So You Want to Talk About Infographic Activism

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In nine pretty pastel-colored slides, Instagram page @soyouwanttotalkabout claims to be able to dissect Karl Marx’s 12,470 word Communist Manifesto. Seven slides to explain nuclear weapons and six for the refugee crisis in greece — yes, lowercase Greece.

In the recent social-justice fueled zeitgeist, Instagram has been uniting a generation of activists and delivering a kind of “news and activism combined media,” as Ms. Deeth Ellis, Boston Latin School Keefe Librarian, describes it. Though the platform plays a key role in sharing resources and spearheading efforts for social reform, users need to proceed with caution.

Subscribing to only “progressive” or “conservative” Instagram accounts as a news source is an unhealthy habit that threatens to undermine independent thought and further widen our divisions.

Although this article focuses on the page @soyouwanttotalkabout because of its large following, it is not alone in using a few slides to summarize complex social and political issues. These pages follow a consistent agenda, tunneling their followers into a single point of view.

Credits: @soyouwanttotalkabout(top left), @soyouwantthetruthabout(bottom left), @soyouwenttotalkabout,(top right), @soyouwanttolearnabout(bottom right)

Islay Shilland (V), says “becoming more informed about current events” was one of her main motivations for downloading the app. “I think people should use it, not as a place where they get their opinions from but where they get their information from, and then they should form their own opinions,” says Shilland.

Michelle Zhang (III), however, says, “It’s best if you do your own research because a lot of these sources on Instagram that provide information may not always be accurate or may be skewed […] If you’re getting the majority of your information from social media, it might subconsciously shape your political views, without you actually intending your political views to be a certain way.”

One of the most alarming aspects of relying on news and activism combined media is the subconscious bias amplified by Instagram’s algorithm. As a for-profit company, Instagram’s main motive is to keep users hooked by showing their users only what they want to see.

Doggedly following activist Instagram accounts and reposting their content has recently become seen as an effective way to do one’s part in the social justice movement.

As a result, many students’ Instagram feeds are now swamped with an overabundance of partisan messaging with the potential to cause actual harm — harm like hyper-divisions, misinformation, and highly fragmented understandings of society, institutions, and the world.

Accounts like @soyouwanttotalkabout have a stake in mischaracterizing the information they present. They are in the business of securing clicks, likes and reshares, not providing reliable and accurate information.

In the Internet Age, sensational headlines that trigger strong emotional reactions are the way to go for any online source looking for attention — a tactic which is easily seen in these infographic accounts.

One post from @soyouwanttotalkabout, entitled “Preparing for a Coup”, urges followers to “be ready to act quickly” in the event that there is a post-election “federal coup.” That’s simply fear-mongering.

On a more fundamental level, @soyouwanttotalkabout is guilty of some absolutely terrible sourcing. In a post titled “Trump v. Biden: A Cheatsheet,” joebiden.com is a prominent source. Though joebiden.com may be current and relevant, there are major red flags in this source selection, as the site is inclined to cherry-pick information to portray the candidate in the best light possible.

When a user pointed out the post’s lack of objectivity, they were soon grilled in the comments section by a stampede of other followers. “It’s just facts dude,” one commenter said. Yes, skewed facts.

As a page that claims to “want to talk about” relevant issues, @soyouwanttotalkabout simply does not have the ingredients to start informed civil discourse.

The reality is, no one comes onto Instagram to learn about socio-political issues in-depth. They are searching for a simplified version that supports their worldview. Things are much easier when there is only one narrative to consider, and that is a problem.

This overload of biased information causes serious damage, and the most alarming drawback might be the way it widens the already yawning gap between the two sides of American politics to the point of outright demonizing the other side.

Another @soyouwanttottalkabout post addresses talking to “your trump-loving family about the election.” Within the post are clear indications that the account considers Trump supporters to be something like morally inferior: saying that first “you must understand the Trump supporter,” and then going on to say that they “blindly support Trump because that is what they’ve been TOLD to do.”

 

This is not disagreement or anger; this is outright degradation and othering. When that happens, it’s impossible to engage with the other side and come to a productive compromise or agreement, a necessity of any functioning democracy.

While infographic activism may have some merits, like all things, those merits occur in moderation. Users must begin adopting a greater variety of sources, fact-checking habits and a healthy dose of skepticism.

As Ms. Ellis puts it, students should ask themselves, “What is the purpose of the source? Or what is their goal? Are they biased?” Ultimately, “being biased alone isn’t necessarily bad or wrong. But [students] should understand that factual, neutral information is different from biased information.”