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Digital Anthropology: The ‘Hug Box’ Mentality in Collective Cyberactivism on Instagram

Studies have documented a pervasive hug box mentality involved in cyberactivism. Despite having access to vast networks of information, users continually seek similarities on social media. In this digital hug box, they tend to consume and redistribute content that reinforces their own viewpoints. A similar term to describe this phenomenon is the echo chamber.

Social media can be a powerful tool for social change. However, there is less attention focussed on the downsides of using these platforms.

I recently undertook a research project that analysed the way humans use Instagram to voice their support during online social movements. In particular, I looked at how online users employed hashtags to pledge their allegiance to the 2020 Black Lives Matter movement (BLM).

From the perspective of one participant, this article details the dangers of using social media to advance a social cause. In particular, I explore the perceived effectiveness of hashtag usage and how this interacts with users’ online identities.

What is cyberactivism?

Illustration of a hand firmly grasped around a mouse with a red and yellow striped background
@Cyber_Activism1 / Twitter

Cyberactivism is ‘the act of using the Internet to advance a political cause.’ The concept has been at the centre of success for many social movements in gender equality, disability, and freedom in virtual spaces.

There have been two contrasting understandings of cyberactivism’s role in facilitating digital social movements. The first is its empowering function to produce real-life changes in offline society (widening effect). The second is its limitations based on what users do with the influx of information that confronts them on social media platforms (limiting effect).

In relation to hashtag cyberactivism, many studies point to a temporary and elusive ‘slacktivism’. This low-cost action fails to go beyond raising awareness or acting as a tokenistic ‘I’ve contributed’ medal.

Case Study: Hashtag cyberactivism on Instagram during the BLM movement

My research explored the potential limiting effects of the ‘hug box mentality.’ It investigated how this influenced the trajectory of the BLM movement both within and outside the Instagram sphere.

In 2020, the murder of George Floyd, an African American man, by a white police officer in Minnesota sparked a global aftermath. It swiftly percolated Instagram’s digital realm bundled in a simple word cluster – #BlackOutTuesday. This hashtag was responsible for a mass posting of black squares (a ‘blackout’) as an alleged symbol of solidarity. However, many criticised these posts for silencing the input of Black voices. 

An instagram grid showing rows of black squares underneath the hashtag 'blackouttuesday
Image Source: CNBC

The novelty of Instagram’s photo-sharing space has introduced new modes of cyberactivism – the hybrid hashtag-image. In the age of digital activist culture, people can participate in social movements easily.

Typically, a hug box mentality consumes many Instagram users. In other words, they choose to seek similarity online to gain peer approval as a hashtag proliferates. Unfortunately, this socio-digital process has tangible, limiting effects on real social change beyond the screen. Following their peers, hundreds of thousands of users posted a black square with the hashtag #BlackOutTuesday. Still, they did little more to educate, advocate or support. The hashtag became a symbol of social approval, a symbol of being ‘woke’ in an environment saturated with so-called ‘activists.’

The consequences of not participating online

One of my respondents, herself an Instagram user, revealed deep insight into the power of hashtag trends in social movements. Most notably, with digital hashtags being one of the simplest instances of ‘activism’, there were considerable consequences for choosing not to participate. These consequences were key drivers in hashtag proliferation.

There were two primary categories of consequences. Firstly, the consequence of non-participation as internal and exclusive to individual users. And secondly, the consequence of non-participation as external and relating to the offline BLM movement more broadly.

The consequence of non-participation as internal and exclusive to individual users

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Image Source: Juana Garcia/The Daily Cougar

Although the respondent chose not to distribute the hashtag, she raised concern that people equated her non-participatory silence with non-support. For her, this was an inevitable consequence of remaining silent in the BLM movement. However, she did not want to repost the hashtag simply because other people were; she refused to lock herself into this pervasive hug box mentality. As a result, she accepted the consequence that other people might perceive her as a non-supporter.

For other users who did repost the hashtag, the respondent understood these people to be combatting internal feelings of guilt. For her, redistributing the hashtag and the black square allowed people to protect themselves from being perceived as non-activists in a climate saturated by so-called activists. In doing so, people comfortably hide behind a digital barrier; they are nestled safely in a web of personal and social validation. In other words, participating in hashtag cyberactivism for a broader social movement was a personal tool for solidifying a desirable social identity.

Illustration of a pile of facebook 'like' symbols with the caption 'we love it' above
Image Source: osiaffiliate.com

I asked the respondent if she thought anonymity would change someone’s desire to post the hashtag. Some studies suggest that people are more likely to voice their opinion when they are anonymous. However, the respondent noted the importance of remaining identifiable when participating in BLM cyberactivism. Identification, in this case, was necessary to reap the social rewards – that is, social approval and validation – that come with disseminating the hashtag.

The consequence of non-participation as external and related to the offline BLM movement

The second category of consequences for non-participation was broader, perceived as consequences that are external to the individual and related to the progress of the BLM movement beyond the screen. The respondent emphasised that simple actions that stop at the click of a share button have minimal positive consequences for the BLM movement at large.

‘Slacktivism’ inhibits real change

Cartoon of someone screaming for help and a building of people at their windows watching instead of taking action
Image Source: cie.wordpress.com

I asked the respondent how she perceived the hashtag’s usefulness concerning social change in the ‘real world’.  Commenting on ‘the slacktivism’ that results from a hug box mentality, the respondent understood hashtag distributers’ performative and self-fulfilling actions as non-effectual. For her, they served social popularity purposes rather than educative and empowerment purposes. While many users overtly reject racism, their shallow actions on Instagram may constitute a form of ‘subconscious racism‘, where more harm is done than good.

For the respondent, the relationship between individuals and social movements is paradoxical. While the movement entailed a mass uniting of online users to promote a social issue, it was ultimately fuelled by individual needs and desires. In the process, this reduced access to minority voices that had the potential to offer valuable resources. The voices of white Instagram users telling Black people that their ‘lives matter’ dominated. But at the same time, this domination concealed important minority voices beneath a digital blanket of black squares.

Three key findings

In analysing the respondent’s perspective of hashtag effectiveness during the BLM cyberactivism movement, three related key findings surfaced.

  1. Approval-seeking (hug box mentality) results in slacktivism (ineffective activism)
  2. Mass posting results in limited access to educative and informative information (ineffective activism)
  3. As a result, there is an online/offline divide between cyberactivism and the broader BLM movement beyond the screen (ineffective activism).

Note: Reproduced sections of the interview script are italicised.

Approval-seeking (hug box mentality) results in slacktivism

Cartoon illustration of a woman typing on her computer, a human hand forming a thumbs up jumps out of the screen
Image Source: learning-mind.com

The respondent viewed other users’ hashtag posting as largely motivated by social gratification. This ‘activism’ was seen as a performative check-box action used to gain ‘a sense of validation’. Therefore, the respondent saw it as ‘slacktivism’.

Undoubtedly, the digital realm has nurtured an environment that permits slacktivism. The respondent noted the ease with which users can ‘press a few buttons on their phone [in] three seconds‘ and then ‘pat themselves on the back‘ for contributing to the movement. In a matter of days, a sea of black squares accompanied by the #BlackoutTuesday inundated Instagram. This sea rapidly warped into a digital tsunami due to users being ‘sheeple and adopting an ‘all my friends are doing it so I should too’ (or ‘hug box’) mentality. Consequently, these support actions become ‘meaningless’, motivated by self-gratification (easily fulfilled by ‘lazy’ contributions) rather than a desire to facilitate meaningful social change.

On another note, I’ve seen obvious cases of slacktivism play out before my eyes. I know people who reposted the BLM hashtag. Yet, these same people celebrated Australia Day (more aptly known as Invasion Day). Why were they celebrating a day that goes against everything being protested for in the BLM movement?

Mass posting results in limited access to educative and informative information

A black screen with white text 'URGENT' asking instagram users to stop reposting the black lives matter hashtag
Image Source: @TheBatMarino / Twitter

As a result of slacktivism and the ease of redistributing the hashtag, the sheer volume of people contributing to the hashtag overload became almost unavoidable. The respondent discussed the challenges in locating the minority voices of Black lives within the digital activism space. She recalled seeing a saturation of the #BlackoutTuesday hashtag on her feed. Still, She stated that accessing opinions from Black people was ‘not easy at all.’ With her feed entirely saturated with black squares and a simple hashtag, there was minimal information about ways to support black lives. Users could have used the digital space more productively. For example, to promote black-owned businesses or provide links to further educative sources.

Interestingly, the respondent noted that she received some resources from Black users, but only from those she already followed. Even then, the information she received from those people was not empowering or educative, but rather a plea to ‘stop doing this.’ Referencing a Black-owned podcast page (@Boboandflex), the respondent argued that this user was forced to use the small space they had to beg people to stop using the hashtag. @Boboandflex could have used this digital space to distribute information that would be effective for the movement.

An online/offline divide between cyberactivism and the broader BLM movement beyond the screen

A colourful button board and a finger that presses the 'thoughts and prayers' button instead of the 'do something' button
Image Source: Reddit

Taken together, slacktivism and limited accessibility have created an online/offline divide where ‘an online action doesn’t necessarily match an offline action.‘ Indeed, the respondent noted that she knows few people within her network who posted the hashtag and then donated or went to a protest afterwards.

The respondent viewed people’s temporary actions as ‘confined to the digital grid’, positioned safely within a climate of majority opinion that afforded them social validation. Unfortunately, as a result, many online activists become ‘offline by-stand[ers]’ beyond the screen.

The hug box mentality in cyberactivism and its limiting effects

A person sits on his laptop while inside a bubble
Image Source: jou.ufl.edu

The hug box mentality suggests that online users in public spaces like Instagram are more likely to ‘preach to the choir‘ than express different opinions or make bold assertions.

The limiting effects of the hug box mentality are visible in how the respondent described the ‘best-intentioned’ and ‘non-malicious’ incentives for users posting the hashtag. In other words, the dominance and pervasiveness of the #BlackoutTuesday hashtag positioned it as normal and socially valued. In other words, perhaps contributing users could not have known any better. As someone who did not participate, the respondent positioned herself outside of this ‘hug box’ and observed those who were confined within it.

Users who were ‘afraid to feel like they hadn’t contributed’ or were ‘avoiding guilt’ protected their digital identities within this secure ‘hug box’. Ultimately, the box nurtures the dominant expression (mostly of white Instagram users) but is seldom unlocked. As noted by the respondent, this means that any further conversation does not transcend the boundary into offline society.

What can we learn from this study?

A large group of people holding signs and protesting for Black Lives Matter
Image Source: nypost.com

Ultimately, actions speak louder than words. Social media is an incredible avenue for the rapid distribution and amplification of a message. But – depending on who your online circles are – it doesn’t always encourage further action. To facilitate authentic and meaningful social change, we need a collaborative connection between our online and offline worlds. Using Facebook to organise a mass protest offline is one example of digital and non-digital coming together. But the #BlackoutTuesday hashtag pool represents an isolated, superficial attempt to ‘contribute’ where countless people took no further action. The internet is one of the most powerful connective tools we have today, so why not use it to our advantage?

Significance of the study in anthropology

Illustration of black fists in the air below social media symbols and a world globe
Image Source: adhrb.org

The blurring of online and offline worlds in a new ‘hybrid media environment‘ has immersed internet users in interactive platforms. Here, they can deliberate on moral issues and advance social causes.

Individuals can now connect instantaneously over social media. As a result, there is a vast new canvas upon which anthropologists can study human interaction. Our personal and social identities are increasingly rooted in technology. Therefore, a focus on digital anthropology will provide valuable insight into the emerging ways humans interact with one another against a backdrop of complex social issues.

My study results point toward the limiting aspects of online activism. Most notably, users often follow their peers to participate in a ‘trend’ with little regard to the consequences.  However, these findings also suggest there is significant power in the collective. Platforms like Instagram, for example, allow for the rapid transmission of messages. We just have to figure out how to control and construct a message worth spreading. Suppose we can figure out how to instil more depth (for example, educative resources and more diverse voices) into these simple hashtag strings. In that case, real social change would be more feasible.

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