by Poppy Coburn
Monday, 17
May 2021
Idea
07:00

How infographic activism took over social media

As soon as a political crisis emerges, a flurry of pastel-coloured graphics follows
by Poppy Coburn

If Instagram could speak its algorithms would say: ‘you are important, and you could — yes, you! — solve the crisis in the Middle East’. Of course, it might seem a little dangerous to jump into these debates head-first — you don’t want to accidentally side yourself with the wrong people. Well, not to worry, whispers the algorithm. You have a myriad of ready-made hot takes to select from at your leisure.

If you’ve maintained any kind of social media presence over the last few years, you’ve probably come across an ‘infographic’. These perfectly-sharable little images are jam-packed with dubiously sourced factoids addressing the hot-button issues of the current moment.

Often presented in soothing pastel colours, these infographics are extremely easy to make — and extremely popular. The demand for Instagram infographics is enormous, with major accounts sporting millennial-friendly handles like ‘shityoushouldcareabout’ (2.9m followers) and ‘intersectionalenvironmentalist’ (345,000 followers). Often accompanied with a ‘what you can do to help’ header, these posts implore the viewer to boost the message further by re-sharing.

A popular infogaphic that did the rounds last week.

This is not necessarily a case of ‘slacktivism’. The boundaries between the online world and ‘real life’ are becoming increasingly blurred, and even traditional political parties place an enormous amount of stock in their online image and messaging. For many younger people, online political activism forms an enormous part of their identities. The reliance on templates of conversations — with argument being conducted by quippy cartoon strawmen on pastel backgrounds — mirrors the difficulty people have with maintaining attention to complex issues.

For a generation that is increasingly sheltered from dissenting opinion thanks to echo chambers created by big-tech algorithms, infographics provide ready-made takes, ensuring you are on the ‘right’ side of the discourse without actually having to engage in a discussion.

It’s comforting to have the answers to difficult questions already neatly laid out for you. People — particularly teenagers — will always look towards simpler, more straightforward explanations in order to understand very complex events. This is not a new behaviour. When you cannot trust the mainstream media to reliably inform you of the ‘truth’, social media activism becomes a far greater problem. Rather than first-hand, on-the-ground journalistic coverage setting the agenda for political debate, legacy media institutions now often find themselves playing catch-up with dubious narratives already formed on social media.

The late social critic and historian Christopher Lasch articulated the tensions of this arrangement all the way back in 1996:

“Having been effectively excluded from public debate on the grounds on their incompetence, most Americans no longer have any use for the information inflicted on them in such large amounts.”
- Christopher Lasch, The Revolt of The Elites

The revolutionary impact of social media and the waves upon waves of new content to be viewed by a constantly expanding audience of consumers is perhaps beyond our current comprehension.

The constant calls for more ‘education’, whether achieved via big-tech mandated censorship or legacy media ‘fact-checking’ fundamentally misunderstand the most central issue of online discourse. The solution to the non-stop bombardment of content is unlikely to come in the form of even more information.

Lasch had his own solution to this problem, suggesting that “what democracy requires is public debate, not information”. It stands to reason that current solutions to online misinformation are wrongheaded. Rather than thinking about information as being a necessary precursor to debate, we should instead consider the possibility that it is the by-product of it.

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Rhys D
Rhys D
1 year ago

My advice for anyone, everywhere, is not to join social media, or if you are on it, to quit it and never return.

I was pulled in in 06/07 when Facebook and Twitter were kicking off, and by the mid 2010s I dread to think how many days of my life is wasted on it. Compelled to comment on the feeds of people who couldn’t care less about me, and to whom I couldn’t care less about either.

2 or so years ago I just stopped. Perhaps I’m still hooked as I’m writing a comment on here, but not being apart of it has truly made me feel less stressed, less bogged down by the irrelevant opinions of know nothing anonymous goons who equate a high follower count to a more meaningful debate contribution (and automatically deride those who don’t as if popularity confers validity).

I take solace in the fact that nobody who truly matters pays any attention to Twitter or SM. And those that do, well, more fool them.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
1 year ago
Reply to  Rhys D

I intuited in 06/07 that it would largely be a load of narcissistic nonsense and had nothing to do with it beyond writing Fb conent and Twitter messages etc for my clients when asked to do so. However, in no way did I foresee that social media would become politicised to the point where conservative views and commentators would be censored, shadow banned and cancelled by Big Tech. The whole thing is horrific.

Rhys D
Rhys D
1 year ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

I think it’s worse for children. What truly kicked off my exodus from SM was an article in the Atlantic concerning the correlation between stress and anxiety in kids and the adherence to popularity on Facebook and the like.

I know there have been several studies that have found for and against on this now. However my own personal anecdote was that I would continually stress about what comments I’d made and how they’d gone down. I know I’m still not rid of that anxiety, I mean I checked on here to see. But I’m an adult and I can take it on the chin whether people care or not. But children don’t have that barrier that they would otherwise have developed in ‘face to face’ or real life interactions.

And yes I agree regarding conservative views. Or, let’s be frank, any views (on Twitter at least) that don’t/didn’t wave the Corbyn flag at every opportunity.

Last edited 1 year ago by Rhys D
andy thompson
andy thompson
1 year ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Facebook a filthy cesspool of infections; Twitter WTAF does anyone even go there?

Johnny Sutherland
Johnny Sutherland
1 year ago
Reply to  Rhys D

Hate to tell you but this here place is a form of social media.

Niobe Hunter
Niobe Hunter
1 year ago

He said that himself

andy thompson
andy thompson
1 year ago

Kind of, but not..

Paul Sorrenti
Paul Sorrenti
1 year ago

For anyone who cant be bothered to read all those words above, try the following instead:
Discerning Pastel Lady 1: ‘Infographics’ are dubiously sourced factoids disguised as arguments conducted by quippy cartoon strawmen?
Discerning Pastel lady 2: Yes, and they help to ensure that even the nonattentive wont miss out on the ‘right’ side of fashionable discourse – we call them strawpeople now btw

Saul D
Saul D
1 year ago

I think we’re in a transitional phase. Old school was that the printed word had authority. Experts were always right. The media told the truth for the most part. Governments were working for the people.
Now, with so much more information and sources, we’re slowly learning that those old norms don’t apply and there’s an evolution to become more sophisticated about the information around – skills around sniffing out what might or might not be true, spotting fakery, sarcasm and jokes, and learning how data can be cut and spliced to mislead, working out who is fake.
The world is, or will get more attuned to identifying dubiousness, and recognise the need for cross-checking and verifying, developing a healthy dose of skepticism about what’s real and what’s for entertainment. People stopped chasing witches not by banning the gossip, but by learning to spot and ignore the scaremongers – it just takes a while to figure it out.

J Bryant
J Bryant
1 year ago
Reply to  Saul D

An optimistic view. I hope you’re right.

Tom Lewis
Tom Lewis
1 year ago

Debating should be a mandatory part of the education system. Enrolment at University, or places of higher education, should only be eligible to students who have a firm grounding in this basic skill.

andy thompson
andy thompson
1 year ago
Reply to  Tom Lewis

They’d be almost empty then.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
1 year ago
Reply to  andy thompson

As they should be. University enrollment beyond 20% of the population means such dumbing down that University education is utterly debased.

Second ‘Student Loans’ are the most horrible thing ever done to education, and to the people snared in that debt-for-life trap.

Student Loans meant 1000X inflation in University costs over the last 50 years, and deflated the quality of the education equally. Lose-Lose! – And the full impact of debt to subject ability to pay the debt is made by ignorant teens, and they should NOT be having to make such life long decisions.

EDUCATION from Kindergarten to PhD is F***ED under Liberal management.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
1 year ago
Reply to  Tom Lewis

Debating, even arguing for each side, is a fundamental of Jewish education. To argue both sides on an issue is the best way to learn logic, and also to actually be forced to see the reason, or lack of it, in each position. To have to prove your position makes you understand the issue much better. This is utterly destroyed by only allowing one position. The snag is one must be information and concept laden, and very few are.
The writer said “. Rather than thinking about information as being a necessary precursor to debate, we should instead consider the possibility that it is the by-product of it.” This is meaningless to me, WTF?

Paul N
Paul N
1 year ago

Information might be a ready by product of honest debate, but part of the problem today is that much of the debate consists of carefully constructed misinformation, or at best, highly selective half truths. Infographics are an example, and a symptom – but are not the fundamental issue. And unless you become sufficiently expert, it’s hard to discern the gaps – the facts being studiously avoided. And so it is that real research is difficult.
What generally happens instead is that people “search the net” (mostly within the limits of their social media bubble) and pick the first appealing narrative on the subject. If they are fortunate, it will be an accurate and fair summary. More often they will have been guided to a plausible narrative which omits inconvenient truths. And sometimes they will arrive at an outright insane conspiracy theory.
Whichever narrative they choose to adopt will probably stick. Confirmation bias, and the now further refined social media bubble, will take care of the rest, and ensure they are not troubled by opposing views (many of which will suffer from the same incompleteness and half truths – only in the opposite direction).
When so many issues divide the same way between, say, democrats and republicans – or between labour and conservative – then the information silos are even deeper, and the chances of meaningful debate (of the sort that might generate information as a by product) becomes even less likely.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
1 year ago

“Morality play
The morality play is a genre of medieval and early Tudor theatrical entertainment.” “Morality plays are a type of allegory in which the protagonist is met by personifications of various moral attributes who try to prompt them to choose a good life over one of evil.” (from wiki)
The morality plays of the time were to instill the ignorant people with thoughts which would advantage the rulers and society, BUT, also they were about morality.

The modern ‘Morality Play’ of Social Media, MSM, and Education industry, are the first – BUT NOT THE SECOND.