The power of social media is unquestionable in 2020. I’m social media professional – so of course, I truly believe that! But it was certainly, evidenced during the #BlackOutTuesday activist movement in response to the murder of George Floyd and the upswell of support for #BlackLivesMatter campaign. In a matter of hours, millions and millions of people muted their social media channels for the day with a black square, enabling black voices to be profiled and heard during an imperative time.

I watched keenly as to which businesses came out immediately in support, which lagged behind, the words chosen within their crafted posts and the ones that stayed silent (the silent ones – I see you and I’m still waiting). The reach and speed of this movement really showcased the power of social media to unite a digital global civil rights movement focused on allyship, learning, change and outrage. At first, I was proud of the businesses, that stepped up and posted support – it felt right and important to me, that they came out with anti-racist statements and black squares representative that they were joining the #blackout.

However, since #BlackOutTuesday, the cynical side of me has been reflecting! Whilst some businesses in the days after the #blackout also came out with detailed pledges of support, promises of action to learn, grow and stating their plans to enact change (I did the same in my business)…..others in reality (so far) just posted a black square onto their social media channels (often quite late) with words signed off by a comms team and then experienced a great social media pat on the back in terms of engagement from folks “liking” it. They haven’t actually “done” anything and yet, have benefitted social media metrics wise from a global activist movement.

So then I started to question; were some of the businesses posting a black square in support of #BlackOutTuesday signifying their true support, commitment to change, solidarity and willingness to have challenging conversations within their business? Or was it jumped on as a social media opportunity to boost engagement through capitalising on a global movement when people saw its scale and speed? Beyond the social media post – what anti-racist work were they committing to actually doing? Did they donate to any campaigns? Is it a topic they are talking about internally within their teams and board? Are they critically reflecting on their recruitment processes, diversity policy and inclusivity? What did they actually DO? As I said, this is my cynical side….

I was part of a digital webinar recently and was perturbed (but unfortunately not surprised) when discussion explored important visibility days, weeks and months (arguably #blacklivesmatter fits within this) and that business comms’ teams don’t choose which days to support based on what’s important to a business and mirrors their values with a corresponding campaign to represent – but instead, it was an empty process of picking the most “fashionable” and/or the ones that may perform the best on social media. Sigh! So, basically an empty misleading marketing campaign devoid of authenticity.

There is a well-known phrase usually targeted at social media influencers – “doing it for the ‘Gram”. The phrase infers that people (and businesses) perform for social media; they do and say things for the likes and followers and their social media bares little connection to their real life and values. Therefore, knowing this and understanding the reality of social media, I can’t help but feel that some businesses “performed” for #BlackOutTuesday with superficial social media messages of allyship and support for traction sake, without doing anything meaningful and that feels wrong to me.

And it’s not just #BlackLivesMatter that has arguably been misused in this way – in recent years, Pride Month, International Women’s Day, Mental Health Awareness Week (the list is endless) has transformed social media into a digital space of performative emotive statements or support “pledges” from businesses – with very little else to back it up; saying something, isn’t the same as meaning it.

During Pride Month, endless Pride rainbows (or worse profit making Pride products – that’s another blog post entirely) fill my social media feed from businesses and the vast majority do nothing for the LGBTQIA+ community or worse do a Starbucks, claiming allyship and then are caught out repeatedly treating Trans employees very poorly. So now, my cynic no longer sees rainbows (especially if no evidence of actual real support) on my social and instead sees assumed empty statements, targeting emotive responses of others to secure social media engagement.

So, what can we do? Well you can challenge businesses and question them on what basis they are pledging support and you can probe a little deeper – don’t take everything at face value! From a personal point of view, I want businesses to stop performing; social media audiences are getting smarter and if you are a business using these moments, movements and visibility days within your social media content to express your allyship – be prepared to back it up with action! After all, it is what you do when the world isn’t watching on social media, that really signifies the DNA value system of the business…..

Rachel Horton – Director of NIBE and The Culture Vulture