Did I do it? Did I get you to vote yet?
By itself, the word doesn’t hold a lot of conviction. It’s something we know we should do, but once we start investigating the voting process, it’s a lot more complicated.
As a first-time voter, college student and pandemic endure-er, the indecision of voting in 2020 was eased by great resources accessed with the click of a button. Most of this information was beneficial and genuine.
However, an unsettling trend has also risen this year on the backs of social media advocates — the presence of performative activism in voting encouragement. Instead of helpful information, forums have been infiltrated by posts seeking individual attention instead of community benefit.
Voting advocacy has been infected.
Performative activism, which has also haunted other popular movements like Black Lives Matter, happens when people promote certain causes not for the betterment of society, but for their own personal social gain. We must come to the realization that in our reality of retweets and selfies, we have to be genuine about the causes we believe in. We have to recognize the laziness and insincerity of the branded world around it.
This year’s voting movement is widespread — and that’s a good thing. Especially in the online sphere, there is a constant dialogue of voting advocacy and access. Emails from voting advocacy groups like Turbo Vote or vote.org fill our inboxes with constant, urging reminders. Online campaigns, such Lincoln’s own NE Young Voters, prep first-time voters for a new process.
Still, despite the vastness of the web, social media reigns supreme as the main conduit for information. With well over 8 million posts on Instagram, #vote has taken over large parts of the social media service. On Twitter, everyone from politicians to celebrities to your run-of-the-mill Russian bot has posted their two cents on the importance of voting.
In theory, this enthusiasm is great. However, much of this so-called “advocacy” on social media often trivializes and sensationalizes the voting process, dipping into the scummy waters of performative activism.
Let’s look at celebrities. Celebrities have become increasingly ingrained in our election cycles with the rise of social media, where their influence reaches a large audience. Many celebrities have been vocal about voting advocacies. Some post helpful registration links or promote certain candidates.
Yet, another harmful trend has also emerged — seemingly random pictures with captions related to voting. Michael B. Jordan posted a shirtless picture with the caption “Vote Early.” After leaking a nude picture, Chris Evans told his Twitter follows, “Now that I have your attention … VOTE.” Jenna Dewan gave Instagram the ol’ bait and switch by discussing her postpartum diet before evolving into a speech encouraging people to vote.
Of course, these celebrities are free to post whatever pictures and pick whatever captions they prefer. But they set a dangerous rhetoric. Look at the #vote hashtag and you’ll find a mixed bag of infographics, campaign promotions and random selfies, devoid of any political information or content.
Voting is a crucial and complicated part of American democracy. Michael B. Jordan’s pecs are not going to change that.
The American people are well aware of the fact they should “go vote.” Since childhood, we are taught that elections matter and that voting is our civic duty. We understand that voting is good and not voting is bad.
The truth is, it's easy to go about our everyday online lives and throw a political footnote at the bottom. “Go vote” posts don’t make voting desirable — personal sources like friends and family do that. Instead of posting to make voting more popular, the concept of voting makes these posts more popular. With the election an unavoidable piece of current culture, these posts snap at the “trendiness” of civic engagement.
The idea of mere popularity isn’t the only motivator here. Instead, performative activism exists to build social capital and a personal brand. Politics is undeniably an online giant, permeating the web in every way through every political angle. Politics is popular.
Billionaire Kylie Jenner has enough dough to make Marie Antoinette choke, and she suddenly gains appeal when she tells you to register to vote, the same democratic process we all have a chance to do. She gains humanity — and money, but we forget about the second part. We also forget that the average teen does not care enough about Jenner to embrace civic engagement just because she says so.
These celebrities might truly care about civic engagement. But they — as well as everyday “advocates” — need to do more. We must stop using political engagement to build our online personality and instead use it to enact change.
So how do we stop ourselves from falling into the trap of performative activism? First, it’s important to take a step back and remember the difference between the online world and the real one. Our online personas hold a lot of weight, but they shouldn’t be everything to us.
We may feel obligated to post on social media to demonstrate our political views, but we shouldn’t. Social media is clouded with an excess of information, and if we flood important hashtags or forums with meaningless content, like the infamous Blackout Tuesday that took over Black Lives Matter hashtags, our contributions only hinder the cause.
If you don’t have anything useful to say about voting advocacy, you don’t have to say anything. You shouldn’t have to prove your values on social media.
Second, if voting advocacy is an important enough issue to pursue personally, then we have to make our actions matter. To produce something meaningful, it’s important to tackle the problems associated with voting. As mentioned above, the desire to cast a vote is not the issue. The knowledge behind the vote is.
In the midst of shirtless pictures and bikini posts, followers are not being informed on the issues, opening the door to tremendous voter ignorance. In the age of information, we each deserve the right to vote based not on name or party, but on our own values.
To keep performative activism at bay, we must use our social capital to objectively inform. We must couple the fiery enthusiasm to vote with the logic of an educated American. By promoting voting guides, we can ensure the presence of an informed public in our election results.
As an American citizen and a voter, what is your next step?
Is it to cast an informed vote by looking up issues on Ballotpedia? Is it to drop off your vote at the nearest drop box? Do you plan to vote in person at your nearest polling place? Would you like to ensure the right to vote for others? Do you want to help others cast their vote?
Did it work this time?
Emma Krab is a sophomore journalism and English major. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org