Since its 2010 launch, Instagram, the free photo and video sharing application, has morphed from a superficial personal scrapbook to a remarkably forceful vehicle for social change. While Instagram provided a platform for activists in the past, the way it captured the nation’s attention and focus in this particular moment in time has been unprecedented.
Starting in March of this year, social media usage and engagement hit an all-time high. People were spending more time at home and feeling an increased need for online connection. Footage of George Floyd’s death at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer was shared by hundreds of thousands of accounts across all platforms.
The video of Amy Cooper’s 911 call in Central Park has been viewed over 40 million times on Twitter. These instances, on the heels of too many others, combined with a unique digital landscape quickly transformed Instagram from a social networking platform to a platform for social justice. Often referred to as “the downfall of our generation,” social media, and Instagram in particular, have rapidly harnessed its speed and herd-mentality to be a catalyst for change.
The premise of Instagram did not change; it was still the place to scroll, post, and share for hours. However, the content itself changed. Seemingly overnight, trivial photos of sunsets and brunches were replaced with relevant infographics, lists of organizations accepting donations, petitions to sign, resources for protesters; anything and everything to speak out against racism and to further the cause of the Black Lives Matter movement.
This movement started just how Instagram started: with pictures and captions. The platform had always been a hotbed for filtered photos and unfiltered thoughts, but the time for treading lightly and mincing words was over. All users knew they had the undivided attention of their followers and a platform to make their digital message loud and clear. After scrolling for just a short period of time, you could see the people you follow post hundreds of infographics regarding “dismantling systemic racism,” “how to talk about defunding the police with your family”, or “recognizing your white privilege.”
But passive reading was not enough, as the “Instagram generation” always wants more. We want endless content, we want it to be constantly evolving, and we want it now. The bar was raised for what it meant to support this movement, both for individual accounts and for large corporate ones. It was time to challenge surface-level activism if you saw it. When large companies, like Nike and Amazon, posted simple statements saying only, “We stand in solidarity with Black Lives Matter,” their followers pushed back: How will you turn your words into actions?
Harnessing Instagram’s technology to affect change was the next logical step. Users quickly evolved and began circulating one-click petitions, donation links, and auto-generated emails to local officials, demanding justice. Influencer accounts turned to promoting Black-owned small businesses. Any individual could make an impact in whichever way they saw fit. It all added up.
According to Steve Boland, a board member for The Minnesota Freedom Fund, the community based nonprofit raised around $75,000-$80,000 this year before George Floyd’s death. In the past several weeks alone, they have raised about $20 million dollars. On June 2, the organization became one of the many nonprofits that had to do the unthinkable; tell patrons to stop donating and donate elsewhere.
While Instagram played a large role in fundraising and sparking dialogue, more importantly, it became the online guide for participating in real-life action.Thousands of accounts have popped up to spread awareness about protests occurring all over the country. Through Instagram and TikTok (the Gen-Z dominated app composed of short videos), crucial information was disseminated giving emerging activists a virtual protest handbook.
The information was vast and updated daily – where and when to show up, how to recognize undercover police, how to confound facial-recognition software using face paint, and what to do should the protest turn violent. Finally, our most important job in this movement was summed up perfectly by Dr. Kemi Doll, health services researcher and coach for women of color in academic medicine. “Go be uncomfortable and go inconvenience yourself.”
Our generation understands that Instagram is only a piece of staying informed. We need the facts, nuanced reporting, and wealth of expertise that traditional news sources provide us. But the visceral impact of social media cannot be overlooked. Watching video after video of first-hand police brutality against protesters sticks with you in a way that reading an article on the same subject may not.
This moment has taught us that we must unlearn and relearn information at break-neck speed, updating just as our smartphones do. The modern pace of news consumption has been effective: according to a New York Times poll, American voters’ support for the Black Lives Matter movement increased almost as much in the last two weeks as it had in the past two years.
Millennials are categorized by our need for instant gratification. We recognize that we are not yet the politicians, the CEO’s, or the lawmakers, but we are a generation defined by our impatience and we are impatient for change.
Jessica Freedman of Stamford is a Bill Cibes Journalism intern for the Connecticut Mirror.