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27 April 2021updated 21 Sep 2021 6:13am

Why social media boycotts never work

The Premier League, English Football League and Women’s Super League will boycott social media this weekend. But when has online silence ever resulted in effective change?

By Sarah Manavis

If you don’t read the tabloids or any celebrity gossip sites, it’s unlikely you’d have noticed Chrissy Teigen left Twitter. At the end of March, the American model-cum-presenter-cum-internet personality shared that she was permanently quitting the site, saying it “no longer serves me as positively as it serves me negatively, and I think that’s the right time to call something”. 

And, really, who could blame her? It was a fair response to several years of being on the receiving end of countless abuse campaigns, some of which were led by a certain former US president. Her presence had become nearly unavoidable on the site, even if you didn’t follow her; she was retweeted ad nauseum, and regularly trending on the platform. But despite this ubiquitousness, which granted her the title of “mayor of Twitter”, it was easy, for a while, to forget she was ever there. After just three weeks off Twitter, Teigen returned. “It feels terrible to silence yourself,” she said.

Boycotting, as a political action, has a long and successful history. It can seriously damage a company’s bottom line or make a film fail at the box office. While many boycotts over the last decade have shown how often they serve to simply boost publicity for the intended target (see Chick-fil-A’s consistent sales despite national calls to boycott the chain over homophobia), they can still cause permanent shifts (for example, the food magazine Bon Appetit’s YouTube viewership plummeted following a racism scandal and a call to stop watching the channel last summer). 

That is, unless they happen on social media. Last summer, there were two major social media boycotts: one on Twitter in the UK over the platform’s slow action against the rapper Wiley’s anti-Semitic tweets, and the Instagram “blackout” in support of Black Lives Matter. Now, from Friday, another will be added to the list, when the Premier League, English Football League and Women’s Super League carry out a boycott of Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. The boycott, which aims to “combat abuse and discrimination” on social media, will last four days, with all participating groups returning to the sites on 4 May. 

Abuse on social media has long been part of the user experience, largely because all of the major platforms have a record of ignoring it. No amount of public pressure has resulted in the sites adopting an aggressive approach to toxic online behaviour, so while the objectives of the campaign are no doubt worthy, it feels inevitable that those aims won’t be met. Like other social media boycotts, this one is more likely to exacerbate the problems it hopes to redress.

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Chrissy Teigen’s decision to leave Twitter was a personal one: it wasn’t political, and she was not encouraging anyone else to leave the platform with her. But still, her departure perfectly illustrates why boycotting is counterproductive online.

[see also: How gossip forum Tattle Life became the most toxic place on the internet]

The crucial problem is that, online, silence is rarely felt. Even if someone only follows 200 accounts, on any platform, one account disappearing won’t make a major difference to their overall feed. Algorithms are built to fill whatever void appears with more content from other users, sponcon and older posts to keep you engaged. There are personal benefits that come with not being online – such as for mental health reasons – but the most likely outcome for the users that remain is that they will go days, if not longer, before thinking, “Wait, where did that other account go?”

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This is where most social media boycotts go wrong: they fail to realise that silence on a platform is nothing but silence. While the campaign surrounding the boycott may do some of the work they hope to achieve or the problems they hope to reveal, leaving a platform and cutting off a voice advocating for change simply means that voice stops being heard. The effective part isn’t leaving – it’s the conversation. When people posted nothing but black squares on Instagram, users stopped talking about institutional racism; when public figures left Twitter for two days over the Wiley anti-Semitism row, users spent the weekend talking about anything else. 

This effort becomes even more futile when accounts eventually return, thereby reinforcing the idea that, regardless of how the platform responds – or fails to respond – to the boycott, people will continue to use it as they did before. Returning to sites lets social media giants off without any repercussions, killing momentum and incentivising platforms to merely wait the boycott out.  

While the intentions of boycotts may be positive, we have to ask: what do these organisations think will happen? That their temporary silence, with an end date scheduled from the start, will yield major changes or subdue abusive users? 

It’s easy to carry out light-touch boycotts, pat ourselves on the back and act as though we have made an impact. But by viewing this ineffective form of protest as useful action, we move further away from the opportunity to make real change.

[see also: How will the Republic of Facebook tackle its Donald Trump problem?]

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