Within 48 hours of the first mass protest following the killing of George Floyd, the e-mails started to roll in. From your gym, your bookstore, your alma mater, the retailer whose Facebook ad for a pizza-print duvet you once clicked on while drunk. They all want you to know that they stand for diversity and against police violence. On Twitter, everyone from Lego to Pornhub to your favorite fast-food franchise has weighed in with a somber statement of support for the protesters (except Arby’s, and you’d better believe they’re on a list somewhere because of it). Facebook is awash in public privilege atonements. Instagram is a sea of black boxes interspersed with influencers posing with BLACK LIVES MATTER signs in couture gowns. Many entries sound like a confession written at gunpoint using words that the author barely understands. “In my whiteness, I have subconsciously built a brand that contributes to a racist system,” a lifestyle coach with 958,000 followers posted on Instagram. And if you haven’t made your own post yet, well, maybe you shouldn’t. The only thing worse than failing to attend this party is showing up too late.
With the country locked down and public spaces closed up, our social lives are online only—where nobody knows who you are or what you feel unless you advertise it. But advertise you must: even as thousands of people flout social-distancing measures and defy public-health edicts to protest, the demand upon individual citizens and brands alike to take a stand on social media remains fierce and unrelenting. It’s the pics-or-it-didn’t-happen ethos at work, where the most important thing is not what you do but what you are seen to be doing. On the Internet, a donation receipt for a protester’s bail fund—even a Photoshopped one—is worth more in cultural currency than the donation itself.