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Saturday, May 18, 2024
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How Instagram’s visual ecosystem fuels UW-Madison student advocacy

In between St. Patty’s day party recaps and cute cat pictures on Instagram, you can also find infographics explaining the rise of fast fashion, online petitions and phone numbers of legislators to call. Many of these posts come from advocacy groups who find a home for their work on social media. 

What brings these groups to Instagram? 

“We're very, very visual,” said Tessa Price, an organizer with Trans Advocacy Madison. “We like pretty images.”

As Instagram becomes a home for advocacy groups looking to share information on social causes, activists are adapting to nontraditional means of communication. That includes Instagram, a highly visual platform where graphic design aids grassroots organizing.  

This sentiment was echoed by Amanjot Kuar, co-founder and president of the Student Voters Union (@studentvotersunionuw), a nonpartisan student organization created to improve student voter access. 

“[Instagram] is great for posting graphics, educational content in the form of posts or story highlights and short videos through Reels,” Kuar said. 

Kaur also said Instagram features like reels and story highlights make advocacy easier compared to other platforms. The Campaign Workshop, a political consulting firm, tells its clients “a picture is worth a thousand words” about Instagram’s pictures-only format. 

Part of the reason why these features are so successful is they allow for complex issues to be partially summed up in easy-to-understand infographic slideshows, according to Teen Vogue.  

For example, the Student Voters Union uses the Instagram “link-in-bio” feature to guide its followers toward further resources like voter registration instructions. 

But in Price’s view, Instagram is built to keep people scrolling. “It feels a little bit like you're battling the social media companies,” she said. “They want you to stay [on the website] and fight about silly stuff.”  

Although Instagram offers an easy way to share information about issues and build a social media presence that reaches people where they are, Price said activist groups like hers need that energy to flow into offline efforts for tangible change. 

“A lot of what we do is trying to redirect people and say, ‘Hey, you found this here, and that's great. You can go deeper into it; you can fight for stuff on the streets if you want to,’” she said. 

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Price cited an event the group put together on Oct. 4, 2023, as an example of success. The group used Instagram to organize a snap demonstration against a Republican-led state bill that would ban transgender girls and women from competing on high school and college women's sports teams. 


trans advocacy insta
courtesy of Trans Advocacy Madison


Their post — which used simple black wording the colors of the transgender pride flag — spread word about the event and inspired a sizable turnout, Price said.

“People were able to feel that community there, that they're not alone, that they're not being completely destroyed by the system, kind of give people a safe place to be when they're dealing with these super serious political issues,” she added. 

This idea of connection with an online audience is also what drew Promoting Awareness Victim Empowerment, better known as PAVE, to Instagram. PAVE (@paveuw) focuses on issues like sexual assault, stalking and domestic violence by creating awareness and advocating for victims. 

“Instagram is useful in activism because it allows us to directly see feedback from students almost instantly,” said Maggie Khan, PAVE communications coordinator, “Students readily comment and send us DMs to questions that might go unanswered for longer periods of time if sent via email or feedback Google forms.”


pave insta post
Courtesy of Pave


With interactive communication comes speed, which Kaur said was another reason the Student Voters Union values Instagram. 

“Word spreads quickly on Instagram without us having to spread ourselves thin or have a really large base of members in our student organization,” she said. “We use the website to spread information to students outside of our circle and reach out to other student organizations who may share our values and support our ideas.” 

Trans Advocacy Madison has similar views, according to Price. She said Instagram quickly connects Trans Advocacy Madison to like-minded groups that amplify information, like Fair Wisconsin and the ACLU. 

“Already, by sharing our petition through Instagram, we have gained over 50 signatures in a week,” Kaur said, referencing Student Voters Union’s campaign to have UW-Madison ID cards, or Wiscards, count as a valid form of state voter ID.


svu insta
Courtesy of Student Voters Union


For PAVE, Trans Advocacy Madison and the Student Voters Union, Instagram has proven to be a valuable resource for getting comprehensible information out into the world on behalf of their advocacy missions. 

“Having that community, having that connection to an action or to some sort of collective political power is really empowering for people,” Price said. 

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Gabriella Hartlaub

Gabriella Hartlaub is an arts editor for the Daily Cardinal. She also reports state politics and life & style stories. Follow her on Twitter at @gabihartlaub.


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