The rise of social media has brought to the forefront interesting forms of human behavior, including many of the unflattering kind. One of them is ‘performative activism.’
Performative activism or ‘hashtag activism’ in social media arises when symbolic gestures in the virtual world are prioritized over concrete action in the real world. The term took off after the 2020 George Floyd tragedy when many publicly expressed their unconditional support to the black community through Black Lives Matter.
There is a much-nuanced reality behind the positive societal façade projected by such activism. In many cases, the support consciously or unconsciously stems from social pressure rather than individual conviction. Indeed, failing to express a particular view alongside social media trends may expose individuals to shaming, social alienation, or even cancellation. In other cases, cynics may seize media trends to promote their social image as a virtue-signaling act.
In ‘The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life’ (1959), Erving Goffman, an American sociologist, borrows from dramaturgy to present social forums as stages necessitating a performance: ‘The individual who presents himself before others […] may wish to ensure sufficient harmony so that the interaction can be sustained, or to defraud, get rid of, confuse, mislead, antagonize, or insult them. […] Sometimes he will consciously express himself in a particular way, but chiefly because […] his social status requires [it].’
On the surface, the outpouring of support for a cause – whatever its nature – helps spread awareness and may be seen as a show of solidarity. However, even if with good intentions, performative activism is considered to do more harm than good.
Turning social issues into online trends may lead to trivializing and desensitizing issues. In this respect, performative activism, at best, amplifies silence. At worse, it impedes action due to decreased empathy. Furthermore, any dissonance between an individual’s performance on stage and their known or suspected behavior ‘backstage’ can be seen as an insulting masquerade.
Corporations are far from immune to performative activism. Promoting strategic (e.g., geographic expansion, sustainability) or operational initiatives (e.g., IT and HR investments) with passion on stage without allocating sufficient resources to implement them backstage represents a form of performative activism. Next to ‘greenwashing,’ there is ‘growthwashing,’ ‘techwashing,’ or ‘carewashing.’
In a different register, ‘show and tell’ performances at executive committees may obscure a lack of drive or relevant competencies known to peers. Finally, employees vocally supporting corporate initiatives may, in reality, drag their feet regarding implementation.
Performative activism is maddeningly insidious because it is challenging to call nonsense on someone who says the most appropriate things on stage. It is thus hard to defeat, whether on social media or in real life.
I believe the solution lies in the strict, unwavering implementation of evidence-based management – with the support of Beth Duttons.
Authenticity and facts shall hunt performative activists down.