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What is infographic activism, and why should you be wary of it?

By Bianca Borissova

May 20, 2021

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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?

What’s wrong with infographic activism?

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.

Why has there been a rise in infographic activism on social media platforms?

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.

How can you navigate this constant stream of information and protect yourself and your online community from misinformation?

 

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Une publication partagée par Eve L. Ewing (@eve.ewing)

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.