Virtue Signaling and Social Media’s Role In Modern Social Movements
Something didn’t feel right about how many times I had passed by the white-bordered blue sign, decorated with an American flag clipped into a small cute heart. “HATE HAS NO HOME HERE” it boasted, in simple-neat graphic bold white letters. There’s something about the dozens of similar signs littered in the front yards of the white upper-class suburbs of Chicago that felt so empty. It didn’t reflect the years of homophobia I’d endured in my middle and high school years and even now; neither did it reflect the clean-cut redlining dividing the suburban neighborhoods into jagged polygons.
Then comes 2020, with the now-infamous black squares lined up on my social media feed. You couldn’t click on one social media story that wasn’t drowning in dozens of attractive simple infographics. #BLM and #Trans Rights hashtags began sticking out in the hundreds of white and/or cis-gendered Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok biographies. It generated the exact same feeling I had experienced before: this feels fake.
These actions are part of the larger problem: “virtue signaling.” If you believe yourself to be an ally to any social movement, you’ve probably participated in it.
Signaling, not of virtue, has always been a common way to denote just about everything your character has to offer. Generally, it applies to scenarios in which a person or a group carries information to others using any sort of communication, not just verbal. For example, your attire sends signals to people around you. It represents your association to specific groups: a necklace with a religious symbol ties your character to its faith, that’s your way of signaling to your peers.
Virtue, however, only became loosely attached to the word relatively recently. It implies that your positive behavior signals your virtuosity or high morals. B. D. McClay gives a brief explanation in her essay, “Virtue Signaling”:
“When, around 2015, “virtue” began to be appended to “signaling,” its main function was to make the unspoken aim of the signaling in question explicit. Whereas before you might have been signaling that you were smart, now you were signaling that you were a good person. But whatever you’re doing, it is, and will always be, about what people think about you, either to the exclusion of any other reason or before any other reason.”
It seems that just about all cases of virtue signaling are inherently self-interested. Whether consciously or subconsciously, the goal of virtue signaling is to boost your character and ego in the social space, not to create meaningful discussion around the issue you’ve manipulated.
Virtue signaling, in that sense, is ironic in relation to this and any work that reflects on the idea with a bias. Anyone who dares call out another for virtue signaling would be therefore virtue signaling as you use the situation to boost your appearance in the social space. It’s a whiplash that questions whether the phrase is pejorative or not. This is in large part why McClay claims disrespect towards the idea of policing this behavior and generally virtue signaling altogether, arguing this discourse is regressive and almost silly in nature with a highbrow tone.
On the other hand, Justin Tosi, an assistant philosophy professor at Texas Tech University, and Brandon Warmke, a philosophy professor at Bowling Green State University, take a much more unbiased educational approach. Tosi and Warmke don’t refer to this phenomena as virtue signaling, but as “moral grandstanding”: “a use of moral talk that attempts to get others to make certain desired judgments about oneself, namely, that one is worthy of respect or admiration.”
“…one [morally] grandstands when one makes a contribution to public moral discourse that aims to convince others that one is “morally respectable.” …for example, an impressive commitment to justice, a highly tuned moral sensibility, or unparalleled powers of empathy. To grandstand is to turn one’s contribution to public discourse into a vanity project.”
Tosi and Warmke don’t claim to give a proper complete analysis of moral grandstanding in their 2016 research analysis (for a more complete analysis see their 2020 book Grandstanding: The Use of Abuse and Moral Talk), but they do highlight the basic structure of how moral grandstanding functions. It begins with a “recognition desire,” as they define it, leading into a “grandstanding expression.”
“The basic idea, then, is that a grandstander desires that other people recognize [them] as morally respectable. For ease of expression, call this desire the recognition desire… When people grandstand, they do so by making some kind of contribution to public moral discourse. Call this contribution the grandstanding expression.”
Performers of moral grandstanding or virtue signaling don’t care about the core principles of the discussion, and rarely do they do anything to progress the discussion itself: virtue signallers want you to think that the user is of good character — that is its main function. This is the core issue of virtue signaling, and why it’s such a slap in the face to social movements. The discussion, or in this case, the social movement, is just a tool to progress that goal. In effect, the initial issue has been turned into just a prop.
Nothing about virtue signaling works to maintain a social movement despite the idea that it may generate small conversation. Marcia Mundt, Karen Ross, and Charla Burnett claim this activism works directly against the cause, using interviews from multiple social activist groups, in their case analysis of Black Lives Matter: “Scaling Social Movements Through Social Media: The Case of Black Lives Matter.”
“Social media, on its own, cannot build and/or sustain movements for social change. Real change, they [social media activist group administrators] posited, can only be achieved when social media is coupled with more traditional forms of organizing. One West Coast BLM group administrator stated, “you can start a Facebook [group], but it’s how you get people engaged, how you get people to follow you, how you get people to know what’s up. You got to hit the streets too. And that’s what a lot of people don’t want to do, they don’t want to do that part. And that’s why, like, Facebook only goes so far.”
One of the factors in creating a performative activist is the activist’s disconnect from the problem at hand. Naturally, the ability to not address, combat, or even observe the social issue breeds a general sense of apathy toward the cause as a whole. Activists feel more sympathy or pity, rather than feeling empathy, a mutual understanding of a feeling. This disconnect creates the beginning aforementioned lackluster displays of defiance; primarily, this activism occurs virtually because of its ease of accessibility. The Black Lives Matter movement slogan “white silence is violence” is sort of funny in that sense. A sizeable percentage of the white crowd could actively announce their disdain for racism (like their social media biographies supposedly say) but only a hand-few are likely to pause and self-reflect and/or donate time and resources to actually be “anti-racist.” To Mundt and their research team, this is known as “slacktivism.”
“While social media plays an important role for BLM groups, there are also challenges to its use… while an online presence is beneficial, its accessibility can also present limitations in terms of potentially allowing people to feel they have achieved something simply through their virtual participation—a phenomenon known as “slacktivism.”
Mundt’s, Ross’s, and Burnett’s fourteen-page research article explains the nuances of social media and its role in expanding social movements to greater heights than ever using Black Lives Matter as a reference. I should note that their research, although previously used to support negative claims, is largely suited to amplify the benefits of social media: and rightfully so! It’s negligible to withhold that social media has played a crucial role in the discussion around political-social issues. We shouldn’t dismiss, in any analysis of social media, the benefits it has given us to mobilize people and resources, build coalitions, and amplify stories and experiences.
We might be tempted to justifiably attack those who use virtue signals. After all, the action is cynical or motivated by self-interest. However, like all things, it’s not as black and white as it seems. Amanda Maryanna, a student at New York University and Black creator on Youtube, brings up a few solid key points of personal experience using examples from the Black Lives Matter movement: “the Instagram infographic industrial complex.” She argues it’s not as sinister as we make it out to be:
“If you weren’t posting or reposting infographics that condemned racism, your silence made more of a statement than what you actually said. When people start calling you out for not doing something… the easiest thing to do is to appease.”
It’s not that influencers and users are trying to gain popularity from these performative actions, they’re actually trying to save face and present an anti-racist attitude. Social media has accidentally created a ‘sink-or-swim’ dilemma for influencers, content creators, and generally anybody with a platform. The social pressure by viewers, activists, and allies to act on social movements sparked an extremely odd reaction for social media users, especially people with large followings who wished to maintain their brand as anti-political as possible. The effect was black squares, attractive infographics, fake biographies, and of course “HATE HAS NO HOME HERE.” It’s just a giant echo chamber of information, and the only actions slacktivists take are a like and a share.
Virtue signaling, moral grandstanding, performative activism, and all like labels are treatable; one of the ways that you can go about improving yourself as an ally and activist is to moderate your own allyship. Understand that it’s not just you who gives the title “ally” but also the members of the community you support. Comb through your activist tendencies and really attempt to nit-pick your own activities: Did you present a five-minute educational speech to your class about your social issue, or did you just debate some random person on Omegle for half an hour? Have you been researching and reading about pronoun usage and how you can apply it to public settings to make transgendered and nonbinary people feel more comfortable, or have you been sharing pro-LGBTQ+ posts because they said you’re homophobic if you don’t?
Combating performative allyship is in the name: prevent performativity. That starts with moving mobilization away from the internet and into reality to create tangible change. Here are some ideas to help you get started!
- Participating in mutual aid and volunteer work is a powerful way to bolster a social movement. Not only that, but it’s a fun activity with your friends. This can be achieved through manual volunteer work or through some type of fundraising or charity event.
- Voting with your dollar is also another powerful way to demonstrate activism: your money reflects your beliefs. Research what you put it into, and where it will end up! Giving a meal’s worth of money to a restaurant chain that supports anti-LGBTQ+ organizations is indirectly supporting anti-LGBTQ+ policy. I know Chic-fil-A’s waffle fries are tasty, but you’ve got to stop giving them money.
- If you’re particularly creative, create discourse around your subject through art and writing. Although it may not be the strongest form of activism it still creates the opportunity for dialogue. It’s also capable of being coupled with other forms of activism such as fundraising.
- Nothing is more powerful than making the effort to educate yourself about other’s experiences and issues through literature and dialogue. Pick up a book and listen to an orator on the issue you stand for.
You have a duty to do better for your cause. You have a conscious decision to make to progress the social movements you claim to support and benefit. You’ve got to stop arguing on Twitter and get on with aiding your community because we all know well enough to point out that that’s not real activism:
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