In her June 2021 cover interview with Vogue, Malala Yousafzai was asked her thoughts on how activism operates in the 21st century. “Right now we have associated activism with tweets,” she explained. “That needs to change, because Twitter is a completely different world.” The education campaigner and Nobel Prize laureate feels disheartened at the idea that activism could be driven by clicks and outrage rather than meaningful, offline action.
While Yousafzai’s stance resonates, it’s also clear that, for millions of people across the globe, online activism is a crucial means of learning, growing, and connecting. And for those who work as online activists, it offers a chance to run with the ideas they feel passionate about. By shining a light on underrepresented issues and people, online activists can foster virtual communities, challenge the status quo, and create real, profound change.
Yet social media activists are constantly having to try and find the balance between sticking with their initial goals — spreading messages that are good, honest, and authentic — and contending with the trolling, expectations, and the terrifying threat of so-called cancel culture.
I spoke to six online activists to understand what it’s really like to operate a social media platform with thousands of followers. Some simply couldn’t handle the immense pressure and decided to leave, while others still see the potential of social media to do good in the world.
“If I Didn’t Post, I Didn’t Exist”
At the age of 25, Mimi Butlin had been living with chronic conditions for five years and could seldom leave the house. Isolated and misunderstood by doctors and friends, she was desperate to find a community that understood what she was going through. So she created it. Through @cantgooutim_sick, she educated her ever-growing follower list about misunderstood conditions such as fibromyalgia and lupus. Eventually she hit 20,000 followers and was soon being featured in glossy magazines such as Grazia and Cosmopolitan and gaining celebrity followers including Lena Dunham and Selma Blair.
“I began attaching my self-worth to followers and likes. It became really addictive and dangerous.”
Butlin’s account quickly became a burden, however. “I began attaching my self-worth to followers and likes,” she explains. “It became really addictive and dangerous. Nobody had paid attention to me before my account, so I felt as though if I didn’t post, I didn’t exist. I became constantly anxious and wrapped up in my online identity. I wasn’t in the real world anymore.”
She began to overthink every post, feeling as though people were waiting to trip her up. “I did a post [that] read ‘chronic illness is a feminist issue,’ and it attracted negative attention and trolling. People thought I was leaving men out of the equation. There was an expectation to include every single perspective in every post, which became really difficult. I didn’t feel strong enough to fight back from the critiques.”
Elsewhere on Instagram, Michelle Elman was dealing with similar problems. She had begun @scarrednotscared in 2015 to introduce discussions about scars into the body positive conversation. At first, it was great, but over time, Elman felt like she was exploiting her own trauma. “I started to feel as though I was just a body,” she says. “It’s very hard to move on from a traumatic past when you’re being asked about it every day.” She also experienced an unprecedented level of trolling after a TikToker claimed that her experimental psychology degree from Bristol University was fake. “I had 100,000 people bombarding my page,” she says.
Unable to deal with the pressure, both women made drastic decisions. Butlin deleted her account two years after its inception. It’s been eight months since @cantgooutim_sick shut down, and Butlin feels like a weight has been lifted. “I’ve reconnected with myself, my friends, and my priorities.”
Elman, on the other hand, decided to keep her account but totally change her approach. “I realised I didn’t have to keep answering questions about my trauma. If people want to know about my surgeries, they can Google it.” She is still operating the 172,000-strong account, but uses it purely as a platform for her life-coaching business, aiming to “make personal development accessible to people who can’t afford therapy.”
“It’s very hard to move on from a traumatic past when you’re being asked about it every day.”
“I don’t think it’s possible to have a fully solid mental health and operate a social media platform,” says Elman, who recently published The Joy of Being Selfish. “It’s not normal to have people’s opinions and perceptions of you constantly in your face every day.”
Elman looks out for young activists. “I feel like it’s my duty to take them under my wing and say, ‘just in case you need someone when someone tries to cancel you,’’’ she says. “When it first happened to me, I had no one to talk to and it was really difficult. Friends who aren’t on Instagram don’t understand what it’s like to have thousands of people coming in your direction.”
“It's A Constant Adjustment, But I Won’t Stop Talking About These Issues”
Gina Martin, the activist who made upskirting a criminal offence in April 2019, understands what it’s like to receive vitriolic abuse. “I can see the effect it’s had on me and it’s real,” says Martin, author of Be the Change. “There have been moments after I’ve had days of abuse where I’ve gone to the shops and had to leave because I was so paranoid someone was going to hurt me. My brain — or our brains — aren’t wired to be able to deal with hundreds of people pulling you apart at once.”
“My brain — or our brains — aren’t wired to be able to deal with hundreds of people pulling you apart at once.”
Martin, 28, sees huge value in addressing issues online, but sometimes it becomes too much: “I feel like thousands of people have broken into my house and are just yelling things at me,” she laughs. “Whether it’s anyone who’s ever had a thought about gender inequality messaging me 400-word essays asking me to explain a 100-year-old concept to them, women opening up and sharing stories of being abused, or thousands of messages of abuse because I didn’t speak on a specific issue — it becomes way too much to handle for one person.”
Martin, who has four other jobs alongside influencing, has to put boundaries in place with herself when operating her social media — otherwise the platform takes over her life. “I have to not read my DMs and be incredibly strict with how much I use my phone,” she says. “It’s a constant adjustment, but the day I stop talking about these issues because it upsets the men doing it is the day I die.”
Group Think & False Idols
Mikaela Loach, an environmental and anti-racism activist, has also felt the pressure of needing to have an opinion on every issue in the public eye.
Loach, who hosts The Yikes Podcast with Jo Becker, believes that we could all “check ourselves” more when using Instagram. “We should be processing things for a while, rather than being reactive and putting something out there.” She concedes she posted content last summer —during the BLM protests — that she believes wasn’t as “nuanced” as she would have liked. “There was information that I [posted that I] hadn’t properly criticised or thought about enough,” she says. “They were things that I thought people wanted to hear.”
Loach believes Instagram has a problem with “groupthink,” with people failing to question individuals who hold misinformed or dangerous opinions because the majority agree with that person. “We can hold individuals, especially individuals who hold marginalised identities, on such a high pedestal,” she explains. “There’s this running away with identity politics that means you can’t criticise someone because they hold a marginalised identity.”
“One day you wake up and think: Do I actually believe that? Or was I just saying that because I was scared of getting canceled?”
“It’s dangerous and I’ve definitely fallen into it,” she continues, adding that it’s crucial we use a critical eye for everything we read. “One day you wake up and think: Do I actually believe that? Or was I just saying that because I was scared of getting canceled? We need to challenge things ... or we won’t have our own opinions on anything.”
The Infographics Debate
Instagram, she continues, is a “visual” platform that prioritises “the individual” and good communicators. “A lot of the time, it’s less about what’s being said but who is saying it and how they appear.” This means that those doing important work behind the scenes — i.e., “the people making cups of tea or making posters or providing emotional support” — are left behind, says Loach. Equally, she continues, people are attracted to visually appealing content, which means poorly researched but “pretty” infographics often go viral. “Anyone can use Canva to make a graphic,” she adds. “They might not have properly researched the issue or attached any sources to it.” Mikaela believes we need to scrutinise who is behind the information. “We need to realise the person who has the most followers doesn’t mean they’re a valid source of information or understands activism the most. A lot of the time, it’s just what fits into the algorithm.”
“I’ve learnt so much from the community — everything from fatphobia to trans issues to endometriosis. ... People underestimate the power of a small infographic.”
“I really encourage people to go beyond social media and really dive into the issues,” she says. “There are so many wonderful books that have more nuance than a 2,200-character Instagram caption.”
India Ysabel — an anti-racism activist — feels differently about infographics. While they acknowledge social media shouldn’t be a person’s only source of information or outlet for protest, Instagram can be a powerful educational tool, with infographics at the heart of that learning. “I’ve learnt so much from the community — everything from fatphobia to trans issues to endometriosis — and I’m hearing about conditions that [I had] never heard of before. People underestimate the power of a small infographic,” they say.
Building Community & Embracing Imperfection
For the most part, Ysabel sees Instagram as a positive space. Although their comments section can occasionally become “a clusterf*ck of bad opinions and horrible people”, they have found themselves in an “incredible” community. “I’m so happy to be in it,” they say. “Everyone’s so helpful and wants to share each other’s work. I'm so excited to get out of lockdown and actually meet these people.”
Tolmeia Gregory, a 20-year-old eco-activist and illustrator, also has a positive relationship with her online space. “I’ve been really fortunate because my audience is really lovely,” Gregory, who has operated an Instagram platform since she was 11 years old, tells me. She began as a fashion blogger but now lambasts CEOs and unethical fashion brands with quirky and eccentric infographics.
Gregory doesn’t want her followers to idolise her or think she’s a “perfect environmentalist” who never trips up and lives a carbon-neutral life. Transparency is therefore integral: She posts photographs of her airplane travels, for example, a mode of transport that contributes 2.4% of global CO2 emissions. “My family lives abroad and I want to see them,” she says. “I talk about these things so people know I am human.”
“I hope my followers don’t rely on me: Whether that’s reading the news, books, or listening to podcasts, I shouldn’t be the sole person.”
However, Gregory has decided to take a break from Instagram for a month. “I had got to this point where I felt like I was expected to cover every topic under the sun. I became a news source.” The sabbatical, she says, was a “trust exercise.” “I hope my followers don’t rely on me: Whether that’s reading the news, books, or listening to podcasts, I shouldn’t be the sole person. I am trusting that people will come back and will still enjoy my content when I return.”
What Does The Future Hold For Online Activism?
Clearly all the activists I spoke to want to change the world for the better, yet the nature of Instagram — a platform that prioritises the visual, lacks nuance, and makes people vulnerable to trolling — can make reaching that goal very difficult. Many of these activists set out with good intentions, only to be overwhelmed by a virtual world of toxicity.
Martin believes the answer lies in re-assessing your relationship with social sites such as Instagram. They’re a “good introductory space” for certain issues, but not a sustainable form of activism. “Everything has a shelf life. I believe it will sort of eat itself a little bit,” she explains, adding that Instagram is, by default, a social currency game about numbers. “The line between ‘doing this because it’s the right thing to do’ and ‘doing this so people can see I’m a good person’ gets blurred.”
The more “trendy” and “aspirational” Instagram becomes, Martins says, the more “we will realise we need slower, more conscious spaces for these discussions.” Where and when those spaces will materialise, though, is still up for debate.