Breonna Taylor and the Slacktivism of Social Media Influencers

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I’ve been clean for 8 years after almost a decade of battling my drug addiction. Those of us in long-term recovery know that it’s easier to get sober than it is to stay sober. When my life was an absolute mess, it was easy to realize I needed to change, but many people come to find that the challenge is keeping that energy when life gets back to normal. After working at a drug and alcohol rehab for years, I saw this pattern with many of my clients, and I had to teach them that this is something we need to do daily if we want our lives to get better.

What many people don’t realize is that this is the same thing we’re seeing with influencers and the Black Lives Matter movement. While many of them were extremely vocal when #BLM was trending and they thought they were making a difference with a black square on their Instagram feed, their energy is gone when we need it the most.

During the George Floyd protests at the beginning of the summer, I saw a lot of people saying, “Don’t forget about BLM when it’s no longer trending.” Although a major part of me knew that they were right to say this, I wanted to be optimistic when it came to my fellow influencers on YouTube and other social media platforms. At the time of the protests, I saw many of them tweeting about it and posting pictures of them at protests. Some of them even made videos discussing their own privilege and how they were going to do better by the black community.

As a half-black man who hoped for the best, I’m extremely disappointed today by the silence of so many influencers.

Why today? Well, at the time of writing this, it’s September 23rd, 2020, and we just received the update about Breonna Taylor. Before the death of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, a young black women who had her whole future ahead of her was gunned down by the police in her own home. For months, we’ve been waiting for justice, and today it was announced that the punishment is going to be minimal.

A young woman is dead, and one of the three cops was indicted. He wasn’t indicted for the murder of Breonna Taylor but for the fact that some of the many bullets he fired went into a neighboring apartment.

Unfortunately, many influencers are now silent and haven’t mentioned BLM since it was trending on social media. I feel it’s important to call this out due to the fact that influencers are in an extremely privileged position and many are benefiting from the prestige of appearing like they care when their actions say otherwise.

In an effort to let some of these influencers save face, I won’t be naming names, but if you look through your memory, you’ll know who falls into this category. Also, I want to make it clear that I’m not the ideal either, but it’s our responsibility to be self-aware so we can improve. Right now, it’s very clear that many influencers talked the talk, but they aren’t walking it.

As mentioned in another recent video, slacktivism is a major issue. Slacktivism is the practice of supporting a political or social cause by means such as social media or online petitions, characterized as involving very little effort or commitment.

In his hilarious book Stuff White People Like, Christian Lander makes fun of slacktivism by saying, “An interesting fact about white people is that they firmly believe that all of the world’s problems can be solved through “awareness.” Meaning the process of making other people aware of problems, and then magically someone else like the government will fix it.”

But on a more serious note, this is something all of us should take seriously. Influencers are profiting off of selling the idea that they care about social issues while putting in little to no effort when it comes to making change happen. When you look at their actions under a microscope, you can see that they only discuss social issues when it benefits them. It’s a clout-inducing slight of hand making their audience think they care about something and doing nothing about it.

Case in point: There was more outrage over the Netflix movie Cuties than there is about the lack of justice for Breonna Taylor on YouTube.

Why? Because talking about Cuties gets influencers thousands of views, and Breonna Taylor doesn’t. Child exploitation is a major issue, but if it didn’t get views, I doubt you’d see so many influencers talking about it.

You don’t need to be an economist to know that humans are driven by incentives, and influencers have much greater incentives to discuss what will get them the most clicks, views and likes. Now that BLM isn’t trending, they’re no longer incentivized.

Let’s Talk About Privilege

This isn’t just about Breonna Taylor either, it’s about the entire BLM movement and seeing influencers not live up to the show they put on during the George Floyd protests. When the protests were going on, influencers loved hopping on their platforms to discuss their privilege to raise awareness about what’s been happening to black people for years.

Although these YouTubers admitted to some of their privilege, they seem to not fully grasp the privilege they have. Privilege is being able to release one video a week and make more money than half of the people in the United States. Aside from privilege, many of these influencers making more than you and your parents would not be successful had they not been born when they were.

I’ve recently been binge-reading books on the problems with the idea of meritocracy, and it’s extremely eye opening. Many of us refuse to admit how lucky we are, and influencers are often the prime example of the myth of meritocracy that we have in the United States. If you’re interested in this subject, I highly recommend the new book The Tyranny of Merit by moral and political philosopher Michael Sandel, as well as Success and Luck by Robert H. Frank, and Fair Shot by Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes.

One privileged YouTuber sticks out in my mind the most. While none of us can ever prove how much someone cares about an issue, based on the lack of action, I’m confident in my argument.

This YouTuber, who I’m leaving nameless, has been very vocal about not only equality, but social justice in general. They have been a huge Bernie Sanders supporter and are very vocal about it. After a brief look at this YouTuber’s social media, you can see they grew up in an upper or upper-middle class family, and to this day, they travel the world on expensive vacations.

When the George Floyd protests happened, this YouTuber didn’t upload for a couple weeks. While they said they didn’t upload due to wanting to let black voices speak on these issues, it’s hard to believe this is true since prior to the protest, their uploads were inconsistent. In fact, after they returned, they have still had extremely inconsistent uploads.

Although this YouTuber has cultivated an audience who believes they care about black lives and making change, the fact is, we haven’t seen it. In their return video, they discussed how they really wanted to promote more black creators and talk more about the issues that African Americans face. The creator apologized in advance because they had to do some sponsored content, but they promised to get back to these serious issues afterward.

Since then, they haven’t.

Not only have they not discussed these matters further, but they said they planned on promoting more black creators. In a collaboration video featuring about six people, they featured one person of color. Recently, they did a solitary collaboration with a black creator, and this was only after the creator passed 1 million subscribers.

Like I said, this isn’t the only creator who is guilty of this. Plenty of influencers are. They’re profiting and living an extremely privileged life off of the illusion that they care about social issues. As consumers, if we like their content and support it, that’s one thing, but as a community, we should not give these influencers extra points for their slacktivism.

Not only are they silent about Breonna Taylor, but millions of people are unemployed during the pandemic, don’t have health insurance, and are facing eviction. Meanwhile, influencers are profiting as they send fake social signals. I’m not encouraging anyone to stop supporting an influencer, but I believe we should all be skeptical when we see influencers social signaling to be seen as an activist when it’s convenient.

To help support black-led organizations, check out the #DefeatByTweet initiative.

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