Infographics: Performative or Useful?

by Anushka Mangal and Nicole IIuzzolino

I love Instagram infographics as much as the next person. They turn complicated topics into something that can be said in a few hundred words, making them convenient and easy to read. It's amazing how social media is fueling social change by educating people on complex topics in a way they can understand. But these infographics cannot be your only resource when trying to educate yourself. Despite the appeal of their colorful backgrounds and catchy titles, these infographics rarely express the complexity of the topics they discuss or provide all the needed information. Remember: knowing half the information is often worse than knowing nothing at all.

On the surface, it may seem great that people are able to post bite-sized pieces of information to bring awareness to things, but digging deeper, a lot of times sharing them seems like an act or trend-hopping. Many times, much of the information put into these posts is inaccurate or doesn’t portray the entire story. This leads to people hopping on bandwagons of issues they know nothing about. Even worse, many teenagers and younger generations use Instagram as a primary news source, leading them to believe skewed information and half-truths.

There are many informative infographics about Israel and Palestine, for example, but no matter how much time someone spends creating an infographic, they can’t explain hundreds or thousands of years of conflict in ten pictures or less. Looking at them is like reading the summary of a book. You don’t say you’ve read a book if you’ve read the summary. So why do people comment about a situation when they’ve only read a hundred words about it? These small summaries are a great place to start, but you have to do your own research after reading them, especially before making responses or comments of your own. Read articles published on reputable news sites, and explore the sources that are intended to give you the full picture.

I’ve had many conversations about social issues with people who clearly got all their information from an Instagram infographic. They seem to know the basics of the topic but lack a deeper understanding and are therefore unable to have a meaningful conversation. It is encouraging that people are more aware of important issues, but it is discouraging when people don’t take the necessary steps to learn more.

As we know, most writing is persuasive. Writers usually have a point they are trying to make readers agree with and Instagram accounts are guilty of this. Most accounts that post these infographics have a political ideology they are aligned with. Often, they choose to only provide information and statistics that make their view seem like the correct one. Using them as your sole source of information makes it hard to draw a line between your opinion and that of the person producing the infographics. It's important to listen to as many perspectives as possible on a topic before forming an opinion.

Even accounts that make these infographics tell you to do your own research. @soyouwanttotalkabout is a popular Instagram account that educates people on important world issues using easily understandable infographics. The creators of the account are vocal about how they can’t supply their followers with all the information they need to know. When posting about the incredibly complex Israeli-Palestinian conflict, @soyouwanttotalkabout noted that there is no way they can say everything about the topic that needs to be said and urged their followers to stop harassing them in their comments about not posting about the topic and instead to go read historical pieces and published articles from experts to learn more. People have started expecting others to supply them with information without having to do any work. They seem to want to be educated but put the responsibility of educating them onto someone else.

Even with attention being brought to the issues with these types of preformative posts, many Instagram users still find the posts incredibly useful. So, the only way to find out what people truly think is by asking Instagram users themselves the big question: do you think Instagram infographics are effective? We surveyed our Instagram followers to see if they believed Instagram infographics are effective or not.

Not surprisingly, the answer to the question was split, with 84 respondents saying they are effective and 78 respondents stating that they are not effective whatsoever.

One person commented, “The graphics can be positive in the sense that they catalyze the search to learn more about the event, however, [some accounts] display the pain and struggles of marginalized groups in decorated graphics, which may have incorrect or surface-level information and give the impression that the reader has all the necessary information to form an educated opinion.” Similarly, another account expressed concerns over the way that these infographics are used, saying that they are “too performative” and don't actually “show if people care about a topic” or just want to seem “woke”.

One of the biggest points brought up by respondents was that these posts at times can be obviously performative, especially when it comes to the aesthetics used. One respondent commented,

“I think they’re effective when the information on them is taken from actual reputable sources. It’s kind of jarring though when the art style doesn’t really match the topic of the graphic.”

This comment, shared by many others who found that infographics were ineffective, has a point. Does it make sense to be tapping through infographics full of flowers and colorful aesthetic images that are discussing the Australian wildfires? Or the flowery edits about racism in the United States? It does not, and most of the time these bite-sized posts are a minuscule summary of a much larger issue. As stated by another respondent,

“They’ve been oversaturated to the point where people instinctively glaze over them.”

Yet even with these points, so many still flock to infographics for their information and education, even if the source cited is just the name of the publication, with no specifics of the article, when it was published and who wrote it.

The accounts that make these infographics want to gain a following, so they purposely make posts that capture the readers’ attention, are easy to understand, and are pretty, and therefore are likely to be reposted. Beyond that, many of these popular Instagram accounts such as @soyouwanttotalkabout, which has 2.9 million followers, use aesthetic color schemes and fonts that make this type of social activism “appealing” and eye-catching on one’s feed. Most of the time, this takes away from the overall seriousness of the posts. To many, they look blatantly performative, with people reposting them to fit an aesthetic.

Reposting infographics is being increasingly marketed as “activism.” While it's important to show support for a struggling or marginalized group of people and identify yourself as an ally, which posting about an issue can do, these reposts themselves don't do much. For example, people reposting a “happy pride” post is important for them to show solidarity and maybe cause some of their followers to go to the infographic and read it, since they may not have otherwise, but their responsibility doesn't end there. They need to educate themselves on the history of the LGBTQ+ community and their struggles today. If they want to enact change, then they need to actively work toward amplifying LGBTQ+ voices, donating to charities, maybe joining a nonprofit, or calling their representatives to urge them to block anti-LGBTQ+ bills and introduce those that aid the community. There is a lot that allies can do to call for social change, but reposting an infographic hardly counts.

It is tempting to see an infographic and assume that what it's telling you is all you need to know. I’m guilty of doing that, and I’m trying to work towards recognizing my mistakes and the ignorance the infographics can propel. So, if you are one of those individuals who get their information from these infographics, keep in mind that what you are seeing is at times just a crumb of the truth. Reading these infographics is a good starting place, but to be better global citizens, we all need to take the next step and further our knowledge by doing our own research so we can engage in more meaningful discussions about important issues.