Quote Cards as Online Activism: A Social Justice Revolution?

Digital Editor Madeline Reid meets the creators behind Instagram's most-shared content in 2020, and explores the benefits of good digital design in online social justice activism.

IMAGES Courtesy of Ryan, Holly and Jess.

This article originally appeared in the ‘Let’s Evolve’ issue of BRICKS, available to purchase from our online store.

I don’t think it’s controversial to assert that our contemporary media landscape is at its breaking point. In the UK, two billionaire press barons now own half of the country’s top 10 daily newspapers. Conservative-partisan papers continue publishing anti-trans opinions from columnists while so-called ‘responses’ published in politically-opposing titles largely come from cis allies, excluding trans voices in nation-wide debates about their rights. Seemingly inclusive companies Refinery29, Vogue Magazine, and Bon Appetit have been called out for institutional racism, and even more including the likes of VICE, The Atlantic, and Conde Nast laid off substantial staff, many of whom were women of colour, citing budget restraints amid the coronavirus pandemic. 

It seems the decline of traditional journalism has been a long time coming – interest in print media has been on a well-documented decline for decades. The lifeline for many journalists has been increased readership online and the niche audiences supporting indie magazines. Due to the financial impact of the pandemic, however, many of these have struggled to remain afloat. Much of what was going to happen in any case will now happen suddenly: publishing history is suddenly accelerated.

This came to its peak in April 2020, when the world watched as videos of George Floyd’s brutal murder by police went viral. The videos reignited efforts within the Black Lives Matter movement, and within days, nation-wide protests calling for police abolishment and justice for Black victims spread across the US, and then the world. Disengaged and untrusting of the mainstream media’s coverage of the protests and its loyalty to government authority, many young people turned to social media to share their outrage. And, after an accidental co-opt of an initiative to post black squares raising awareness for Black women in music, Instagram became a global blackout. Soon, debates broke out over whether the squares were a useful way to draw attention to the ongoing protests or if they silenced it, and in response, many users began creating their own news-like content for the platform.

One such individual is Ryan, who started the account @notmytype.jpg following the online reaction to Floyd’s murder. “I was immersed in a sea of information while still trying to process what had happened, and I started to feel the pressure to somehow get involved,” he explains. “I began reposting content on my Instagram Stories but I didn’t feel like I was really digesting what I was putting out there, so I created a short video for my personal account that paid respect to the Black lives that were lost to police violence over the past decade. The learning experience from creating that content inspired me to start @notmytype.jpg, because I realised that leveraging my educational and professional background, as well as the skills I have in design, was the answer to how I could effectively get involved in the movement.”

Ryan’s account harnesses his talent in typography to spread messages promoting anti-racism and LGBTQ+ visibility and is just one example of a new wave of activism taking place online. The format is simple: known as quote cards, users create informative slideshows that conveniently break down complex political and social issues into beautiful, bite-sized chunks: a history lesson on the crisis in Beirut; a 10-page slide show on protecting trans rights; a step-by-step guide for non-optical allyship, the list goes on. The information is usually curated by activists, academics, and well-meaning individuals with the time and knowledge, and is rapidly shared through Instagram stories. 

For Ryan, sharing his designs online was a by-product of the personal research on anti-racism he was doing. The posts started to gain traction as he covered stories mainstream outlets were ignoring. He says, “The most attention I’ve had on my page was from posts that mentioned the killings of Black trans women. I recognised that there was barely any mention amongst all of the BLM content that was circulating on Instagram, and I definitely hadn’t seen anything on the news about it, so I knew I had to create content to bring awareness, and encourage people to share.” 

Aside from their brevity, another potential reason behind the popularity of the format is its accessibility. Not only are these slideshows easy to share via your Instagram story, they are also available to anyone who has the app. This comes in stark contrast to mainstream outlets such as The Telegraph and The Times where a subscription is needed to access content. 

Growing up, my friends never really talked about politics and global affairs. I think we felt it wasn’t our place because we didn’t know everything about it – how many times have you heard someone say “I don’t know enough about it to comment?

– Holly, @thismuchiknow.news

Eager to create more accessible news content, Holly co-founded @thismuchiknow.news in late 2018. “Growing up, my friends never really talked about politics and global affairs. I think we felt it wasn’t our place because we didn’t know everything about it – how many times have you heard someone say “I don’t know enough about it to comment?,” she says. She cites mainstream media’s “overwhelming nature” as partly to blame. “I felt like you needed to know everything or nothing at all, so I was eager to bring news to young people in a digestible and informative way.”

In the UK, news shows have recorded its lowest audience figures since the country went into lockdown. Over the course of this year, and what has felt like a never-ending negative news cycle, there has been significant discourse surrounding the impact the news can have on our mental health, and how to stay informed without becoming overwhelmed. 

“When we started ‘This Much I Know’ we did a lot of research into how people felt about mainstream media, and the results were pretty clear,” Holly explains. “Young people especially felt that the news was overwhelming, depressing, and even bad for their mental health. Instead of adding to the 24-hour cycle of negative news, we wanted to chime in with a few quick stories in the morning, telling readers the key points, why it matters, and how they can help. No more.”

By creating succinct news-bites that answer straightforward questions such as “what has happened?”, “why has it happened?” and “how can I help?”, the quote cards deliver concise, need-to-know information. And, as many of these slides are created by individuals and groups of friends, often without a background in politics or journalism, the slides are free from political jargon and pretentious drivel that can make those uninformed feel excluded from conversations.

Elitism has long poisoned the journalism industry – a study by the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission in 2014 found that almost half of UK national newspaper columnists graduated from Oxford or Cambridge, with this number doubling since the 1980s. Moreover, a study conducted by Women In Journalism analysed the news coverage during one week in July this year, at the peak of BLM protests, and found that not a single byline on the front page of the UK’s 11 biggest newspapers featured a Black journalist. 

It’s no wonder that young people feel disillusioned and untrusting of mainstream media and have taken it upon themselves to create, curate and circulate news themselves, particularly when it comes to stories of race, sexual and gender identity, and mental health. The success of the informational Instagram graphic confirms that while experience in a newsroom may teach technical editorial skills, it doesn’t seem to have taught the importance of amplifying diverse voices, and explains why many readers are turning elsewhere.

However, is Instagram the best place to turn to? While the social media platform has undoubtedly helped facilitate this newfound diversification of news writers, it’s also been caught in a myriad of controversies regarding its enforcement of community guidelines, such as accusations of racial bias when censoring Black women’s bodies.

“Instagram was a great testing ground for our concept at the beginning,” says Holly. “Our news aims to be incredibly interactive – we ask our readers their opinion on everything, share their feedback, and use this to frame future stories. For these reasons, the Instagram questions and polling tools were really useful, and polling is a big part of what we do. We, of course, have our concerns about data, censorship and product changes – we could wake up tomorrow and find that IG Stories have stopped, for example.”

Good design legitimises the content – people are more willing to believe in the content that’s being presented to them if it’s presented in an easily-digestible and aesthetically pleasing way.

– Ryan, @notmytype.jpg

To protect against the changing nature of app updates (Instagram, we’ve still never forgiven you for that newsfeed algorithm change), Holly and her team launched an app for their followers, allowing them to decide what functionality they need. It’s a clever idea as Instagram has complete control over both the features and content of its site, meaning if it chooses to censor certain news content for its mature or graphic nature, or remove one of the activists’ key tools such as story reposting, these accounts would undoubtedly suffer. “That being said, people love Instagram and they’re unlikely to leave it,” she adds.

For others, the possibility of reaching such a high global audience outweighs future concerns of censorship. Jess started her news account, @soyouwanttotalkabout, in February this year. In under six months, the account could boast over one million followers and counting. A full-time marketing consultant in her real life, Jess became involved with politics as a volunteer for Barack Obama’s reelection campaign, and was inspired to start ‘So You Want To Talk About’ while volunteering for Bernie Sanders.

It’s thanks to features on Instagram’s platform that Jess has been able to make an impact beyond just online engagement and awareness. “Since I hit 10k followers and was given the ‘swipe up’ feature on stories, I have been posting action items, further reading material, and places to donate to for my followers,” she says. “I even designed a couple of products that I had up with 100% of the profits going to Equal Justice Initiative, and I encourage anyone who reaches out to me about donations to donate to EJI or the Know Your Rights Camp instead.”

Jess’ account functions as half-political news reporting (So You Wanna Talk About Biden’s Record/The Ketamine Crisis/The Supreme Court Nomination Process) and half-magazine-style feature, covering topics from suicide prevention to growth to ‘How To Talk To Your Racist Family Member’. The look of the account’s clean, text-based design was inspired by the ‘inspirational quote’ format that has been successful across platforms such as Tumblr, Facebook and Instagram, especially with women. “I tried to think of what would be visually appealing enough to get people to stop scrolling and look at the post,” she explains.

While Holly admits the This Much I Know layout has been a game of trial-and-error, Ryan believes the design of these posts is key to their success: “We live in a society where we are constantly stimulated with images and information, and being on a platform like Instagram, it’s essential to have aesthetically pleasing design to get people’s attention and have that content shared. Good design legitimises the content – people are more willing to believe in the content that’s being presented to them if it’s presented in an easily-digestible and aesthetically pleasing way.”

This is the key to the content’s stratospheric success online – not just the democratization of news dissemination, but the democratization of professional aesthetics of disseminated news. Unlike Twitter, or Facebook, or any previous online activism that has taken place on more text-based platforms, accounts such as Ryan’s, Holly’s and Jess’ on Instagram are upending the aesthetics of politics by creating and disseminating information that looks like the real deal. 

I think if people are more informed and given the tools to take action, they will.

– Jess, @soyouwannatalkabout

While it may not solve all the problems of representation in the political news landscape, it’s a great starting point. Naysayers could argue the complications of news dissemination this way – if it is to be treated as journalism, how do we hold it to the standards we expect of publications? How do you fight fake news, when things can be shared hundreds of thousands of times in a matter of minutes? And does it have any real power offline?

In reality, these are the same criticisms of all online content, from blogs to Twitter to The Daily Mail. Besides, Ryan, Holly and Jess aren’t looking to replace reading the news – they want to augment it. Their mission is to inform wider audiences about underreported stories, and motivate young people to be politically active about issues that matter to them, particularly when the ways we’re used to showing our activism have been limited due to the pandemic. “I think if people are more informed and given the tools to take action, they will,” says Jess. 

“If we post a graphic on an important issue and point to ways to help, and our post reaches 100,000 people – yes, many people will like the post and move on – but others will act, share it with their friends and beyond,” Holly agrees. “I think it’s worth pointing out the positive aspects of online activism too – for example, protests aren’t accessible for everyone, and shaming people who don’t attend isn’t productive. Awareness and donations play a vital role too.” 

The young artists, journalists and activists don’t show any sign of slowing, as their followings continue to rise and their posts reach new audiences. “Right now I’m just trying to post content whenever I can find time. I don’t put pressure on myself because I’m not following a trend or working against deadlines,” says Ryan. “Anti-racist content doesn’t have an expiry date and will always be relevant.”

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