Sunday Longread: The rise of Instagram activism

Why the infographics you see in your friends’ stories look the way they do

Our lives have been quiet recently, but Instagram has not. Your friends might have few pictures to share from their humdrum existences, and so the type of content you’ll see on the app has changed dramatically. Gone is the Instagram of the beach selfie, the inspirational quote, the gym mirror pic. Well not gone, but there is a new side to Instagram in the 2020s. 

2020 saw a surge of political activity and information on the photo-sharing platform. In June, tens of millions of Instagram users posted a black square for #BlackOutTuesday, in solidarity with the BlackLivesMatter movement in the wake of the killing of George Floyd. Meanwhile on our own shores, the leaking of hundreds of explicit images of young Irish women on a discord led to a wave of Instagram posts calling for an end to image-based sexual abuse. And then, only in recent weeks, the killing of Sarah Everard in London led to an outpouring on the app, as women shared their experiences of sexual harassment, and their fears of walking alone at night. If you’re on Instagram, you’ve very likely seen a lot of this content over the last year.

But Instagram doesn’t want this attention. Already, media experts are beginning to speak about the ‘Facebookification’ of Instagram. Facebook, who own Instagram, have already drawn the ire of lawmakers and the public for the mass of misinformation and inappropriate data collection that characterised the 2016 US election cycle. For Instagram, pictures of yoga routines and granola are far easier and safer territory to tread than Covid fact-sheets or pictures of Uyghur re-education camps

Speaking to, New York based graphic designer and activist Eric Hu said that Instagram “actively fights against political content”. He said it does this by “privileging certain content, like attractive people, vacation photos or graphics with inspirational messages”. Hu explained that a lot of the current political content on Instagram “Trojan horses” the Instagram algorithm by incorporating elements that will stop the app from identifying it as political and pushing it further down your feed.

Information about racial profiling is accompanied with pastel blues and pink flowers.”

These “Trojan horse” tactics can be seen in the idiosyncratic style that infographics come in. Information about racial profiling is accompanied with pastel blues and pink flowers. Statistics from Saudi bombing campaigns in Yemen are juxtaposed with an aesthetically-pleasing beige background, written in a light corsiva font. These stylistic choices fool Instagram as to what the true content of the post is, and thus there’s a higher chance it’ll be the first post your followers see when they go onto Instagram. 

The typical Instagram post containing information about activism or social justice will be four or five slides long, and will often contain cartoon images or diagrams. Each slide might contain two to three condensed pieces of information. These posts owe their viral potential and power to the fact that they are easily shared on Instagram Stories, disseminating at an exponential pace. The post is generally approachable, easily understood and quick to take in. You may click on to Instagram and quickly find that a dozen of your friends have all shared the same slide; “Things you should know about anti-Semitism” or “Five signs of Toxic Masculinity”. 

Compared to its decidedly ugly twin Facebook, Instagram is a carefully curated affair. A space for hot people.”

There is undoubtedly more to these stylistic trends than Instagram analytics. Compared to its decidedly ugly twin Facebook, Instagram is a carefully curated affair. A space for hot people. You can’t simply dump a photo album without thinking twice, ten slides is the maximum per post and poor quality content doesn’t really fly. Users who wish to share social commentary or information might be slow to sully their profile with an ugly bullet board of information. Instead the content being shared often complements the aesthetic users have running through the reel of photos in their profile.

The phenomenon has been positive in many respects. In contrast to Twitter, Instagram was always a place where people who had checked out of the political discourse could scroll without engaging with content that related to social justice issues. When the social justice slideshows invaded our Stories, they presented information to an audience that activists had never reached before. People could quickly get to grips with climate change stats or incarceration rates, information they might never have sought out in the first place. Movements like Extinction Rebellion and BlackLivesMatter quickly took note, and began to produce content that was easily shareable and that fitted with Instagram’s unique style of activism. 

Where this new method of sharing social commentary and political information falls down is in its lack of nuance. In order to communicate a potentially complicated idea in bite-sized chunks, context and essential details may fall by the wayside. Can the entire background of the Yemeni civil war be communicated in five infographics? Lily O’Farrell, who runs the wildly popular @vulgadrawings page on Instagram agrees that this is a pitfall for this method of sharing information. O’Farrell’s posts consist of her own drawings, which provide cutting social commentary to her 200 thousand followers in “bright colours and pink backgrounds”, though  she doesn’t consider herself an “activist”. Speaking to Trinity News, O’Farrell says the trouble with condensed information “is the lack of nuance, which creates an us-versus-them mentality, one that I’m always trying to escape from”.

O’Farrell is frequently subjected to abuse from young men in her Instagram DMs. A recent viral post of hers, “Not All Men” was quickly taken down by Instagram after it received a flood of complaints from her male detractors. She explains that sometimes these are “planned attacks”. “I follow a lot of incel and men’s right subreddits, and I’ve witnessed them planning a date and time to try and take down popular feminist accounts” she says.

O’Farrell’s “Not All Men” post was reposted in solidarity by numerous other Instagram pages with large followings, and was eventually unremoved by Instagram. There is no transparency about how Instagram decides which posts are beyond the pale. She says there’s “an obvious cut throat, heavy handed approach given to women who talk about sexism, and in particular when they feel a man has been sexist towards them”. She adds: “I get a lot of hate in my DM’s from men, and the occasional threat. Some of them have not held back on the physical pain they’d like me to endure despite my reporting them, and there’s a reason they’re allowed to continue sending messages like that – their use of language, unlike mine, is not being censored.”

O’Farrell is particularly interested in the interaction between the “girlboss” aesthetic and Instagram activism. She says that “in the offline world feminism has been and politics have been hijacked by slogans and glitter, and plastered over notebooks in Paperchase, and in the online world the same has happened”. O’Farrell feels this brand of feminism can be exclusionary; that it “adds to the idea that feminism is for white cis-women only”, and cites one example of two influencers who “promoted singlehood into a kind of self-help brand masking as feminism.” 

Whether the phenomenon of photo threads sharing political content is a passing trend, or a sign of Gen Z’s colonisation of millenial Instagram is unclear. Despite the potential drawbacks that Instagram’s new role in the social and political discourse brings, Lily sees it as a positive phenomenon on the whole. “I struggle with this ‘Instagram versus university degree’ argument because there’s a huge amount of snobbery in it.” She adds that: “‘feminist academia’ is what you access through a university, and yeah you might find that in a book too but lots of people, including myself, find academic texts like those really intimidating and boring. So if you’re getting people engaged in a complex topic with visual aids and an approachable, non-pretentious attitude, then that’s great, so keep doing it.”