In 1971, to the backdrop of a funky jazz rhythm, musician and poet Gil Scott-Heron declared that “the revolution will not be televised.” In 2020, however, it’s possible that the threads of revolution would be found on Instagram — its message distributed through wide chunky typefaces and bold gradient graphics that preface a mini informative slideshow.
Online activism, coupled with in-person organizing, reached a zenith in June, as daily Black Lives Matter protests erupted across the country. Instagram, once an apolitical din, reflected that change. It no longer felt appropriate — even for celebrities and influencers, who tend to exist unfazed by current events — to skip over politics and resume regular programming. The escapist days of uninterrupted brunch photos and filtered selfies have been replaced by protest photos and black squares. For a brief moment, it seemed as though people, whether they have 150 followers or 150,000, were hyper-aware of what they should or should not post.
The unexpected solution to this posting ambivalence came in the form of bite-sized squares of information. The 10-image carousel, which Instagram launched in 2017, has been repurposed by activists, independent artists, advocacy groups, and well-meaning individuals as a means to educate and inform the masses, one slide at a time. Consider it something like PowerPoint activism. Over the past few months, these slides have migrated their way into my Explore page or been reposted on Stories of my friends and followers; in fact, these posts became so popular that I encountered similar designs and sentiments across multiple Stories. The most striking graphics stood out in my feeds, almost like an advertisement.
Once upon a time, the carousel was predominantly used for things like relationship reveals or photo outtakes (you know, photos that look good but not that good to be the featured image). But in a time of social unrest, these text-based slideshow graphics have found new resonance and an eager audience on the platform, which has been notorious for prioritizing still images over text.
If you search hard enough, there’s bound to be a post, explainer, or guide that advocates for virtually any cause you can think of and likely with tens of thousands of “likes” and engagements. Defunding the police. How to protest virtually. Mail-in voting. Lists upon lists of Black-owned businesses, community fridges, and ways you can help besides posting on Instagram. Turkey’s concerning femicide rate. The crisis that’s afflicting Lebanon. The slideshows are bold and eye-catching, and they feature colorful gradients, large serif fonts, pastel backgrounds, and playful illustrations — design choices intended to pause a user’s scroll and prompt them to read the text.
How do activism slideshows go viral on Instagram? By co-opting popular design aesthetics from brands.
Getting users to stop and click through is a challenge, not just on Instagram but for any carousel plugin on the Internet, said New York-based graphic designer Eric Hu. “Anyone who works in web or digital product design will tell you that the carousel is one of the least successful formats to share information, since users rarely go onto the next slide,” he told me.
Hu, who previously worked as the global design director for Nike Sportswear, had spent two weeks in June collaborating with two other artists to piece together copy, art, and design for a carousel on police abolition (he purposefully included a clear indication to swipe left on the first graphic). The artists sought to subvert Instagram’s algorithmic tendency to prioritize photographs by merging images of flowers and nature with informative text.
“Instagram is a very predictable platform,” Hu explained. “Everyone gets the same 10 squares, but how you fill it in makes the biggest difference. Instagram privileges certain content, like attractive people, vacation photos, and graphics with inspirational messages. But now, you’re seeing a lot of infographics trying to Trojan horse these tropes to trick the algorithm.”
The way Hu describes it, in spite of the massive interest toward social justice slideshows, Instagram’s algorithm “actively fights against it.” Still, while he’s only created four advocacy-adjacent graphics since May, those posts have received thousands more likes than his previous content, which was mostly uploads of his professional design work and personal life. The political urgency of this current moment may have contributed to soaring levels of engagement toward posts like Hu’s, which has led to certain accounts (usually those of a progressive or educational slant) seeing unexpected and exponential growth.
Jess, the New York-based creator behind the So You Want to Talk About account, which parses progressive politics, had accumulated a sizable following of about 10,000 in early June. By August, she’s reached a million followers, receiving tens of thousands of daily “likes” from organic engagement.
Jess, who works as a marketing consultant for her day job, said the branding inspiration for her account — which features bright colors and bubbly fonts — came from the deluge of inspirational graphics popular among millennial women. When Jess launched @soyouwanttotalkabout in February, she gravitated toward bolder colors like mustard yellow, olive, and coral for her posts’ backgrounds, but eventually settled on a more subdued palette of creamy pinks, yellows, and blues. Her overall strategy and content packaging are similar to brands that speak to corporate-minded, girl-boss feminists.
“I’m trying to appeal to the apolitical people, the ones who’d rather stay out of it and enjoy, like, mimosa pictures,” Jess added. “I’m also trying to reach women my age, millennials who aren’t participating in the conversation because they don’t know where to start.”
In addition to growing interest toward social justice content, there’s a unique stylistic uniformity among these activism slideshows that earn them virality — an element I struggled to put my finger on. The fonts and colors of these guides aren’t necessarily similar, but there’s an inexplicable familiarity to these posts, making them approachable and extremely shareable when they first floated across my Instagram feeds in late May. Hu noticed that successful graphics tend to be heavily over-designed, featuring whimsical, colorful, and even “grotesque” typefaces and illustrations.
“From a design perspective, they’re pretty horrible, but it is that type of Instagrammable graphic that the platform favors,” he said. And what Instagram favors, coincidentally, has been used for years among many millennial-facing, direct-to-consumer brands. Design-wise, the brands got there first: Think of advertisements and Instagram posts for products from Casper (mattresses), Buffy (bedding), Tend (dentistry), Glossier (beauty), and Kin Euphorics (booze).
“A lot of this stuff, you can swap the text out for anything, and it’ll completely change the message,” Hu added. “There isn’t much of a relationship between content and aesthetics; if anything, the content is just interchangeable like an ad, for better or for worse.” He later direct-messaged me a slew of corporate made-for-Instagram advertisements, and sure enough, the parallels are shocking and potentially problematic when considering how integral design is in “selling” consumers a product, a vision, or even an ideology.
In some cases, brands — that are latching onto the movement to create a social justice message that emphasizes consumer care — are creating and re-posting these guides themselves. For example, CHNGE is a streetwear brand by entrepreneur Jacob Castaldi that promotes itself as ethical and sustainable. Its Instagram page emulates that of a progressive advocacy organization, with posts on allyship, police defunding, climate change, and international issues. And while the brand only appears to be selling social justice-adjacent, Black Lives Matter apparel for donations to the movement, it’s a telling sign of the steady corporatization of progressive politics — adopted by everyone from independent labels like CHNGE to Nike to the NBA. This branding reveals itself to be nefarious, then, when it links the anti-capitalist ideology held by activists that have led the Black Lives Matter movement to global prominence to the corporations themselves.
Activist-minded creators have raised concerns about the packaging of modern political messaging. Historically, artists haven’t shied away from the political; if anything, some have sought to subvert or degrade corporate aesthetics and design choices in an attempt to disrupt and craft a new visual language for their own movements. On a platform like Instagram, however, playing against the rules might not necessarily be rewarding, even if it does make a stronger statement of one’s politics. By borrowing the stylistic elements popular within the capitalist sphere, creators are co-opting them for a greater, arguably more moral cause.
Coincidental or not, creators are applying this millennialesque visual language to their work, which makes it easy for savvy brands (or anyone who can replicate that design style) to jump on and pervert the movement by using it to further their own corporate mission. Then there’s the question of whether it’s even appropriate to aestheticize these human rights-related issues. As corporations and individuals become attuned to the widespread adoption of memes and certain creative aesthetics in online spaces, they could further be used to “commodify tragedy and obfuscate revolutionary messages,” wrote the Instagram creator @disintegration.loops, later referencing how Breonna Taylor’s death has devolved into a meme.
Most of these activism slideshows don’t appear to be made with malicious intent, nor are they actively harming anyone, but some are worried about the long-term neutralizing effect of making advocacy more digestible and consumable for a large audience.
Slideshows usually advocate for legitimate causes, but the potential for misinformation still exists
In a recent Instagram post, Eve Ewing, a writer and sociologist who’s done research on racism and social inequality, used a template from the design app Canva to encourage users to be conscious of information consumed on Instagram. “Graphics like this can be a helpful teaching tool, but some of the ‘racial justice explainer’ posts that go viral grossly oversimplify complex ideas in harmful or misleading ways or flat-out misstate facts,” reads the post. “[They] are not attributed to any transparent person, people, or organization who can be held accountable for errors and draw on the work of scholars and activists who go uncredited.”
Ewing’s use of the Canva app to deliver her message is smartly paradoxical and highlights how anyone — even with minimal design knowledge — can easily craft an infographic or explainer through these accessible design platforms. Information, then, can easily be shared countless times — regardless of whether it’s been fact-checked, properly sourced, or proofread — with little or no accountability. Take Canva’s peach-colored template, for example, which features the oversized serif font Ovo. The template, which has existed on Canva since March 2019, has been exported for personal use nearly 200,000 times, according to public relations manager Mitch Holmes.
Over the past few months, the template has become notably popular among Instagram users seeking to craft social justice slideshows, featuring topics like “non-optical allyship,” Turkey’s femicide rates, African American Vernacular English (AAVE), and how anti-Semitism should be factored in when discussing anti-racist ideology. The success of these posts reveal how a slideshow — if it abides by certain design conventions familiar to Instagram and its users — might have a greater chance of achieving virality.
To designers like Hu and people familiar with the nature of misinformation on social media, the possibility that these artsy, aesthetic slideshows could devolve into something malicious shouldn’t be discounted. In his newsletter Medialyte, media reporter Mark Stenberg described this phenomenon as the “Facebook-ification of Instagram,” drawing parallels between the frenzy of 2016 Facebook and 2020 Instagram: “Both exist in a time of political upheaval, which has spurred users into using them as a platform for spreading political messages. Both allow users to post and share just about anything,” Stenberg wrote. “Both live and breathe user engagement. And both are owned by Facebook.”
In March, Instagram declared that it would adjust its moderation standards in line with Facebook’s to combat the spread of fake news related to the coronavirus pandemic. This announcement, however, came months after reported claims about how the platform has failed to curb the spread of anti-vax content and other conspiracy theories. Plus, due to its visual and highly shareable nature, tracking down misinformation on Instagram can be a more difficult task than on Facebook; it’s harder to train an algorithm to discern false or misleading content in an image rather than text.
The problem is, the format of the mini slideshow has become so ubiquitous that independent creators are using them as a creative outlet, a political megaphone, or a means to build their brand. “I would spend, on average, anywhere from two to six hours to do basic research and design the graphic,” Jess of @soyouwanttotalkabout told me when I asked her about maintaining a reputable feed. “I think what I did stood out in the beginning because I was including sources at the bottom of every slide. I’m glad to see more people doing that now, but I mainly try to source from .edu or .org websites, or even the actual US government.”
Almost all of the posts I’ve encountered appear to exist with the intention of helping and informing, not deceiving the users who come across their content. Most didn’t anticipate the skyrocketing levels of engagement: A popular mini-guide on using trans-inclusive language with over 43,000 “likes” was created by a user with only 1,200 followers. Many creators acknowledge that posting on social media itself is an inherently performative act; yet, the scale and scope of Instagram’s reach make it irresistible, especially during a time when coalition-building and encouraging solidarity is crucial. The intent, identity of the creator, and accuracy of these guides matter a great deal, but more often than not, that nuance is lost on the average Instagram user — flattened into a quick share or repost with a hasty tag as they scroll on and on.
Will you become our 20,000th supporter? When the economy took a downturn in the spring and we started asking readers for financial contributions, we weren’t sure how it would go. Today, we’re humbled to say that nearly 20,000 people have chipped in. The reason is both lovely and surprising: Readers told us that they contribute both because they value explanation and because they value that other people can access it, too. We have always believed that explanatory journalism is vital for a functioning democracy. That’s never been more important than today, during a public health crisis, racial justice protests, a recession, and a presidential election. But our distinctive explanatory journalism is expensive, and advertising alone won’t let us keep creating it at the quality and volume this moment requires. Your financial contribution will not constitute a donation, but it will help keep Vox free for all. Contribute today from as little as $3.