When the pressure to be relevant rears its ugly head: in the form of hijacking a good cause
Long before familiarity with online engagement tools came in handy at work, I got a primer on the subject matter thanks to Klout. That’s clout as in “influence” (in relation to popularity) and “muscle, especially political power,” only spelled differently. Though in no way branded by a Kardashian or part of the family’s empire built on its marketing genius, clout-with-a-K did suit a post-Kardashian effect, level-one Black Mirror episode––mainly because the platform was designed to measure a person’s relevance. As a kind of social reputation barometer, it asked and simultaneously answered: on a scale of one to 100 (this meaning having the most influence), how influential are you?
— rstevens 69 ?? (@rstevens) May 10, 2018
Klout may now be defunct following a controversial decade-long run, but many other social engagement tools have sprouted in its place since, echoing more of the same. Relevance is still tied to things like follower count, the number of likes and replies, the times retweeted and shared. It’s the reason traditional marketing has made way for influencers: their aggregated social media scores tell brands whether or not they’re fit to “influence” (read: peddle product) to knowing or unknowing consumers on their behalf. In the process, engagement breeds validation; validation amplifies influence. Influence––rather, the ability to broadcast things to a receptive audience on social media––perpetuates a sense of purpose. Regardless of whether peso signs are part of the equation, it’s all the same: the self-indulgent side of social media that feeds on itself, a small cog in a more elaborate machine that capitalizes on people’s desires. This stands, sadly, even if that desire is as noble or principled as something as advocating for social justice.
For anyone seeking validation, the easiest way to get it is to position oneself, conveniently, at the center of what matters at the moment. The sign of the times paints a picture of what that might be, in part, and points to issues like equal rights, labor rights and reproductive health. These are at the heart of events like Women’s March and Pride Month and movements like Black Lives Matter, Respeto Naman and #JusticeForKian. The elevated dialogue surrounding these pressing issues goes hand-in-hand with raised expectations of the people who have it. Hence, the rise of woke Twitter and a generation that may occasionally include the boy who cried “canceled!” in a relentless pursuit as a social watchdog, but knows full well the power of media activism.
In 2017, youth-oriented publication Teen Vogue acknowledged the shift in what is deemed relevant in an interview with The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah. “People say, ‘you’re Teen Vogue. You’re known for fashion,” said Noah. “What the hell do you guys know about politics anyway?” To this, former chief content officer Phillip Picardi responded: “To tell a teenager that she stick to lip gloss––when she’s being directly impacted by policies affecting her lifestyle and the lifestyle of those around her––is frankly irresponsible.”
teen vogue 2002: would JOE JONAS??? like your lip gloss?????? or are you UGLY??
teen vogue 2019: https://t.co/eSo1P0LzA0
— shqueenie baby (@shqne) June 25, 2019
It’s official: It’s cool to care. It’s cool to be aware. It’s cool to want to make the world a better place to live in and even cooler not to care about whether it’s cool or not. In other words, advocating for social justice must be genuine…not a display, not a trend to get in on, not a soapbox to stand on simply because one wants to be seen. When the medium is social media, however, where the currency is clout, this well-meaning message becomes far too easy to sully.
For anyone who gives an actual damn about social justice, finding out that advocating for it has been reduced to a bandwagon to hop on, a coattail to ride on––a trend, as mentioned––can be exasperating. “Wow, this blew up,” a person might say after one of their tweets goes viral. “Since y’all here anyway, follow me on Instagram.” Slate referred to this social demonstration as the Twitter Invoice, a templated reaction to virality, where the Twitter user shamelessly plugs something they can cash in on in their replies. “Find a completely innocuous but widely relatable viral tweet (or make your own), then attach another tweet with the URL of whatever you want to promote on it, which people on the further reaches of Twitter will see when they inevitably go to check the replies,” enumerated Alex Ekong for Vice. “You might have read a couple of these: ‘While you’re all here…my Soundcloud is / PayPal me $5 / etc.’” Opportunistic, but near-harmless clout chasing in exchange for just 15 seconds of Twitter fame. Forgivable because it’s an out-and-out display of wanting a leg up: through asking for followers, charity or streams on Soundcloud.
Then there are those that parade as genuine allies of the cause: in it for the optics, but not the long haul. Such was the case for one straight, cisgender B-list actress who attended the 2019 Metro Manila Pride March. She took to Instagram to post a photo of herself posing with the rainbow flag smack dab in the middle of Marikina Sports Center. “I have my own beliefs and I don’t necessarily agree with everything they fight for,” she said in her caption, blithely unaware that Pride is rooted in protest. “But I do respect them as long as they respect me too.” Later, she would respond to someone’s call-out over her attending only for a photo op, saying: “I don’t agree with same-sex marriage, but that doesn’t mean I’m [going to] hate on them.”
This form of tokenism is also shown by “flexible” feminists and fake LGBTQ+ advocates in the Philippine senate, who elect only to use their platform when the cause suits their interests. The same goes for the local fashion magazine that spearheaded a massive equality campaign in June, inviting droves of personalities to appear in rainbow-tinted headshots while disregarding their storied history of homophobia or transphobia. They simultaneously took to social media anyway to post their photos along with a lengthy (copied and pasted) caption about equality.
— thysz (@thysz) July 25, 2019
For the disingenuous, this is a glaring reminder that especially via the internet, the generation basking in a sincere social awakening doesn’t forget and, unfortunately, rarely forgives. So before putting on a faux woke face for the sake of relevance, attention or popularity, ask the question: Is this really the hill you want to die on?
Art Alexandra Lara