Being woke on social media

#Woke: The Dangers and Possibilities of Social Media Activism and Woke Washing

A Brief History of Woke Culture

“Staying woke,” a phrase unheard of before 2014, began to gain traction after the killing of Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Mississippi. It was used as a word of caution. It meant, “Stay sharp and be careful,” and “Watch out for injustices.”

Throughout the years, being “woke” has transcended the vocabulary of activism to occupy a firm position in colloquial language and popular culture. Being woke was to advocate for social justice, to be socially conscious — or at least to appear that way. However, the definition of wokeness is far from clear.

Recently, the political right has leveraged “wokeness” as an insult against politicians on the left, warning against the nation becoming too woke — a “woke supremacy.” On the other hand, the first season of Hulu’s titular TV show Woke received criticism on Rotten Tomatoes for being “messy” and lacking in acknowledgments of the class and male privilege held by the main character — that is, not woke enough.

Simultaneously a slur and a promise, the label of “wokeness” is especially applied nowadays to social media influencers and activists, many of whom are embracing the “clicktivist” lifestyle. One can hardly scroll past Instagram or Twitter without carefully curated activist graphics hashtagged #BLM or #ACAB.

Young people and even corporations are more vocal than ever on social media about politics and the BLM movement, but are their empowering captions real promises for change, or just empty air?


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The Pitfalls of Woke Culture

Over the years, “woke” activists have received their fair share of criticism for being cheapened by performativity. “Do you use the word ‘intersectionality’ a lot, even if you aren’t exactly sure what it means?” Boston Globe Alex Beams wrote in 2017. “If yes, you are progressing well along your journey to wokefulness.”

This sense of performativity is heightened by news outlets and social media platforms (like Twitter) who sought to condemn public figures and influencers for purported un-wokeness. “Canceling,” the sudden social ostracism and shaming of previously influential figures, went hand in hand with wokeness.

In 2020, former “Dance Moms” coach Abby Lee Miller and YouTuber Jenna Marbles were among the casualties of “cancel culture” for their racist behavior. Miller was accused of directing racist comments at dancer Kamyrn Smith, whose mother posted on Instagram: “A statement from her that sticks in my mind to this day during my time at DMS8 is ‘I know you grew up in the HOOD with only a box of crayons, but I grew up in the Country Club with a box of 64—don’t be stupid.’” Since then, Miller has posted an apology on her Instagram promising to “educate [her]self, learn, grow, and do better.” Marbles, who once wore blackface for a Nicki Minaj costume and mocked Asian people with racist stereotypes, is quitting YouTube altogether.

Some social media users view the dizzying cycles of cancel culture (and its twin call-out culture) as vicious and toxic. But worst of all for some is that woke culture and social media activism as a whole instills an illusory sense of progress without much actual accomplishment.

Protesting and social media

Online, it’s hard to tell the difference between people who want change and those who just want to look good. Source: Unsplash / James Eades

“In concept, social media activism looks good. It provides an opportunity to spread awareness for people who cannot necessarily donate their time or money (especially in the midst of a pandemic) but in reality, it’s becoming more of a way to soothe the conscience of people who are unwilling to actually help foster change,” said Callie Connelly, a high school student and BLM supporter. “It makes them feel better, like they’re not complacent to the racism, sexism, homophobia or whatever issue they’re ‘supporting’ but the actual effect is minimal.”

Have you ever stopped to consider the impact of a post or a retweet? In terms of working towards the goals of the BLM — abolition, criminal justice reform, and decriminalization — how much does an Instagram story matter?

The Benefits of Woke Culture

To Nicole Cardoza, the founder of Anti-Racism Daily, a daily newsletter and Instagram account that seeks to dismantle systemic oppression with tangible actions, the answer to that question is: a lot. In her perspective, a culture of wokeness allows more daily interaction with civics and motivates people to become more educated. The sheer accessibility alone gives pretty much anyone the power to amplify their voices for change, as well as crucial access to information on rallies, protests, and events in their area.

Information on BLM protests

Woke activity on social media could lead many to actively push for change. Source: Unsplash / Andrew “Donovan” Valdivia

“I hope that social media activism has helped to dispel the falsehoods about the Black Lives Matter movement that’s perpetuated by our politicians and distributed broadly in the media. I also hope it’s effectively encouraged people to take direct action – signing petitions, making donations, and joining protests are all social-driven forms of engagement that move awareness to action.” she said. “I can’t speak for everyone, but our followers – particularly our newsletter subscribers – are highly active, showing the same engagement on action items as they did when I started the organization in June.” Then, acknowledging performativity as possible, she pointed out that it was nevertheless beneficial for change: “Social media makes performative activism easy, but it’s also highly effective for tangible in-the-moment action.”

The statistics are on her side. According to the Pew Research Center, 34% of Americans have gathered in a social media group that shares an interest in a political issue or cause in 2018. Others have used social media for advocacy or to find information about nearby rallies or protests to attend. This activism, though possibly performative, may be somewhat effective in instilling an environment of broad political consciousness in the short term, drawing social media activists away from their screens towards more concrete actions.

However, other social media activists are still skeptical. “I’m for social media activism and all, but if you’re gonna put it on your story, you also have to put the work in,” said Tram Anh Tran, founder of the Instagram account Viet Activism. “Activism comes in many forms. Spreading information is one but there also needs to be an action component, too — donations or setting up events and discussions. Sometimes social media activism treats these movements like a trend.”

But though there are a lot of trend-chasers performing wokeness without actually believing in it, social media has moved many more people to take tangible action in the BLM Movement. After all, isn’t that what activism is all about?


Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed here by Impakter.com contributors are their own, not those of  Impakter.com. — In the Featured Photo: A man uses his phone to capture a BLM protest. Featured Photo Credit: Unsplash / Étienne Godiard

About the Author /

A journalist, activist, and writer, Rachel Liu is a current student at the University of Chicago majoring in English and Political Science. She is inspired by the remarkable intersections between prose, multimedia, and sustainable social impact. In her free time, you’ll find her volunteering, doing yoga, reading, and listening to podcasts.

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