Ideological Tourism: How COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter Exposed Performative Activism

Updated: Dec 7, 2020


Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash


This paper addresses the social and political phenomena of “ideological tourism” and “slacktivism” to explain the performative actions displayed on social media for the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement during the COVID-19 pandemic. Social psychologist Dr. Nicole Fisher explains how heightened social pressures and stresses of forced isolation led to an increase in social media usage and pressure to either ‘fight for or fly from’ the Black Lives Moment cause. The paper further explores how these performative social media posts failed to bring about the desired social or institutional change that protestors hoped for as supported through the statistics provided by the COVID-19 Tracking Project and Pew Research on the COVID racial equity stratification, even after the BLM’s most active days on social media. Moreover, this paper observes two instances of ‘activism’ over social media that appeared during this time period and their detrimental effects to serve as examples of how the phenomena of ‘ideological tourism’ and ‘slacktivism’ manifest themselves. Lastly, we discuss the importance of comprehensive socio-cultural education as a key component of seeking to achieve substantial social change.

The advent of the Digital Age has removed the barriers posed by time and distance in the delivery of news to the general public, while the introduction of social media has led to further globalization of news at a larger volume and frequency. People are now notified of international news within moments of it occurring thanks to social platforms and real-time news broadcasting. Social media also serves as a significant medium for social interaction. As a result, our world is growing increasingly dependent on social media for social satisfaction. The overlapping of this unprecedented increase in the consumption of news via social media and the murder of George Floyd brought a fresh wave of attention to the recurring conversations on racial inequity and police brutality in the United States. The death of Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many other related tragedies dominated the media and revitalized the greater Black Lives Movement. In addition, due to COVID-19, individuals were forced into isolation, which further increased social media usage to compensate for social regulations. In July 2020, the world saw an “increase of 10.5 percent in social media usage, compared with July 2019,” according to a GlobalWebIndex survey [1]. Some “46 percent of women and 41 percent of men said they have spent more time on social media during the pandemic,” making it the second-most popular digital activity [2].


Social psychologist Dr. Nicole Fisher, president and founder of the Health & Human Rights Strategies advising firm in Washington, D.C., predicted much of the events that would unfold following Floyd’s murder [3]. She viewed that with the lockdown orders issued across the U.S. in concert with the looming financial distress and the disproportionate financial and social effects of the pandemic would set off and exacerbate the brain’s instinctual response to imposed confinement [4]. Dr. Fisher explains that a quarantine, by definition, is “a state, period, or place of isolation in which people or animals that have arrived from elsewhere or been exposed to infectious or contagious disease are placed" [5]. They also tend to be implemented without the input of those of whom the quarantine is being imposed onto [6]. The constraints placed upon an individual’s freedom of mobility, in a circumstance like a quarantine-state, would trigger a reaction in the brain similar to when an individual is imprisoned: the “adrenaline and stress hormones like cortisol kick into an acute stress response (hyperarousal)” [7]. In effect, this instinctive reaction leads to the “fight or flight response,” the instinct to run or fight when presented with danger, creating an unconscious heightened state of survival mode [8]. Dr. Fisher predicted that the combination of these factors with a catalyzing moment such as the death of George Floyd would spark the high volume of protests and riots such as the ones that occurred in the days following his death [9]. Social media users were also given the option: to fight for the movement or to ‘flee’ and potentially be ostracized by their online peers for not reciprocating the mass consensus of moral and civic duties.


Ideological tourism refers to short-lived performative engagements in meaningful matters, oftentimes coupled with the phenomenon known as “slacktivism,” the social validation and satisfaction complex derived from the performative acts for instant gratification of social media. This partly emerges from the fear of being shamed by their followers for their inaction in these mass media movements. According to a June Pew Research study, when the Black Lives Matter movement reached its highest level of activity on social media in 2020, a large part of the black community felt that the political engagement on social media produces significant downsides in the form of slacktivism [10]. The data collected shows that 77 percent of Americans find that social networking sites distract people from issues that are truly important and 71 percent agree with the assertion that “social media makes people believe they’re making a difference when they really aren't” [11].






[Slacktivism] partly emerges from the fear of being shamed by their followers for their inaction in these mass media movements



The New York Times reported that since the first reported COVID-19 death in the U.S., there has been a fairly significant uptick in the average daily traffic on social media platforms such as Facebook and TikTok [12]. This message was echoed by a Forbes article which cited a study where “25,000 consumers across thirty markets showed engagement [on social media] increasing 61 percent over normal usage rates” [13]. With the increase in interactions across social platforms coupled with the augmented weight and exposure of said-interactions at record levels, the collective emotion of anger and frustration permeated and intensified on social media [14]. Like other humanitarian topics that garner popular participation over social media, the movement began to accumulate these “trend factors.” The Black Lives Matter and the anti-racism movement became the mainstream conversation online and calls to action were watered down by some unconstructive tokens of “support” such as empty statements by celebrities and organizations, hashtags, reposting chains, and little black squares [15]. Driven by the need to sustain a likeable social image, individuals may act to avoid ostracization by their online peers. This, in effect, makes these individuals ideological tourists, who act to maintain their moral image online and prove that they are not racist. At the root of this faux activism, there is a feeling of self-gratification that effectively allows for the deflection of any form of self-accountability or guilt.


Another form of social media “activism” described in this paper is “hashtag activism”, which refers to “the act of showing support for a cause through a like, share or other engagement” [16]. While hashtag activism serves to build awareness for various causes, the point of contention is the stratification of action versus hashtag ratio. Pew Research Center confirmed that on May 28, three days after Floyd’s death, “nearly 8.8 million tweets contained the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag,” making this the highest number of uses for this hashtag in a single day since the Center started tracking its use [17]. Pew Research Center continued reporting a sustained over two million average tweet volume in the following days. Within this time frame, Instagram also saw a high volume of posts and shares for pro-BLM content in the form of shared experiences and stories, educational sources, and news. These social media posts were productive in spreading resources and educating people on the everyday realities of Black people in the U.S. and spotlighting practices of anti-blackness often found in non-black POC communities.


On the other hand, the uptick in social media platforms has also contributed to the rise in some highly contested forms of online activism. One of the most controversial demonstrations that occurred after the murder of Floyd was Black-out Tuesday. Originally, this demonstration was organized by executives in the music industry, namely Jamila Thomas Brianna Agyemang, who led the effort as a break from everyday business "in observance of the long-standing racism and inequality that exists from the boardroom to the boulevard" [18]. The move to post black squares on Instagram dispersed amongst important artists, influencers, brands and ultimately to individuals who used it to break from posting personal to demonstrate solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. Though paved with good intentions, several Black Lives Matter organizers criticized the ineffectiveness and subsequent harm of the black squares with the #BlackLivesMatter hashtags. Chelsea Miller, a leading activist based in New York who works closely with Freedom March NYC, stated, "What it ultimately did is it muted the conversation," she said. "And in a time when we are trying to amplify our voices, we were inherently silenced." Moreover, Nupol Kiazolu, the president of Black Lives Matter of Greater New York, characterized the demonstration as "frustrating" and "counterproductive” [19]. The black squares on Instagram saturated the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag page full with black squares blocking vital information regarding organizing efforts as well as information related to fundraising efforts and educational resources from reaching entire followings. As important as it is to advocate for the dismantling of systemic racism, social media demonstrations give way for acts of such virtue signaling to occur as an effort to simply display to their online peers that they're ‘not-racist’. Many people even realized the harmful effects of these posts and took down their posts and began posting why others should too, for the sake of allowing vital information to be easily accessible. Despite this, of the approximate 28 million people who posted, many people did not remove their post; and while the black squares were ineffective in themselves, an unintentional result of the demonstrations was helping raise the greater conversation surrounding what is substantive activism over social media in terms of translating into real-world impact.


Beyond the realm of black squares, there is more to be said about the 'fundraising’ accounts that are ever rarely held accountable. The Atlantic wrote an article investigating the “Instagram Tragedy Hustle,” an account started by Instagram scammers who sought to seek advantage over the increased attention of the online community towards the deteriorating political situation in Sudan in 2019 [20]. Of many Instagram accounts, the most popular was the @SudanMealProject. This account gained over 400,000 followers within less than a week. The page pledged that “For every STORY REPOST this post gets, we will provide one meal to Sudanese children, and you will help spread awareness on what’s happening in Sudan.” However, the administration of the page failed to provide evidence to its users on the work it claimed to be doing. In addition, Joe English, a UNICEF communications specialist, commented on the reality of how “incredibly difficult” it is to get food to Sudan in refute to the posts’ claim of easy to do so. Similar accounts arose when the bushfires happening in Australia went viral on social media [21]. Some accounts equated a “like” to a USD 1 donation and a ‘follow’ to USD 5 while others simply “promoted personal PayPal accounts” [22]. Although these pages make surface level claims of legitimacy that break down only after a brief investigation into their claims to work with humanitarian organizations, these accounts continue to attract millions of likes and thousands of followers. These Instagram accounts that accrue a lot of attention and traffic from user interactions become valuable, they are then completely erased and then sold to a private unrelated small brand for its audience. Despite the damnatory fact that these accounts always appear as very thinly veiled scams, millions of individuals continue to participate in them over and over, only serving to disillusion themselves into believing that they are truly taking action. Undoubtedly, the true ‘villains’ in these situations are those who use tragedy as a means to exploit public sympathy for profit; and the devastation of life in the era of COVID-19 has proven to be especially vulnerable to these sorts of exploits as well.


During a time where many people have struggled to maintain their sense of humanity in wake of the losses amassed throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, we witnessed actors of the state — law enforcement officials who are sworn to serve and protect the well-being of the public — commit a violent and inhumane act. The conditions set by COVID-19 had already activated a heightened sense of survival anxiety among many communities, and this was further exacerbated by the display of the murder of George Floyd. All of which lead to the current civil unrest of racial disparities that were merely exposed by the virus crisis. The tragic murder of George Floyd was yet the latest addition to a long list of Black Americans whose deaths at the hands of law enforcement have served to expose the widely unaddressed second-class realities of Black Americans. The traumatic eight minutes and forty-six seconds of George Floyd’s death were captured and circulated over social media for the world to see: a Black man under the knee of a police officer while two officers watch over, pleading to his already-deceased mother, and in his final moments repeating the chilling phrase “I can’t breathe,” the exact phrase Eric Garner repeated the day of his murder in July of 2014 [23]. And further up in power, President Trump did not show solidarity for the general public with displayed sensitivity and support for Floyd’s family. President Trump responded with startling statements such as: “‘I couldn’t really watch it [the video of George Floyd] for that long a period of time, it was over eight minutes. Who could watch that?” [24].


In theory, the police force is supposed to justly serve and protect our communities and all of its inhabitants. But now, we are hurtled toward defunding, and in some cities, dismantling these organizations that were supposed to be the very backbone of our local protection. As Dr. Fisher predicted, an emotionally charged event – the death of George Floyd – provoked a wave of shared anger and frustration amongst citizens who have become disgruntled towards their governing institutions. This sentiment was not only prevalent amongst those aware of the plight of Black Americans in the United States and more broadly of Black people across the globe, but also individuals who had simply become frustrated with the failures produced by the leadership of their government officials in managing the threat of COVID-19. This sentiment of frustration ultimately manifested into a public reprimand of systemic racism and state actors, further amplified through greater use of social media. The American governing institutions failed to unify and act under effective leadership; instead, the divide in American society deepened and has become seemingly more polarized than ever. President Trump’s approval rate over his administration’s handling of COVID-19 (33 percent overall approval in mid-July) indicates that a significant portion of the U.S. population had pervasive feelings of mistrust towards the Trump administration due to what some Democrats have characterized as an “incompetent mishandling of the pandemic,” according to The Hill writer, Aris Foller [25].


The truth of the matter is that there is no single right way to ‘make a difference’ but the pursuit of many in trying to realize this objective has allowed for the proliferation of various methods of activism and social change. It is imperative, however, to recognize that underlying these methods is some basis of education. Whether it be a continuous education of oneself through exploring the works of prominent scholars and activists in the field or helping educate others by sharing relevant and effective information such as providing clarifying commentaries on complex ideas or sharing information regarding legitimate fund-raising/organizing efforts, it is vital to understand the history behind events in the present in order to recognize what exactly needs to change, why it needs to change, and how to go about doing so. Prolific American poet Gil-Scott Heron famously coined the phrase “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” the title of one of his songs, where he illustrates what the “revolution” will and will not be like. Years later he elaborated on the message of his song stating, “The first change that takes place is in your mind. You have to…before you change the way you live and the way you move… It’s just something that you see and you’ll think, "Oh I’m on the wrong page," or “I’m on the right page but the wrong note...” In other words, in order to progress towards a better future, a paradigm shift must serve as the foundation for this work. The failure to reach such a paradigm shift can be seen unfolding in real-time. A mid-July Washington Post-ABC poll found that, while sixty percent of those polled said they supported the Black Lives Matter Movement, in a question regarding the redistribution of police department funding for other social services, fifty-five percent responded that they opposed while five percent had no opinion; and fifty percent opposed removing statues honoring Confederate Generals from the public while another eight percent had no opinion; and fifty-two percent opposed the renaming military bases named after Confederate Generals [26]. So as people are expressing their support for the movement, they are also opposed to the very ideas that can be used to mark tangible social progress as these are institutions and symbols that perpetuate and glorify the oppression of Black people in America.

[1] Simon Kemp, “Digital 2020: July Global Statshot - DataReportal – Global Digital Insights,” DataReportal (DataReportal – Global Digital Insights, July 21, 2020), https://datareportal.com/reports/digital-2020-july-global-statshot.


[2] Ibid.


[3] Nicole Fisher, “Nicole Fisher,” Forbes (Forbes Magazine, 2020); Nicole Fisher, “History - And Psychology - Predict Riots And Protests Amid Coronavirus Pandemic Lockdowns,” Forbes (Forbes Magazine, June 5, 2020).


[4] Nicole Fisher, “History - And Psychology - Predict Riots And Protests Amid Coronavirus Pandemic Lockdowns,” Forbes (Forbes Magazine, June 5, 2020), https://www.forbes.com/sites/nicolefisher/2020/03/21/historyand-psychologypredict-riots-and-protests-amid-pandemic-lockdowns/.


[5] Ibid.


[6] Ibid.


[7] Ibid.


[8] Harvard Health Publishing, “Understanding the Stress Response,” Harvard Health, accessed October 2, 2020, https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/understanding-the-stress-response.


[9] Nicole Fisher, “History - And Psychology - Predict Riots And Protests Amid Coronavirus Pandemic Lockdowns,” Forbes (Forbes Magazine, June 5, 2020); Gene Demby, “Why Now, White People?,” NPR (NPR, June 17, 2020).


[10] Ibid.


[11] Ibid.


[12] Ella Koeze and Nathaniel Popper, “The Virus Changed the Way We Internet,” The New York Times (The New York Times, April 7, 2020), https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/04/07/technology/coronavirus-internet-use.html.


[13] Ryan Holmes, “Is COVID-19 Social Media's Levelling Up Moment?,” Forbes (Forbes Magazine, April 24, 2020), https://www.forbes.com/sites/ryanholmes/2020/04/24/is-covid-19-social-medias-levelling-up-moment/.


[14] Monica Anderson et al., “Activism in the Social Media Age,” Pew Research Center: Internet, Science & Tech (Pew Research Center, August 28, 2020), https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2018/07/11/activism-in-the-social-media-age/.


[15] Monica Anderson, “History of the Hashtag #BlackLivesMatter: Social Activism on Twitter,” Pew Research Center: Internet, Science & Tech (Pew Research Center, December 31, 2019), https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2016/08/15/the-hashtag-blacklivesmatter-emerges-social-activism-on-twitter/.


[16] Peter Suciu, “Is Posting On Social Media A Valid Form Of Activism?,” Forbes (Forbes Magazine, November 1, 2019), https://www.forbes.com/sites/petersuciu/2019/11/01/is-posting-on-social-media-a-valid-form-of-activisim/.


[17] Monica Anderson et al., “Activism in the Social Media Age,” Pew Research Center: Internet, Science & Tech (Pew Research Center, August 28, 2020), https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2018/07/11/activism-in-the-social-media-age/.