Social Media Gestures as Political Acts

Authors: Priya Iyer, Lisa Jervis, Prabhavathi Matta

On Monday, March 25, the gay rights organization the Human Rights Campaign launched its campaign  to get people to change their social media profile pictures on to a pink and red version of their equal-sign logo, to show support for marriage equality. Within two days (according to the New Yorker), more than a million people were sporting the logo on their pages. This issue is the latest to be represented on social media by a change in profile picture: other examples include in Twitter users posting green icons to show solidarity with protesters in Iran in 2009 (; late last year people used black dot icons to speak out against sexual violence in India and show support for the victim of a Delhi gang rape that made global news.

Changing your profile picture is for many people an easy way of making a political statement. But what does it mean to change your profile picture—and can it even be said to mean any single thing? Related to this, is it a meaningful political act?

On the first question, the answer seems to be an obvious “no.” Changes to profile pictures are undertaken for a variety of reasons and are understood by viewers in a highly contextual manner, dependent on the person viewing the image, specifically their relationship with and interpersonal knowledge of the poster.  An informal, convenience-sampled poll taken on (where else?) Facebook revealed almost as many interpretations as respondents. Selected responses: “I notice it and think, ‘Huh…good for them.’” “If the person is not already an outspoken individual who talks regularly about whatever political cause they change their profile pic to I assume they are lazy and riding the cause train du jour.” “I assume the pic means they want to throw support. Doesn’t mean they would actually go to bat for the cause or, you know, actually WORK for justice or liberation. Cause that would mean changing your life, not your profile picture.” “even if they aren’t actively involved in the issues, it’s still nice to see allies.” (Page not available for linking because of privacy settings.)

Conversely, some people who are very involved in a cause choose not to change their pictures: “I post about political things all the time and figure if you read my feed you’ll know what I’m passionate about, so I have not changed my profile pic for that reason.” With respect to the HRC logo in particular, many supporters of marriage equality are nonetheless reluctant to support actions visibly tied to HRC, citing their focus on the most privileged sectors of queer communities and ongoing marginalization of transgender people in the struggle for LGBTQ civil rights.

Significant disagreement exists on the second question: Is a social media gesture such as changing your profile picture a meaningful political act?

The case for yes

Changing a profile picture is quicker and easier than writing a petition or holding a physical protest and therefore, provides an opportunity for those who lack time to participate and engage in other ways. It may be small, but it nonetheless is participation in what  David Karpf describes as “the organizational layer of politics” (The MoveOn Effect,  p. 10), which plays an intermediary role between government elites and mass publics in defining civic beliefs and citizenship deals. Even though it is a small action and might be an initial step for someone that may not have been comfortable voicing their support, it lets motivated citizens increase their political voice and show their support to the cause. Like many other forms of online activism, this profile-picture activism also helps to diffuse information easily and brings awareness to a large population in a small period of time. The recent film Kony 2012, made by the nonprofit organization Invisible Children, which garnered tremendous attention from being widely shared on Facebook and Twitter, is an evidence  to this phenomena. A poll by The Guardian suggested that more than half of young adult Americans heard about Kony 2012 in the days following the video’s release.

Cindy Leonard, writing on the blog of the Bayer Center for Nonprofit Management, argues that social media gestures help in creating continuum of activism, i.e., from a passive activism of changing profile picture to an active form of organising offline political campaigns and work for a larger political change. Kony 2012 is an evidence of this continuum;  it sparked many offline campaigns and rallies in Washington causing several leaders from international institutions and the affected region come together and talk about what they can do do to stop Joseph Kony and his rebel army. On March 21, 2012, a resolution condemning Joseph Kony and his ruthless guerrilla group for a 26-year campaign of terror was put forward by US Senators Jim Inhofe and Chris Coons. Many supporters of the resolution credit the film and its popularity for bringing the issue to their attention.

The case for no

Social media initiatives do play a role in the diffusion of information. However, they do so and create news for only those who depend on social media websites for this information. But if we take a step back and look at the big picture, do people who really care for such causes depend on Facebook for gathering first-hand information?

This quote by Malcolm Gladwell in the 2010 New Yorker article succinctly summarizes the argument against social media gestures as effective political action: “Facebook activism succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice.” Although it could be the first step for a person, otherwise shy or unaware, to stand up for such a cause, the chances for this person participating in an act that creates larger social impact seem to be very slim. As Evgeny Morozov points out in “The Net Delusion,” commentators who dubbed Iran’s 2009 protest “the Twitter Revolution” were vastly overstating Twitter’s effect (p. 1-4).

Online activism that works must be substantial and related to the online realm: SOPA received severe online criticism to the extent that companies like Google, Boing Boing and Wikipedia shut their services down for a few hours. Although it did have an effect on three Senators who changed their position, it worked because it was backed by technology organizations for a cause predominantly in the internet domain—and they took the very serious action of taking their services offline, which is much more than a gesture. There are tasks that indeed cannot be accomplished in a pre-Internet age. There are certain powers and affordances that the Internet carries. However, the error in judgement that most people make, in cases where “high-risk” activism is warranted is when they perceive the Internet as an alternative to getting to the streets and protesting. All our energy should be spent on online activism if and only if it is the sole powerful means of doing so.

Coming back to the case in point, on March 30, 2013, Facebook reportedly saw a 120% increase in profile picture swaps compared to an average day in support of the viral Human Rights Campaign support to marriage equality. Although the mass changing of the profile picture may represent nationwide support to the cause, in the end, it seems highly unlikely as something the judges ruling the decision would use at all. Would a gay legal advocate like Mary Bonauto spend a decade plotting a careful strategy to advance gay marriage rights if she knew she could have just changed her Facebook profile picture today? In this Facebook era, it has become very important to see the distinction between hard work activism wherein there is a physical and mental investment of energy as opposed to one-click activism which renders nothing but only a false sense of pride and contentment.

In conclusion

Commentators and participants will likely continue to disagree about the effectiveness of social media gestures as political acts. One recent article noted that some senators are choosing Facebook and Tumblr as venues to announce their newfound support of gay marriages—and at least one has changed his profile picture to the red equals sign. Though the number of profile picture changes cannot be taken for changing a Supreme Court’s decision, it at least helps to amplify the revolution to the point so as to enter the mainstream consciousness. But is believing in this tactic a prime example of the Google Doctrine, ““the enthusiastic belief in the liberating power of technology accompanied by the irresistible urge to enlist Silicon Valley startups in the global fight for freedom” (The Net Delusion, p. xiii)?


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