On Tuesday, June 2, 2020, Instagram went dark. The typical feed of influencers, pets, and pandemic sourdough was replaced with black squares, tagged #BlackoutTuesday. Originally a campaign to acknowledge Black talent in the music industry, the black squares quickly took on a life of their own, transforming into a social media movement to show solidarity against police violence and the killing of George Floyd.
But as swiftly as the black squares took over, so did criticisms about social media users effectively causing an app-wide blackout during protests against police violence when people were trying to share crucial information online. Many organizers and activists lamented how simply posting a black square, instead of getting involved, speaking up, and participating in the Black Lives Matter movement, was the epitome of "performative allyship."
“If you want to take action, you have to be anti-racist, which takes effort, resources, and time,” Brooke Marine wrote in W at the time. “Posting a black square and nothing else can be construed as an empty, performative gesture, rather than a legitimate act of solidarity with those who are suffering right now.” As Tirhakah Love wrote in One Zero, the "#BlackoutTuesday hashtags take advantage of the need for moral high ground through low-risk virtue signaling."
Despite including the word "virtue," being accused of virtue signaling is rarely a pleasant experience—though it is an ever-increasing one. In 2019, Piers Morgan called actress Jameela Jamil a “pathetic virtue-signalling twerp.” A 2019 Wall Street Journal op-ed described vegetarianism as "more about virtue signaling than improving the food system." Anti-maskers have consistently charged people wearing masks during the pandemic of virtue signaling. And even the allegation of virtue signaling has been decried as a signal of virtue—two parties could potentially throw the insult back and forth in an infinite loop of accusation.
In a world with countless moral issues to advocate for, it's worth asking: what is actually the core complaint when someone is indicted with virtue signaling? It's an important question, because social media activism, in particular, isn’t going anywhere. And it has become a dominant and effective tool for organizing against racism and police brutality, passing information, and expressing ethical views.
Almost a year and a lot of Instagram activism later, Blackout Tuesday can serve as a teachable moment for the complexities around how people share about social and moral causes. Language is key to learning from Blackout Tuesday, and virtue signaling can be a vague and misleading term. Was the problem with the black squares simply that they signalled virtue, or were there deeper issues with the trend?
Psychology can offer some insights. Some researchers think that a behavior similar to virtue signaling, called moral grandstanding, best encapsulates problematic moral sharing. It’s when a person’s main motivation for talking about ethical issues is to make themselves look good, which can muddy public discourse and lead to polarization. But other researchers say that as social beings, nearly all of our moral behavior is motivated by reputation, and signaling for virtue in and of itself isn’t necessarily a negative thing. There might be even better terminology for what we want to avoid, like false signaling, when people imply they have morality that isn’t there; “slacktivism,” or token public support that lacks meaningful action; and finally, moral licensing, when we give ourselves a moral pat on the back for sharing something on Instagram but never take our moral actions any further.
Instead of continuing to hurl around virtue signaling like an insult, it’s best to name and understand what expressions of morality and virtue are actually problematic, how they differ from one another, and where the risks lie when we’re showing others what we care about—and how it impacts our actions.
When a person gets called a virtue signaler, there’s often the implication of hypocrisy. A person claims to care about a social or moral issue, but what they really care about is being known as the best, most virtuous person in the room. Humans judge this quite harshly: In a set of studies, researchers found that people viewed selfishly motivated moral actions more negatively than doing nothing at all.
But Jillian Jordan, an associate professor at Harvard Business School, said that one of the implicit reasons for all moral behaviors is to signal your positive traits to others. Our desire for reputational status influences us all the time, even when we’re not aware of it. Jordan has found that when people are alone and have no one to signal their virtue to, they’re still motivated internally by the same desire to be seen in a good light. In one study, researchers showed that just putting a picture of eyes on the wall made a difference in whether people decided to litter.
This motivation is true even in cases where people are genuine. People can sincerely care about a social issue, and being partially motivated by their reputation doesn’t negate that. Genuine moral outrage can even be driven by or enhanced by reputation. “What our findings show is that asking whether outrage is ‘pure’ is the wrong question,” Jordan recently wrote in the New York Times.
Jordan thinks false signaling is a better phrase to capture the problematic behavior many people want to call out when they reach for the phrase “virtue signaling.” False signaling is when someone takes an action intended to make others think they have a positive trait, but they don’t actually have that trait. For example, if I frequently and loudly criticize other people for littering, it would suggest to observers that I never litter. But if in fact I litter all the time, that would be a false signal.
Posting a black square was paired with the insinuation that a person also acted in ways that supported Black Lives Matter, which wasn’t always true. “It meant that I probably do more materially useful things because I care about this issue—like donating money, volunteer my time, go to a protest, or stand up for Black people in my life who are facing discrimination,” Jordan said. It wasn’t the virtuous signal alone but the lack of accompanying action that fueled the criticism of the trend—and made the black square, for some people, a false signal.
The black squares could also be seen as an example of slacktivism, an amalgamation of the words slacker and activism. This is when people are willing to partake in a low-effort display of support for a social cause, such as liking someone else’s Instagram post or posting a black square, but with no additional willingness to do something that takes more effort.
“People do small token things for a cause,” said Katherine White, a professor of marketing and behavioral science at the UBC Sauder School of Business, who has studied slacktivism. “Liking or joining a Facebook group, posting something, or signing a petition—something that doesn’t take too much effort.”
Many moral behaviors are costly; they often require us to make a personal sacrifice, whether it’s our time, money, or mental energy. White and her colleagues have studied how slacktivism might influence a person to later become more involved. What they found is that there can be two different motivations for engaging in moral behavior: presenting a positive self-image to others or being consistent with your own values.
In their study, when slacktivism was very publicly visible, people were less likely to make additional meaningful contributions later on. When people provided support that wasn't observable to others, they were more likely to later engage with a cause out of a desire to be consistent to themselves. Basically, the more public token support was, the more it satisfied the first motivation of managing others' impressions, negating the desire to get involved more later on. But if someone supported something quietly in private, they later wanted to uphold the second motivation: the values and standards they had set for themselves.
One exception in White’s study: For those deeply devoted to a social cause, public displays of support didn’t lead to a lack of action later on. Those who are strongly committed are strongly committed—whether their support takes place in public or private.
This has important implications when reflecting on the black squares and thinking about ongoing Instagram activism today. For people who care mostly about impression management, posting something like a very visible black square may scratch their moral itch and leave them unmotivated to act further. Sharing online, for those who aren’t strongly dedicated and want to look good to others, could be a hindrance to participation later on.
Another concept that’s useful to understand how this happens is called moral licensing. It’s when a person does one moral act and then feels they don’t have to do anything more because they’ve done enough with the first act.
“You feel confident that you’re a good person, and so you don’t feel like you need to keep doing more things,” Jordan said. “Another way to conceive of it is that you’ve satisfied the goal of appearing virtuous in the eyes of your peers.”
Slacktivism, false signaling, and moral licensing better represent the core issues people are addressing when accusing someone of virtue signaling. Brandon Warmke, an assistant professor of philosophy at Bowling Green State University, has proposed another: moral grandstanding. He wrote a book about it with philosopher Justin Tosi, called Grandstanding: The Use and Abuse of Moral Talk.
The concept of grandstanding dates back to the 19th century in baseball: The grandstand play was when a player sought attention from the crowd in the grandstands after catching a ball. Throughout the 20th century, grandstanding became a more common accusation—with its meaning shifting to imply showy, attention-getting behaviors in the political arena. In 2013, Barack Obama said that congressional Republicans were grandstanding when they threatened to shut down the federal government. Trump called FBI Director James Comey a grandstander when listing his reasons for firing him.
Warmke and Tosi began to study moral grandstanding around 2014, when they first noticed people starting to use social media differently—it wasn’t just personal posts and cat pics anymore. “We saw people were using their social media to promote discussions of morality or politics to increase their social status and to impress other people,” Warmke said.
They called what they were observing moral grandstanding, when a person's primary, dominant motivation in contributing to moral public discourse is to try to impress others. Unlike false signaling, grandstanding doesn’t require a person to be saying something they don’t believe. A person can be sincere about the politics or moral issue they’re discussing but still, their overwhelming desire is to gain status.
Warmke agreed with Jordan that much of our behavior is motivated by reputation, but he thinks there are different kinds of reputations to be strived. One is prestige: wanting people to know how great you are. Another is social dominance. “That’s the nastier, darker stuff you see online: the doxxing, the piling on, the shaming,” Warmke said. “Raising yourself up by pushing others down.”
Grandstanding in those seeking prestige is slightly correlated with civic engagement, Warmke said—like voting, volunteering, or philanthropy. But people who grandstand for dominance don't show this correlation. “These are not people who are out there changing the world,” Warmke said.
That's backed up by a study from 2020 that found a correlation between a certain kind of virtue signaling-like behavior and what is called the Dark Triad: a trio of psychological traits that include Machiavellianism, narcissism, and psychopathy. These dark traits were higher in people who had a mismatch between how badly they wanted to impress others (a lot) and how important an issue to them was internally (not that much).
Warmke and Tosi think a reason it’s important to study and understand moral grandstanding is that it can interfere with public discourse. If someone's primary motivation is to bolster themselves, it diverts from the moral issue and changes the stakes. The discourse becomes more about maintaining an individual’s status.
They’ve found it can lead to piling on—when people repeat things that have already been said by others, without adding anything new to a discussion, so that they, too, can get the moral recognition they crave. Another consequence is called “ramping up.” Because grandstanders want to impress other people, they have an incentive to turn moral discourse into a competition, Warmke said. They’ve also found that grandstanding is associated with excessive outrage or strong emotions. In a paper from last December, Warmke and Tosi found that people who grandstand tend to have more-polarized political views, and they think that grandstanding pushes people to those extremes.
Perhaps most critically, Warmke and Tosi argue that grandstanding makes other people cynical about moral discourse. When people talk about moral issues, with the seeming goal of tackling social justice issues, yet it’s actually just about individual recognition for it, that can make people cynical about moral discussions overall.
“We encourage people to think about public discourse as a resource,” Warmke said. “You can treat it well or treat it poorly. One thing we encourage people to think about is, what are they contributing to that common resource?”
So how can we share about the things we care about without falling into any of these behavioral traps? Jordan said that one simple way is to ask yourself the following question: Are you doing things that materially benefit the cause or the group that's affected by the situation at hand?
“In your heart of hearts, if you know you’re not really doing anything else, that might be slacktivism,” White added.
But avoiding slacktivism or false signaling isn’t synonymous with avoiding sharing online; it might just mean doing so more mindfully. I recently noticed that my friend Robin Borre, a 30-year-old in Austin, Texas, has been posting a lot about social justice issues on Instagram, but not merely reposting others' infographics. They would post a news article, and then summarize it in a series of text stories. Or they would break down themes in books they had read that connect to current events, and link together ideas from history or science to present-day issues.
I asked them about this practice and Borre explained that they were doing it very intentionally. “It can be incredibly disempowering to learn about an event, a disaster, a tragedy, and feel as though there is nothing we can do about it,” Borre said. “Unfortunately, as individuals, there is often very little we can do to affect widespread, systemic change. By creating invitations to deeper discussion, or by creating conceptual links to other events, to the past's influence on the present, my hope is that we can understand these events, or tragedies, as a result of a patchwork of human actions, systems, and decisions that have been made, and that can be unmade.”
Engaging or sharing things that operate on a slightly deeper level can be one way to have more meaningful action online. Borre also said that disabled and immune-compromised people have been doing online and remote organizing since long before the pandemic, and it does their work a disservice by writing off online organizing entirely. “We need a diversity of tactics,” Borre said.
Another way to counter slacktivism, White said, is to reflect inwardly about how a cause is important to you and why it reflects your values, before you share. This “internalizing” helps you hold yourself accountable to your own values rather than just being satisfied by what others think. As White found in her study, the people who wanted to remain consistent in their values were more likely to be involved in a cause later on. This might look like, before sharing a story or retweeting, taking a moment to contemplate why an issue is important to you, what about it you’d like to see changed, and why an injustice goes against your core beliefs.
Around the time that George Floyd died, J. Gordon Curtis, a 29-year-old, told me he sat down to write a tweet about it but came across many other tweets that “were more directly attached to the issue than I could ever be,” he said. “I realized that I'll never write a tweet that is as true as theirs are, so I began simply trying to boost as many of them as I could, quietly.” He decided to share those thoughts instead of his own, but he still took the time to recognize how they aligned with what he originally wanted to express.
The good news is that despite the wide range of online moral behaviors one can engage in, when large volumes of people do even materially minimal actions, it can help to create social pressures and norms that bolster other meaningful efforts. When there’s more information about a social cause out in the world, it helps with something called an “availability cascade,” which is when a stance is able to get a stronger foothold because it’s more available for people to learn about.
Last June, public support for Black Lives Matter increased as much in two weeks as it had the preceding two years. As psychologists Jamil Zaki and Mina Cikara wrote in Time, even when people signal virtue, those signals do go out into the world—and they often reach others. “People conform to others’ actions and opinions; they often say what others say and do as others do,” they wrote. “This means social information can be a powerful force for social change, because people look to each other when deciding how to express themselves.”
In one study, researchers told people at a cafeteria either that 30 percent of the U.S. was already vegetarian or that 30 percent had recently made the choice to become vegetarian. People who heard that others had recently forgone meat were twice as likely to skip meat when they ordered their lunch. “They saw not just where the crowd was but where it was going, and didn’t want to be left behind,” Zaki and Cikara wrote.
The whole premise of virtue signaling being an insult rests on the assumption that showing off our goodness to others is not a virtuous thing to do itself. Jordan thinks that at the end of the day, the desire we all have to boost our reputation could be a tool to get people to care more about important issues and be more willing to make genuine sacrifices to make progress.
It can help free us from the idea that moral behavior or activism should be an entirely selfless act, and not make you feel good about yourself at all, which could perpetuate activist burnout. While continuing to call out false signaling or moral licensing, perhaps there should be social rewards for doing good for others, as long as it’s paired with more beneficial actions, online or off.
“Reputation is a huge driver of our behavior,” Jordan said. “To deny that seems not helpful. I think it’s more helpful to think about reputation as a tool to encourage behavior that we think will make the world a better place.”