To post or not to post: Nobody knows how to act online when the world is crumbling
The pressures of digital identity make us too scared not to try.
My maternal grandmother passed away on Saturday. Since then, as I’ve been quieter than usual on social media, I’ve been thinking about how it feels to share less online — to not participate in the discourse, to not repost memes on my Story, to take pictures and keep them to myself.
It’s been particularly strange to feel “offline” while my social media feeds fill up with more and more content about the crisis in Ukraine, and not to say much on social during one of the most major global news events of the last decade.
Last Friday, Julianne Hough, a very famous person who unsurprisingly has a history of being bad at Instagram, told her Instagram followers that she felt weird being away, too.
“True story: I woke up feeling the need to post something to Instagram today because I haven’t posted in a while - the actual unnecessary anxiety that social media has dropped on humans,” she wrote.
As Paige Skinner, BuzzFeed reporter and the world’s foremost Julianne Hough watchdog, noted on her Instagram story, “Jules there is a war going on rn.” One day earlier, Russian forces had begun their invasion of Ukraine.
Ironically, though, Hough’s caption did reflect (albeit unknowingly) the social media landscape of the week.
In times of local, national, or global strife, we rush to engage: to show that we’re informed, aware, concerned, and altogether good. We seek to raise awareness, raise money (even via web3), and raise spirits.
In that mission to say something, people make terrible posting choices. Following missteps like the Gal Gadot “Imagine” video and Lili Reinhart’s Instagram thirst trap including a “justice for Breonna Taylor” call to action, the Ukraine crisis’ entries to the Canon of Bad Viral Posts have been rushing in. (You have already seen the viral video of an actor named AnnaLynne McCord telling Putin that she wished she had been his mother.)
Cameron Rogers (aka @FreckledFoodie), an influencer whose life I have followed so closely that I cried when she had her baby, has publicly addressed the to post or not to post question with her ~69,000 followers.
“I am struggling with how to show up on here with everything that is happening in the world,” she said on her Story last Thursday. “Similar to how many of you in the corporate world still had to go to work today, I have some sponsored content contracted for today.” Honestly, she’s not wrong! I too had to work. The influencer went on to say that while she would post “informative things” about Ukraine, she would also be “sharing content for those of you looking to this platform as something to take some time off of the news.”
This was pretty masterful for a micro-influencer posting amid a global crisis, I think — she does have to post, because that is her job, and she is a lifestyle content creator, not a journalist or activist.
We — the global we, by which I mean any of the billions of social media users — shouldn’t seek out every kind of content from every kind of account. In fact, that tendency contributes to the spread of mis- and disinformation during major news events.
But social media has conditioned us to believe that existing in the world necessitates frequent public communication. Its chokehold on our brains is well-documented, so I won’t bore you with any data here except to say that Ms. Julianne Hough’s anxiety is shared by many of us.
As my friend Kate Lindsay wrote in the always-correct and iconic newsletter, Embedded, this is largely due to the trickling down of pressure on public figures of any kind, from Charli D’Amelio to Paul McCartney, to post during major events.
“We’re speaking to the audience of our individual communities, be that 300 people or 300,000,” Kate wrote. “Whether we’re explicitly told this or pick up on it from observing other online interactions, the general rule among prolific posters seems to be that if we don’t say something, we’re part of the problem—and if we post about anything else, we’re being callous.”
We’ve seen this anxiety play out countless times. During the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement in the spring and summer of 2020, non-Black people were handed an easy posting opportunity to publicly display allyship and show a commitment to anti-racism. The rise of the “black square” became an instantly iconic symbol of performative activism. While people sought to proclaim their values, they actually said nothing meaningful at all.
“Posting a black square on Tuesday doesn’t inherently make you a bad ally — but it doesn’t inherently make you a good one, either,” as Natasha Noman wrote for NBC News in 2020.
Worse yet, mental health professionals said at the time that the contemporaneous trend of users sharing the gruesome footage of George Floyd’s murder could contribute to the high rates of PTSD among Black Americans.
I’m not shaming anyone for performative posting, or for what many on the American right might dismiss as “virtue signaling,” a term which itself has become a smear used to accuse people of lying about their values in hot pursuit of a certain public persona.
And data actually supports the idea that any display of activism and allyship online, performative or not, is not for naught. The Pew Research Center found in a survey that summer that 23% — nearly a quarter — of US adult social media users cited posts they saw on social media as the reason they changed their views on a political or social issue.
But if everyone you know is posting about a cause you support — especially when it’s something as important as systemic racism and police brutality — it’s hard to stomach saying silent and risk leaving your digital presence without proof of what matters to you.
Undoubtedly, I noticed who among the accounts I follow and the humans I know in real life didn’t say anything online after George Floyd was killed, or after Trump continued to lie about the election results, or after a mob of hundreds stormed the US Capitol in an insurrection.
Our social media accounts are a digital footprint that can carry higher stakes than anything in our real world.
The advent of social media absolutely did introduce a new layer to an ethically dubious dilemma. Do you go to a protest because you care, or do you go so you can say that you went?
In the end, even if crisis-posting is useless at best, performative at neutral, and harmful at its worse, most of us can’t help but succumb to the need to announce that we’re not only at the party, but part of the correct conversation — and more importantly, that we’re on the right side of history.
Oftentimes, we’re posting so people see that we posted.
Let’s at least be honest about it.
Thank you for reading. I’ll talk to you next week.