and the video clips that they publish, and verifying several sources [as well as] avoiding legislative responses, which tend to criminalize freedom of expression and not adequately respond to fake news.”

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