The Activist Economy

A number of celebrities, including Indian actress Priyanka Chopra, were recently invited onto a new TV series named “The Activist” where six individuals compete against one another to promote a particular cause. These include health, education and the environment. Online engagement was one of the metrics by which the impact of different causes was to be measured; however, after backlash, CBS announced changes to the format. Despite this, the existence of such a show raises questions about the way celebrities and major brands use social media activism to boost their profile.

To Muslims familiar with Chopra, the irony of her participation in a show centered around social justice is not lost. Her participation in the series shows the way celebrities are able to use activism and social media to launder their reputation and cover-up for their harmful actions. To the Western public, Priyanka Chopra presents herself as a champion for the oppressed, working as a UN ambassador and speaking out against racism in the U.S. in light of the murder of George Floyd. However, Chopra has openly supported Modi and his brand of Hindu nationalism. In 2018 she publicly thanked Modi for attending her wedding. Then in February 2019 — at the height of tensions between India and Pakistan — Priyanka Chopra tweeted, “Jai Hind #IndianArmedForces.”[1] In a country where Modi has allowed and even encouraged the targeting of Muslims, her open support for such a man contradicts the picture she and her marketing team have painted as someone committed to justice.

In a time where a focus is put on the negative impact of cancel culture, serious questions need to be asked about the lack of scrutiny given to celebrities and brands who capitalize on the idea of social justice. In the case of Priyanka Chopra, she is able to use the American public’s ignorance of Indian politics to claim that she is fighting injustice. In the U.S., she is using her privileged position to call out oppression in countries where she is considered a minority. Yet in India, where she could use her position to call out the oppression of Muslims by Modi and the BJP, she instead openly supports Modi and his nationalist ideology as it protects her self interests. 

While this phenomenon does not have a formalized name, it can be best termed “The Activist Economy,” described as “an emerging ecosystem comprised of various forms of economic activism – including (but not limited to) brand activism, consumer activism, media activism, employee activism, social media activism and spokesperson activism.” According to a study by Accenture of almost 30,000 consumers in 2018, 63% of respondents preferred to buy from companies that stand for a shared purpose reflecting their own values and beliefs. [2]

The combination of capitalism and social media now means that celebrities and brands can use the language of activism to increase the connection between them and the paying public to maximize their own earnings. Celebrities and brands are able to use highly produced videos and entire advertising teams to launch carefully coordinated campaigns on selected social issues that appeal to their fans and consumers. On the other hand, grassroots activists often have to work full time, sacrificing their free time without compensation, going through hundreds of hours of groundwork, abuse and pain before they are able to make change. This means that rather than enduring all the difficulties ordinary activists face, celebrities and brands can instead profit from the misery of the groups that they claim they are speaking up for.

Nike is the prime example of a brand that uses the concept of an “Activist Economy” to increase their popularity and profitability while continuing to behave in a manner that harms the lives of many. In 2018, when Nike released their campaign with NFL player Colin Kapernick, famous for taking the knee during the U.S. national anthem, their online sales grew by 17%. By associating themselves with the Black Lives Matter campaign’s fight against police brutality, Nike was able to appeal to their core consumer base and increase their profits. The reality cannot be further from the image they portray. Despite their campaign advertising that Nike stands by marginalized communities facing oppression from an abusive state, a report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute suggests that in January 2020 around 600 Uyghur workers were making Nike sneakers in Qingdao in a factory where the behavior and ideology of workers were closely monitored. [3

While Nike has attempted to deny these accusations, it was among major companies and business groups who lobbied Congress to weaken. The reality is that the Colin Kapernick campaign had little to do with activism, instead of serving as a statement of Nike’s values, it was a way to exploit a social justice movement to improve their bottom line. 

As Muslims, the question we have to ask ourselves is, “how do we recognize when a company or individual is being insincere with their activism and how do we respond?” Muslims should not look to these companies to represent any of the social values they care about. Instead, we should look toward alternative brands such as TUNIQ, which runs a business genuinely based on the values they promote. Not only does the company advocate for sustainability and fairness it also embodies it through its model of product sourcing and profit-sharing. 

In the case of celebrities, such a blanket approach of skepticism is not appropriate. Many will care about the causes that they promote. For any Muslim, to assume an individual to be disingenuous without justification, would be a failure to abide by the sunnah of the Prophet ﷺ. Most notably in recent news, Marcus Rashford, a footballer for Manchester United, used his platform to put pressure on the UK government to give free school lunches to kids during the pandemic. In the case of celebrities, it may be best to take their activism at face value, however, when they fail to represent the values they claim then questions must be asked of their motivation.

However, the criteria could also represent a broader trend of people changing the way they engage with activism. Many believe that a simple post or tweet is their contribution to a movement for social change. In some cases they are not wrong: social media was a major reason George Floyd’s family was able to see justice, but change takes much more than that. Social change takes countless hours of conversations with your friends, families and colleagues. It takes speaking truth to power in the face of powerful opposition. It means many sleepless nights with little to no recognition. And for nearly all activists around the world — that is the reality.

Photo by Prateek Katyal on Unsplash

About the Author : Abubakr Nanabawa is a graduate of Politics and International Relations from the UK. His interests include foreign policy, history and local politics. You can find him on Twitter here.

Disclaimer: Material published by Traversing Tradition is meant to foster scholarly inquiry and rich discussion. The views, opinions, beliefs, or strategies represented in published articles and subsequent comments do not necessarily represent the views of Traversing Tradition or any employee thereof.

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