In just two short decades, social media has become a universal filter through which we record and replay our lives. According to a 2015 Pew Research report, back in 2005 only four percent of American adults used online social platforms— most likely a handful of college students on Facebook’s first iteration. As of 2016, 69 percent of US adultsare tweeting, liking, and sharing regularly, and adoption has shown no sign of slowing.
As the world has adopted social media, activists have too, and it appears that the Facebook-owned Instagram has unwittingly become one of the most robust platforms for online activism.
Instagram was sold for billions back in 2012, which could be viewed as a shady form of wealth consolidation. As a corporate entity that runs ads for profit, Instagram does not readily correspond with humanitarian or philanthropic work, and has faced troubling criticism for censorship and online harassment. Not to mention, Instagram has gained a reputation as the platform of choice for celebrities, selfies, and general vapidity. And isn’t narcissism the opposite of advocacy?
Those that think Instagram is just for #fitspo, hot dog legs, and relationship goals are missing the bigger picture beyond that pretty Valencia filter. Instead, individuals and organizations are using Instagram to support and grow their cause in ways that make perfect sense in our highly-visual, tech-driven world. The very reasons that Instagram can be infuriating also lend it strength.
While it may not inherently be a force for good, in the hands of the right people it can be a dynamic organizing tool.
With 700 million monthly users as of this year—more than 90 percent under age 35—Instagram averages four times more engagement than even Facebook, most notably for brands and celebrities. Twitter, the only other hashtag-based platform, has been growing much slower than its competitors.Millennials and Generation Z use it the most, so demographics that represent the future are already using Instagram and are both politically and socially charged.
What makes Instagram different from other platforms is its focus on image-sharing first and foremost, with video content becoming increasingly common. While visuals can certainly be vacuous and cliche, such criticisms underestimate what imagery can achieve.There’s a reason why Instagram resonates so strongly: imagery is powerful.
Pictures are about showing rather than telling, and are far more emotionally charged than a gigantic block of text. Take the Instagram account Goats of Anarchy. The animal sanctuary and corresponding nonprofit is run by Leanne Lauricella, who rescues and rehabilitates handicapped or abused goats, among other animals. Followers love daily pictures and videos of beloved critters who often sport wheels to aid their mobility.
Instagram has the ability to capture and share raw and real photos and videos, evoking emotion without dilution. Whether you are showing polar bears jeopardized by a fragile ecosystem, like NatGeo’s Paul Nicklen, or children receiving education the world over, like educator Rebecca Ume Crook, pictures really are worth a thousand words, and videos even more.
Sure enough, larger nonprofit organizations and charities are catching onto this trend. In 2011, Jamie Henn, communications director for the environmental activist group 350.org, explained this shift in an interview with the Chronicle of Philanthropy. “By using images and video,” he said, “we have been able to convey stories with emotional impact in a very different way.”
Users fire up the app for customized experiences where they can follow real people. Instagram practically created the concept of “influencers” and reinforces the power of the individual to enact direct change. Some of the most impactful accounts on Instagram belong to individuals, not brands. Such users build audiences and connections, making social responsibility aspirational.
Celebrities wield huge power on this platform and often use it to advocate for charities they care about. Emma Watson is a great example of this theory in action. An ambassador for the feminist HeforShe Initiative, Watson has used her personal Instagram to advocate for everything from gender equality to sustainable design.
The platform has elevated various movements, feminism and its many facets chief among them. From body positivity advocates like Iskra Lawrence, who creates snarky visuals to clap back at body shaming, to Alexandra Elle, whose poetry and portraits affirm black, female identity, women especially are using Instagram to share their causes with the masses. The popularity of hashtags like #effyourbeautystandards (promoting body positivity) and #arthoe (feminist art created by and for people of color) demonstrates how advocacy initiatives continue to gain power organically.
As social media evolves, so too does the way features can work for its socially conscious users. Activists can now, in theory, stream their protests live. Users can save photos promoting fundraising events so they can check in on the details later. People all over the world can connect and share their passions and stories with less lag time than ever, promoting global worldviews that could prompt large-scale awareness and change.
Everyday users can follow and participate in existing movements or promote nonprofits they are passionate about using photos, videos, and hashtags—or even better, start an account dedicated to a cause of your own design.
So long as Instagram keeps appealing to and serving activists, we can expect its use for advocacy to grow too. Running your cause through a filter may seem trite, but all signs point to power in tech, numbers, and visuals. So go ahead and Rise-filter up—the world is following your movements.