Social Media Virtue Signalling: Changing Nothing Changes Nothing

The scene:

While stirring his Starbucks coffee with a plastic stir stick, he scrolls through his Twitter feed. He likes a few Tweets that insult climate change deniers and retweets a Tweet with a link to an article outlining how climate change will significantly raise sea levels by 2050. “I hate climate change deniers,” he thinks to himself as he tosses his plastic stir stick into the trash and places a plastic lid on his coffee. He then walks to his SUV, parked in front idling to keep the AC on (it’s a sweltering and humid late September day for Toronto).

Classic digital engagement of ‘do as I say, not as I do.’

Token display on social media has become so common it’s often seen as platitude. ‘Virtue signalling,’ a term popularized by James Bartholomew’s article Easy Virtue (The Spectator, April 18, 2015), has become part of our lexicon to call out such platitude.

Virtue signalling implies an individual, company, or organization doesn’t genuinely believe in the cause they publicly support — their agenda is to publicly look good. It’s a form of hypocrisy that has existed since the dawn of civilization — one of the many social survival tools we use to get along with others and seek acceptance. 

Social media has made it too easy to voice an opinion about a particular cause without taking to the streets, without taking any personal risks or taking any substantive action. Many people think merely retweeting a hashtag, posting a picture on Instagram wearing a pink shirt for #PinkShirtDay, temporarily adding a rainbow-coloured frame to their Facebook profile picture, or adding their name to an online ‘Save the Snow Leopards’ petition is participating in meaningful social-political activism. 

Social media ‘virtue signalling’ proliferation stems from the belief that expressing, or supporting, opinions that are likely to be acceptable will show you’re a good person. I call it ‘digital vanity’ — making a statement because you reckon it’ll garner approval. On more than one occasion, we’re all guilty of digital vanity.

The need for social acceptance, recognition, and status is a powerful drug — it’s a part of the foundation for human motivation. Yes, you do care what others think of you. Social media is where we seek attention, adoration, digital applause, and reinforcement of our beliefs — which are the core reasons for social media’s rapid universal adoption. Social media facilitated virtue-signalling feeds the ego in an almost eloquent fashion.

Social media = Look at me!

So, is virtue signalling bad or good?

It’s complicated. On the one hand, broadcasting ideals and values is good — it creates awareness. On the other hand, virtue signalling goes wrong when such broadcasting becomes a repetitive behaviour pattern. It’s said we live in an age of outrage. In itself outrage has never addressed any social issue. #OccupyWallStreet didn’t end bad business practices or redistribute wealth. 

Tweeting your outrage of homelessness from your iPhone 11, while walking past a homeless person asking for change, as you head to meet friends for drinks at some overpriced currently in vogue watering hole accomplishes nothing other than making you feel good about yourself. That $20 Apple Martini you’re fortunate to be able to purchase could have bought that homeless person you claim to care about a decent meal.

Imagine how different our world would look and feel if a large percentage of people expressing their support for a cause, solidarity, or outrage on social media platforms took meaningful action instead. It’s easy to be outraged over food insecurity and expect something to be done on a government level rather than to go out and purchase $100 of groceries and deliver it to a local food bank. Offline action is increasingly becoming a rarity. It’s expected that our tweets, posts and rants in comment sections will spur action in others.

Social media is a means, not an end. Whether intentional or not, creating awareness is a strategic tactic, not an end goal.

Social media success is measured in engagement (retweets, likes, and comments). It’s all ego stroking that does nothing meaningful to change the world. For change to happen, you need to sign off from your device and go into the real world to #BeTheChange.

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