The Danger of ‘Virtue Signalling’ Without Intention

Tragedies involving police brutality, BIPOC* targeted murder, and racial prejudice have the tendency to feel constant and unrelenting. Probably, because they are. It is frustrating to reflect on the fact that in 2020, Black men and women across the world live their life in terror of the white supremacy imbedded in the institutions that fundamentally exist to ‘protect’ them. Tragedies such as the grim death of George Floyd on May 25th or the Amy Cooper incident serve as constant reminders that “racism isn’t getting worse, it’s getting filmed”.

*Black, Indigenous, People of Colour

Then, arises some form of moral need to take decisive action. It is often difficult to do something that provides an immediate or satisfactory result. Our systems operate in a way that promotes slow legislation: campaigning, voting, and then initiating change. It is no surprise that social media plays a tremendous role in being a platform for immediate activism. Information, videos, and images can be circulated at lightning speed with no more than a swipe of a finger. This media can arrive without trigger warning but with the intention of rallying people to care for the cause at hand. Mark Manson discusses this idea of an attention economy in a riveting short essay:

“Cameras, the internet, and most importantly, social media. This is what’s new. This is what’s different… This is our brave new world. When all information is freely available at the click of a mouse, our attention naturally nosedives into the sickest and most grotesque we can find. And the sickest and most grotesque similarly finds its way to the top of the nation’s consciousness.”

In the multitude of relevant tweets, posts of solidarity, and opinion pieces, it is understandable that certain posts have the tendency to feel performative. To see a unified social media feed blare a unified moral message can encourage those who shy away from speaking out on social justice issues to get involved. It is optimistic to think that social media can act as a ‘wake-up call’ for individuals who may hold strong opinions of racial prejudice, but I believe it can be an effective form of education when done right. On this vein of thought, I wondered how many posts could explicitly be judged as ‘virtue signalling’.

Image: @domrobxrts on Instagram

To explore this, I had to first attempt to define the term. Is virtue signalling a pretence? Or an algorithmic form of solidarity? James Bartholomew first coined the term in his 2015 article titled “The awful rise of ‘virtue signalling’” for The Spectator, defining it as the “phenomenon” of “indicating that you are kind, decent, and virtuous”. The phrase spread to Twitter and other social media sites as a form of accusation for people feigning righteousness. But like any activist theory (see, ‘Couch Activism’ or ‘Slacktivism’), it does not go without its fair share of criticism.

It can feel easy to call out people for reposting without action, however, it then raises the question of who is ‘allowed’ to call out signallers and if it is justified. Many have felt justified anger towards celebrities in all industries who, despite having millions of followers, failed to utilise and understand the privilege of their platform. To reduce this cause to an aesthetic that is ‘off-brand’ for a celebrity is wildly ignorant and a missed opportunity to spread genuine awareness.

However, it is imperative to remember that social media is a platform for the exchange of ideas. It can exist as a blanket for the actual action taken beneath it, like petitions, emails, and protests. In our digital culture, a lack of evidence (posts and tweets) can immediately be judged as inaction, apathy, or complacency. What if those people who are reposting and retweeting, could also be relentlessly campaigning for the cause? In the specific case of protests, it’s important to remember that broadcasting attendance can put protesters in immense risk. Evidence on social media would immediately be evidence against the protester. In this sense, virtue signalling can be a harsh label to assign to people in our digital community. However, it is a necessary one.

I digress, the danger of ‘virtue-signalling’ is ultimately this: it is supportive but not intentional; performative but not substantial. I know that there is no objective definition of ‘substantial’. However, in this context, I believe that substantial action is to take the relevant steps to educate, listen, and learn. The tragic reality is that this will happen again – but education today, guarantees intention. And intention drives committed change.

I want to make it clear that I cannot speak on behalf of the Black community or attempt to equalise my individual experiences as another POC to the unique experiences of a Black person. However, in the wake of such immense human rights atrocities we must remember that change is driven by every person in the community. It is not the African American community’s job to draw our attention to institutional racism, nor is it a ‘BIPOC problem’. The need for people of colour to draw our attention to such daily tragedies implies that our society is otherwise unaware of their struggle; their existence.

To post or discuss social issues and current affairs is necessary. Dialogue and discussion, especially on social media, are essential for activism. However, there are so many more forms of action one can take to drive this vehicle of change. We must do more. Education and conversation are powerful tools. We need to reject exhausted myths such as the “model minority” that are entrenched in South-Asian communities. We should bring up relevant topics with family members or colleagues, no matter how heavy or uncomfortable they might feel.