Have you noticed how in the last few years, aesthetically pleasing, social justice infographics have been taking over our Instagram feeds? Whether a terrible tragedy occurred, a big conversation is taking place, or if it is simply a month dedicated to raising awareness for something—infographics are everywhere. Raising awareness for various issues and current affairs is crucial, but should we really trust infographics shared via social media when supporting the causes we believe in and care about? Did you ever wonder who fact-checked the post you just shared after seeing it on your friends’ Stories three times in a row?
Instagram, and the way in which we post on it has changed a lot since its launch in 2010. I myself recently realised that I have a really complicated relationship with the app. And I’m sure a lot of other young people can relate to this too. For many years, I believed that our profiles go hand in hand with our personal identities—that the way in which I present myself on social media is how I really am. I used to obsess about what I post, what I say (and how I say it), and how this would be perceived.
We may not want to admit this, but since social media became such an active part of our lives, a lot of us have been on this pursuit to curate a ‘cool’, refined identity. But the construction of this identity now goes beyond how we look or what we wear—it’s also about how vocal, and how informed we are (or at least appear to be). And with that, many young people are facing the pressures of appearing more socially aware and political on their social media. So, why is that a problem exactly?
An infographic is a bite-sized visual collection of imagery, charts, and minimal text providing the viewer with an overview of a topic. ‘Infographic activism’ (also known as ‘PowerPoint activism’) is a form of social media activism where people use bold typefaces and graphics to convey their message, often giving a simple breakdown to a complex issue. Just like the rest of Instagram, these are typically aesthetically pleasing to the eye and carefully curated.
Now, don’t get me wrong—being engaged in politics and striving to learn about the world around us is crucial, and we should all aspire to this. Not being affected by certain social issues is a huge privilege in itself, and we owe it to ourselves and others to check our biases, get educated, and do better. But when someone engages with something complex or sensitive, and ends up resharing it purely out of peer pressure without giving it much thought or research—that can create some serious problems.
Not only can this feel performative and ingenuine, but the constant resharing can also lead to a mass spread of misinformation. Of course, I am not saying that every single infographic out there is necessarily factually inaccurate. Nor is everyone choosing to share one doing this out of peer pressure—that would be a wrong assumption to make. But we should not normalise how much trust we are putting into these. And yet we are. There is a reason that infographics are everywhere.
Screen Shot spoke to Jevin D. West, Associate Professor at the Information School of the University of Washington, and co-founder of Calling Bullshit, a course about data reasoning in the digital world. West explained that infographics “convey very strongly because of our strong connection to imagery. They are so effective, both in pushing good information, but also bad information,” clarifying that the spread of misinformation through infographics was especially prominent throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
West is right to point out that the effectiveness of infographics is not always straightforward. A lot of these are a great starting point in sparking interest in learning about the issue. In some ways, they are perhaps even effective in raising awareness for issues that otherwise may have not received as much attention. But the thing is, we should treat infographics as that: a starting point to our own research in a far bigger conversation.
We live in a digital age of information overload. Today, news travels faster than ever before, and we certainly have social media to thank for this. Ask yourself this: within the last five years or so, how many times did you first hear about a piece of news or information on a platform like Instagram or Twitter, before hearing of it from a verified newsroom?
When asked about what could have possibly made news infographics so popular, West explained, “It doesn’t take time to process either […] because we’re moving this quickly through information. It’s easy to assimilate. I can then move on to the next thing quickly.”
Because of this constant exposure, we are used to consuming information at rapid speed. This means that at times, we may feel a few seconds is all that it should take to get acquainted with a piece of information, which is perhaps why we trust these infographics in the first place. But the important thing to remember here is that learning can take time, and when you are presented with a complicated piece of information, you simply cannot expect to learn about all its entanglements overnight, let alone through one scroll of Instagram.
“There’s a lot of this tribal signalling that goes on more so online than ever before. And I think that becomes problematic,” continued West, explaining the common idea and observation that at times, we may be posting online in order to fit in, or show our position in a polarising topic. “There’s this need when we sometimes spread information that it’s not even that accurate, that it just conveys that I’m a part of it, this team, or this group or this political party,” coming at the ‘expense of the content itself’.
It’s also interesting to see how the traditional social media influencer is merging with the social media activist—it’s almost like we demand virtue signalling from our favourites. And if they happen to fail to live up to our expectations, cancel culture awaits. The thing is, not only is peer pressuring others to speak up without giving them the time to research the topic, or the freedom to form their own opinions, a toxic thing to do, it is also incredibly unfair on everyone to put this burden onto someone who may not necessarily be qualified to do so. And yet, I have been seeing a lot of infographics shared (and sometimes even made) by said influencers.
“A lot of [internet personas] don’t have teams that are fact-checking for them, like the newsroom will usually have the fact-checkers that come in after the journalists,” explained West. “Influencers don’t have the same process and it’s in their best interest to be moving onto the next topic because they have to stay ahead of everything,” he continued. Moreover, “sometimes you’ll have influencers that purposely use their influence and gain influence just so then they can spread propaganda”—which, allegedly, happens a lot more than you’d expect.
It doesn’t matter which side of the political spectrum you are on—combining real-life politics with social media can be an extremely dangerous game if not approached with caution. Speaking to Giovanni Luca Ciampaglia, Assistant Professor at the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of South Florida, he explained that “this type of exposure is extremely concentrated.”
“We’ve seen already in the US, information can lead people to take action in ways that are extremely disruptive and dramatic,” he continued, citing the 2021 storming of the US Capitol as an example of this. We have seen how different platforms have the power to influence elections, or how the youth is using social media to try and inspire others to engage with politics. And we need to be more cautious of how we use social media in this space.
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It might sound obvious to some, but check the sources! If an infographic has numbers, graphs, or quotes, where is this research taken from? Is it backed by an official government website, a report, or a legitimate study? Check what different media outlets and newsrooms are reporting on the same topic, and what research they are using. Check what professionals in this field are saying. Check the credibility of the author posting the original infographic—what is their intention here, and have they got anything to gain? “Think more, share less,” suggests West.
Checking your biases (along with your privilege) is also an important step forward (and often a difficult one to take). “There’s this common advice these days, that one should kind of diversify their news consumption diet,” said Ciampaglia. And it is true. How can we be so sure about something without seeing how it might affect others, nor trying to understand their perspective?
Raising awareness about issues you are passionate about is an incredible thing to do. Using your time and energy to try to create accessible educational resources for others is great. But remember—the internet is a huge, scary, and fast-paced place. So before you post or share something, make sure to do your research, verify, and triple check. It is the least we can do.
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In a time when speaking out is praised and being a vocal millennial is cool, after you’ve dragged someone online (if that’s your style), what might seem like a natural next step is to click the unfriend button on that person and remove them from your carefully curated echo chamber. But it’s not that simple.
The definition of cancelling culture is the act of cutting a person, brand or company out of your life—it may be after they have exhibited behaviour that doesn’t sit right with your internal moral compass. It may be over one incident or a gradual fall of many. ‘Cancelling’ is at times petty or necessary. And most importantly, its actions are usually taken online.
When asking Ayishat A. Akanbi, a writer, fashion stylist and a vocal individual on internet behaviour on Twitter, what has caused this trend of “cancelling people”, Akanbi responded with two words: moral superiority. “It’s the idea that we can publicly distance unprogressive behaviour. And those who don’t say anything at all are not invested as others are.” She added.
As we continued our heated conversation about cancelling habits, Akanbi insightfully mentioned how we live in a culture where it is difficult to separate ourselves from the celebrities we follow—Instagram Stories and Twitter falsify a feeling of impalpable closeness that leads to many people trying to align their personal politics with those of their favourite public figures. The example of Kanye West’s wild claims on slavery during a TMZ video was thrown into the mixout, which in this context felt pretty apt to what cancelling culture has come to.
“We cancel people who never claim to be anything. Kanye has never claimed to be progressive, his esteem comes from being different,” said Akanbi. A few weeks following the apparent cancellation of Kanye West, his new album has been selling millions of copies; fitting precisely into the empty promises of reactionary online cancelling culture. More often than not, online cancelling struggles to translate into real life actions.
Another example of the seemingly fragmented ethics behind cancelling culture is the way millennials shop. In a recent op-ed, Business Of Fashion writer Luna Atamian Hahn-Petersen spoke of how 60 percent of millennials are interested in buying certifiable sustainable clothing and 69 percent even check for “eco-friendly” claims when buying their latest look. Yet despite the rife culture of dragging unsustainable brands online, only 34 percent of millennials say they are “driven” to only buy from sustainable resources.
There are many clothing brands whose internal policies do not value or respect human life, and who have not been clear about their steps towards sustainability through the 2018 Fashion Transparency Index. These same companies are potentially allowing tragedies such as the Rana Plaza disaster to happen once again, where nearly 1,200 people died in Bangladesh’s capital due to terrible working conditions for the sake of cheap T-shirts. The people behind such companies and the brands themselves, in my opinion, should be cancelled—crucially, online as much as offline.
In what should become a blueprint case for controlling toxic online behaviour, President Donald Trump was recently overruled as he unblocked several Twitter followers after seven plaintiffs sued Trump for prohibiting them from seeing his Twitter account. Trump’s online cancelling habits were deemed unconstitutional as they breached the First Amendment of freedom of speech.
By this nature, is anyone worthy of being ‘cancelled’ if its ultimate results are to produce an even narrower lens of individuals’ online realities in the best of cases, and breach the foundation of free speech at worst?
“We should cancel government officials and parties who influence power, not just musicians and influencers. But they shouldn’t just be cancelled” Akanbi added when I raised the above point. If cancellation is done consciously, we need a plan of action to run through our intentions and disappointment with our brands and politicians. When done in isolation from real action, the habit of online cancelling further perpetuates a dangerous illusion of a false ‘safe space’. The examples of the relatively recent Pepsi advert and H&M online shop are rife. In one case the Black Lives Matter movement was tastelessly exploited, while in the other H&M children’s clothes campaign depicted a dark skinned child wearing a T-shirt with the slogan “coolest monkey in the jungle”. It was the power of online fury that ensured both of these were almost immediately removed alongside public corporate apologies.
When I ran two polls on Instagram on how many people believe in the idea of ‘cancelling’ and another on if we should publish who and what we’re cancelling across our social media, 37 people voted yes to the idea of cancelling people as opposed to 17 who disagreed. However only 11 people said they would be vocal about it in contrast to 39 who would presumably ‘cancel’ but would keep quiet about it.
Maybe the act of ‘cancelling’ ideas is the fire we need in our bellies to create change—it can be the spark that makes someone want to get up and stand up for their beliefs—but it’s our ability to take our words and transform them into actions that creates real change.