The rise of performative activism
If you’ve opened Instagram in the last week, you’ve probably noticed your friends posting pictures of their pets to their stories using a sticker that claims a tree will be planted for every pet picture posted. You may have even taken part in the trend yourself.
The sticker that was used to start the trend was released on Nov. 2, just a day after Instagram unveiled their new “Add Yours” feature that allows users to use stickers to create threads on their stories.
The post read: “We’ll plant one tree for every pet picture.” Although the party behind the sticker and the promise was unclear, that didn’t deter millions of people from partaking in the trend.
The viral trend misled over four million Instagram users, who shared pictures of their pets under the assumption that their posts would contribute to more trees being planted. Initially, the source of this promise was unknown, although the account, Plant A Tree Co., later claimed credit for the post on Nov. 9, by releasing a post entitled: “who’s behind the anonymous tree planting post?”
The post explained that the account did create the sticker, but deleted it after 10 minutes because “we immediately understood the potential this post had and didn’t believe we had the capabilities & resources to keep our end of the post. So we deleted it…” They clarified that despite the post being taken down quickly, it continued to spread as people continued to post their pictures, resulting in over four million shares. Plant A Tree Co. blamed Instagram for not crediting them for the post and “hiding the originator of the post from the millions of people who have participated.”
Plant A Tree Co. admitted that they “don’t have the ability to plant four million trees,” but have instead created a fundraiser that will raise money for Trees for the Future, a non-profit agroforestry organization that plants trees globally, to capitalize on the awareness the trend has raised and ensure that some trees are planted. So far, $44,173.62 of their $1,267,033.77 goal has allegedly been raised for Trees for the Future.
Although Plant A Tree Co.’s name and website home page which declares their goal to plant 1 billion trees by 2030 may indicate that they are dedicated to reforestation, it is unclear how dedicated they are to fulfilling their promises. The company also claims to fundraise money for several charities and causes by selling necklaces and creating social media posts that pledge to donate $0.01 to Islamic Relief USA or Black Lives Matter for every share.
Despite the large sums of money displayed on their website that they claim to have raised and donated to various charities, there is little evidence that the company’s fundraisers have positively impacted causes. Their website provides little information about how sharing posts can raise money. Moreover, the ‘contact’ page provides no information about the company’s location, phone number, or email. In fact, it only urges users to enter their information in a form, and they seem to operate mainly through Instagram.
They claim their open fundraisers have raised tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars towards an even bigger goal. However, their donation page shows that they only donated a maximum of $3,173.00 to a given cause, indicating that the company is not transparent about how much money they have raised and/or donated. In fact, in the time that it has taken to write this article, the amount of money that their Instagram account claim’s to have raised for Trees for the Future has changed from $44,173.62 to $44,054.72, and their goal has changed from $1,267,033.77 to $1,263,416.55.
Although Plant A Tree Co., and companies like it, are rife with red flags, why do people continue to fall for their ploys? The answer lies in the rise of performative activism.
While many people may be aware of and care about an issue, it generally takes effort to get involved and try to make a difference. However, with the rise of social media platforms like Instagram, it’s easy to make posts, share, and like them under the pretense that it will raise awareness or even raise money when companies like Plant A Tree Co. pledge to donate money for every share.
The most appealing part of social media activism is how little effort it takes. Many of us spend hours scrolling through social media and liking posts anyways, so why not take a second to like a post or share it, especially if it will bring awareness to a cause? The problem with this is that oftentimes, people engage with the most popular causes to capitalize on their current popularity and even project to others that they possess a strong social conscience.
One explanation for performative activism is people’s inability to objectively decide whether they want to bring attention to a cause or the fact that they are about the cause. This can shift the focus from a cause to an individual. In these cases, we are unable to remove ourselves from the spotlight and give it to a worthy cause because we would rather try to gain social capital.
Another appeal of social media activism is it requires no further research. The popularity of Plant A Tree Co.’s sticker proves millions of people are willing to post in the name of championing a cause, without doing any research into how it will actually help. It is easy to see Plant A Tree Co.’s website is at the very least suspicious and that their original sticker gave no information about how they intended to plant trees or who would actually be doing that work.
But those logistics didn’t matter because the post was never about planting trees, it was about Plant A Tree Co. gaining social media attention and millions of people proving that they cared about the environment, all without actually having to do more than lift a finger.