Social Network Sites allow users to create powerful online identities by portraying their strong moral codes by virtue signaling their activism to causes and movements such as veganism, which has grown in popularity exponentially with the uptake of Social Media.
This paper will discuss the performance of online identity and how people can demonstrate their moral and ethical codes with a few keystrokes while not actually having to necessarily demonstrate their commitment to them in real life. A hashtag referring to a “cause de célèbre” is all that is needed to portray oneself as a progressive and socially aware member of society. Virtue signaling is a new phrase for this modern phenomenon – where ones online activism is amplified to their followers without it necessarily having to impinge on their lifestyle. Veganism is just one type of activism that is promoted heavily via social media – particularly “soft veganism” where good looks and pretty food images idealize the lifestyle without the consequences of its restrictive practice being shown, or even animal suffering. Vegan influencers have encouraged the rise of veganism among Western populations, in particular young people for whom social media has been a constant all their lives. However what happens online is not necessarily what is happening offline as this paper will demonstrate.
The concept of identity and the definition of community have become a source of fresh debate in this modern era of internet connectivity and the rise of Social Networks. Now one must also work at constructing a digital identity and finding a like-minded and accepting community online. Identifying oneself with progressive and socially aware movements is one way users demonstrate their ethical and moral codes. By using hashtags the individual can then join a community with similar beliefs and follow and be followed by members of that community. Once a member of a community, individuals can then continue to craft their digital identity to adapt and mold to their expected online performance. Demonstrating ones virtues has always assisted in raising one’s status within communities, however offline this needs usually needs to be physically demonstrated, for instance, through volunteering. Online one can signal their virtues by aligning with causes without any physical engagement or evidence of the same. This paper will demonstrate how social network sites allow people to create powerful online identities by portraying their strong moral codes in the form of virtue signaling their activism to causes and movements, such as veganism which grown in popularity in line with the growth of uptake of social media.
Over fifty years ago a sociologist by the name of Erving Goffman wrote a book; “Presentation of Self in Everyday Life”, which carries truths about identity that have not altered even though the world we now live in, and how we live in it, would be in many ways unrecognizable to Goffman. Community, for example, while still existing in the real world, has now an online dimension facilitated by the affordances of Web 2.0, particularly in relation to social media. We will come back to Goffman’s seminal work to discuss his insights, but firstly we need to consider that identity crafting is especially relevant in terms of the community that the individual wishes to belong to.
In terms of online communities, constructing identity can be free of status markers that are unavoidable in real life, such as physical appearance or where you live. However with social media identity creation is also unavoidable if you choose to sign up to many of the platforms, most require you fill out a profile at the very least. For the purposes of this paper we will consider social media as one of the “Big Four” – Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Twitter – although obviously there are a myriad of other social platforms with their own criteria for membership.
Goffman’s work analysed how individuals worked to control the impression they gave others. Perhaps what makes Goffman so relevant in todays mediated world is his take on how people perform identity to influence others. He argues that the stronger the influence one can make on others he meets, the more socially harmonious their life will be. Goffman states “It is in his interests to control the conduct of others, especially their responsive treatment of him.” (Goffman, 1956 p.3).
It is the concept of this influence over others that is fundamental in online identity creation. “Influencers” is a term that has become synonymous with social media terminology and an influencers predominate requisite for success is a strong online identity. Success in terms of social media relies on the number of followers one can amass. The way an influencer can increase their followers is a whole essay (at the very least) in itself, so for the purposes of this paper we will focus on just one technique employed by many influencers – “virtue signaling”.
While the term virtue signaling may sound like a scientific definition of sociological practice developed by eminent people in the field, it actually was first coined by a journalist for The Spectator, James Bartholomew, in 2015. (Bartholomew, 2015). While Bartholomew’s claim of creation of the phrase has since been somewhat disputed, we will allow him the credit for the purposes of this paper. Regardless it describes a phenomenon that has become prevalent among many social media influencers – a conspicuous online display of their social awareness and benevolence.
Furthermore “virtue signaling presents specific interests as matter of universal humanity and morality while framing those who oppose the status quo as morally deficient.” (OpenDemocracy, 2017). In other words virtue signaling is the “woke” cousin of political correctness. All one needs to do to demonstrate their progressive attitudes and beliefs online is to add a hashtag, for example #activism. Ironically, while the Macquarie Dictionary definition of an activist indicates that one is “a zealous worker” all it has taken for an online identity to indicate their activism is the work of a few keystrokes. (Macquarie Dictionary, 7ed.). Bartholomew described the practice by stating “One of the crucial aspects of virtue signaling is that it does not require actually doing anything virtuous” (Bartholomew, 2015).
Perhaps the reason the term virtue signaling has only just become a useful term in today’s world is because before there were online communities, one had to actually perform an act of virtue in a real life community, for it to be ascribed to their identity. For instance volunteering to help the disadvantaged by working in a soup kitchen took time and commitment and compassion, and most importantly a physical presence.
In other words it has become phenomenally easy for a social media influencer to build an identity of idealised qualities and present themselves with positive self-concept on these highly visible social mediums. (Wallace, 2018). The number of causes and issues that an influencer can align themselves with is beyond the scope of this paper, so instead we will focus on one topic which has seen enormous growth in popularity, directly in proportion to the rise of social media – veganism.
More than just the uptake a purely plant-based diet, veganism is a movement committed to ending exploitation and suffering of animals by avoiding all food, clothing, cosmetics and entertainment that exploits animals. Veganism has serious virtue currency on social media – whether it’s “hard veganism” which is a racial, marginalized and political movement committed to ethics and criticism of a capitalistic food system – or “soft veganism”, an eco-chic lifestyle practice of self-improvement. (Wilson, 2019. p3 – p7). Affiliating oneself online with veganism by virtue signaling via hashtag takes a lot less effort than what it actually involves to become vegan. Veganism by its definition is a very restrictive dietary and lifestyle practice in reality and can be difficult to maintain.
There is nothing new about veganism – it has been around as a defined dietary and ethical concept for decades, waxing and waning in popularity over the years. It is no coincidence that the growth of veganism has coincided with the uptake of social media platforms – in fact it’s these platforms that have given new credo to veganism, particularly among young people.
In an article by Sarah Marsh for The Guardian in 2016 a number of teenagers from several western countries were asked why they had become vegan. Their reasons varied from ethical to health to environmental concerns but they all had one common factor that had influenced them to make the change to a plant only diet – social media. In particular Instagram, which came out on top in terms of influence, with YouTube coming a close second. Veganism as a lifestyle choice has enjoyed phenomenal growth in popularity over the last decade. Marsh’s article presents figures of a 350% increase in people identifying as vegans in the UK since 2006. (Marsh, 2016).
A study on vegan self-presentation on Instagram by Amber de Zeeuw et al in 2017 examined in depth three popular vegan Instagram accounts. They note while the definition of veganism inherently means no animal cruelty, the accounts under review posted a negligible number of animal related images… they are mainly self and food images. These influencers promote veganism to their followers by documenting their daily activities and the food they eat, and in this way they give us insight into their class status or “appearance”. (de Zeeuw, 2017). Goffman described this form of identity performance as the “projection of moral character” – in other words virtue signaling. (Goffman, 1959, p23). In the case of Instagram the projection of moral character and ethical behavior through veganism is easily categorised by a multitude of vegan hashtags, such as #veganlife (7.5m posts) or the slightly less popular, perhaps for reasons which are demonstrated later, #veganforlife. (1.2m posts). (Top-hashtags.com, 2020).
This projection of moral character by influencers on social media, while arguably easier to perform and control online than in real life, has the downside of any failure to adhere to the vegan scripture being able to be amplified online. The backlash can be enormous, damaging the “personal branding” and financial lifeline of the influencer irreparably. The skills, personality and unique characteristics that have been packaged together to form a powerful identity online can destroyed in one poorly judged moment. (van ‘t Laar, 2017. p10)
Take for example the case of @Rawvana, a vegan and “raw eater” who had amassed 3 million followers via Instagram and YouTube, by espousing the benefits of her lifestyle which is at best can be described as extremely restrictive, and at worst dangerous and irresponsible. As only can happened in our highly mediated world @Rawvana was noted eating fish on a fellow influencer’s vlog, after which the vegans rose up in online outrage. Tearful apologies followed along with overly detailed dietary reasons for her downfall, which basically confirmed that her online lifestyle had made her so weak and sick she had been forced to take up another type of lifestyle offline – one that involved eating animals. This begs the question however – if not for @Rawvana’s slip-up would she still be making money from her online influencer status? This is just one such case that highlights the artifice of online identity. (Mahdawi, 2019).
In August 2019 Cassidy Graves for online news site Vice wrote an expose on the many vegan influencers renouncing their strict practices in order to save their health. Graves describes how some of them were eating meat for weeks or month before “coming out”. One famous vegan vlogger, Bonny Rebecca, posted an online “confessional” explaining her break from her militant veganism to her followers, describing her shame and guilt and that as a consequence feels she has “completely lost her identity”. Another devotee was quoted; “I’ve been telling people I’m vegan for ten years, but really for the last four or five I’ve been including animal products and I’m too scared to tell people”. (Graves, 2019).
In conclusion while identity exists both in real life as well as online life for an individual, they may look completely different. Both identities require work and development through expression of beliefs and moral codes, however the construction of a real life identity takes time and more importantly, action. Online it is easy to identify oneself with progressive and socially aware movements by the use of hashtags for example. The user can then find a community with similar beliefs to follow and to be followed by. Their success and status within the community is dependent on their ability to craft their digital identity to adapt and mold to their expected online performance. By demonstrating your moral and ethical goodness online by virtue signaling your status can be raised within these communities, without the need to physically demonstrate them or provide evidence of them. It is only in the digital world that social media influencers can amass followers by constructing a virtuous identity via hashtag signaling, without the physical need to actually do anything truly virtuous.
Bartholomew, J. (2015, October 10). I invented “Virtue Signalling”. Now it’s taking over the world. The Spectator. https://www.spectator.com.au/2015/10/i-invented-virtue-signalling-now-its-taking-over-the-world/
de Zeeuw, A., Xavier, D., Fujwara, M., Bharati, S. (2017, October 25). Mediating Veganism: A look at vegan self-presentation on Instagram. https://mastersofmedia.hum.uva.nl/blog/2017/10/25/mediating-veganism-a-look-at-vegan-self-presentation-on-instagram/
Goffman, E. (1959). Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. https://catalogue.curtin.edu.au/primo-explore/search?query=any,contains,the%20presentation%20of%20self%20in%20everyday%20life&tab=default_tab&search_scope=CurtinBlended&sortby=date&vid=CUR_ALMA&facet=frbrgroupid,include,12768490&lang=en_US&offset=0
Graves, C.D. (2019, August 30). When vegan influencers quit being vegan, the backlash can be brutal. The Vice. https://www.vice.com/en_au/article/j5ymak/rawvana-vegan-youtube-influencers-quit-veganism
Hunsinger, J., & Senft, T. M. (Eds.). (2013). The social media handbook. https://books.google.com.au/books?id=nXHhAQAAQBAJ&lpg=PP1&ots=BJGLtC4op0&dq=the%20social%20media%20handbook&lr&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q=the%20social%20media%20handbook&f=false
Mahdawi, A. (2019). The furore over the fish-eating vegan influencer is a warning to us all. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/mar/26/the-furore-over-the-fish-eating-vegan-influencer-is-a-warning-to-us-all
Marsh, S. (2016, May 27). The rise of vegan teenagers: “More people are into it because of Instagram”. https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2016/may/27/the-rise-of-vegan-teenagers-more-people-are-into-it-because-of-instagram
MacQuarie Dictionary. (2017). Seventh edition. Pan Macmillan Australia Pty Ltd. Sydney, NSW.
Top-hastags.com. (2020). Instagram. https://top-hashtags.com/instagram/
van‘t Laar, M. (2017, July 20). The Self-presentation of Vegans on Instagram: Using visual content to branding oneself within the vegan online community. https://dspace.library.uu.nl/handle/1874/353539
Virtue-signalling as a route to social status: Instances from the semi-periphery. (2017, April 28). OpenDemocracy, https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/can-europe-make-it/virtue-signalling-as-route-to-social-status-instances-fr/
Wallace, E., Bull, I., de Chernatony, L. (2018, February 19). Consuming Good” on Social Media: What can conspicuous Virtue Signalling on Facebook tell us about prosocial and unethical intentions? https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-018-3999-7
Wilson, A.V. (2019, April). #Vegan: A critical analysis of the discourses around food, identity and responsibility from vegan Instagram influencers. https://edepot.wur.nl/475593
26 replies on “Virtue Signalling via Social Media and the rise of Veganism.”
I enjoyed reading your paper! I also wrote about identity and veganism. I agree with what you said about social media enabling virtue signalling, people want to show they’re doing something positive, or ‘contributing’ to a movement yet what are they really doing? Does adding a few hashtags to a post truly add something to the movement? By going to a juice bar with a friend and posting a few photos on Instagram #vegan #juicebar #organic mean you’ve just been a voice for the animals?
I can understand social media being a big influence for people wanting to go vegan, as pictures infiltrate Instagram and Pinterest and on YouTube there are influencers popping up everywhere. It interesting that you mention Rawvana, I have written about her as well. In this instance, one of the unfortunate things about ‘entering’ veganism is the idea that once people know you’re in, you cannot get out. This is what gives veganism a cult-like ideology and one of the many stigmas that many people fear and the labels that people tend to put on ‘all’ vegans when in fact not every vegan is like that. If someone finds they’re starting to feel unwell and needs to change their diet and introduce some fish, eggs, etc so be it! The self-righteousness that many of these influencers show on their channels can sometimes be downright scary. Have you seen Vegan Gains? I’m not sure if they are serious or if it is all an act, either way… woah.
It will be interesting to continue discussing things with you here and hopefully on my paper if you’d like to read it!
Thanks Indre, I have posted a more comprehensive reply under your comments section. I really enjoyed your paper and think you made some excellent points about vegan influencers that I only touched on. Off now to check out some of the individuals you mentioned – should be an interesting rabbit hole!
I was attracted by the title of your paper, and it didn’t disappoint! As someone who has significantly reduced my meat intake due to environmental concerns, I’ve been very interested by the vegan / plant-based / vegetarian / flexitarian debate. It’s so incredibly heated and, as you have articulated very well in your paper, highly judgemental.
Your paper demonstrates very clearly the disconnect between hashtag / social media identities and the real-life personas of these vegan influencers. There is one quote in particular that stuck with me: “One of the crucial aspects of virtue signaling is that it does not require actually doing anything virtuous” (Bartholomew, 2015). What a paradox!
The comparison between today’s online environment and the insights of Goffman were particularly interesting. The ongoing relevance of his observations more than 50 years later is impressive. I enjoyed the way you used social theory to support your argument.
How do you see virtue signalling playing out in the future? Do you think it is likely to increase, or do you think that slip-ups – such as the one you describe with @Rawvana – will go some way to curbing this phenomenon?
I really appreciate your time to read my paper and your comments. I also understand how hard it is to be a devoted vegan (I’m not myself – but have dramatically reduced my meat intake in the last two years) in contrast to just tagging yourself as one online. I agree that James Bartholomew hit the nail right on the head in his quote – it perfectly sums up this phenomenon.
Your question was really interesting in relation to how virtue signalling will play out in the future and made me consider this for some time. I think it will continue to be a part of the tags we can use to create our online identity. People have always sought to present themselves in a positive light whether on or offline. However perhaps in the future they will be taken less seriously as we all realise these tags may not mean much commitment at all.
Your paper brought to mind the backlash that influencer Caroline Calloway experienced when she called herself a “sometimes vegan”. People definitely feel very strongly about veganism on the Internet! It was great the way you highlighted this. I also liked how you organised social media into the BIG FOUR. Good work!
I enjoyed your case study of Bonny Rebecca. I like how you talk about it as “coming out”, it’s definitely a nerve racking thing just like coming out with your sexual orientation. It was great how you included identity erasure, as it is definitely a large issue with social media.
It would have been nice to have topic sentences and your paragraphs joined together more (less paragraphs) but the paper was still done well!
Do you think that virtue signalling is something to be ashamed of? Do you think it should be discussed more?
Thanks AnneMarie for your time to read my paper and glad you enjoyed it.
Caroline Calloway is someone I have been reading about lately. She definitely operates under the belief of “any publicity is good publicity even when it’s bad”.
I really appreciate your point about the topic sentences and less paragraphs. It’s so helpful to get this type of feedback as it made me go back and see how and where I could apply your suggestions and improve the readability of my paper. So thank you for that.
In regards to whether virtue signalling is something we should be ashamed of I think different people and even cultures have different attitudes to how much positive self-promotion is too much. I guess the more people do it overtly or cynically the less power that type of hashtagging will have. I think influencers who post “virtuous” tags need to be conscious of how the amplification of that tag could come back to bite them if they can be shown up in contravention of the signal. But then again Caroline Calloway has made an internet career of those sorts of controversies.
Hey again Katherine!
Haha yes Caroline sure is. I wish I could understand how her brain works, she’s been a bit out of control during this quarantine, revealing all these messed up things that have happened to her. I think a large part of her behaviour would be all of the trolls and online harassment directed at her. She is a really great writer despite everything, and it would be interesting to see how different she might have been without the online hate. She definitely enjoys being controversial – living her life the way she wants even though she knows it’ll make a few articles pop up about her. And being controversial is exactly what propelled her into even MORE fame. I was originally hoping to write a paper on her but Deepti discouraged this as apparently someone else in an earlier conference already had.
You’re welcome – I always get nervous suggesting anything so I’m glad it helped. Overall, your paper was a really good read even without them.
I heard something the other day about how being internet famous and being internet infamous are two opposite things: When you’re infamous, it’s incredibly difficult to land any normal sort of job as there are many, many articles about you and the things you’ve done wrong. People will send you so much online harassment compared to if you’re internet famous. It possibly wouldn’t be as easy to land a normal job when you’re internet famous, but it would be a lot easier to go on with your life. Would you agree with this? That it can follow you around for the rest of your life? Or would you say that any publicity is good publicity?
I enjoyed your paper – thank you! Also, love the hero image!
I hadn’t heard of the term ‘virtue signalling’ before and liked how you phrased it in para.8 as the ‘woke’ cousin of political correctness. The examples you provided also give a good insight into the constructed nature of identity through social media, and how what happens online isn’t necessarily the case in real life.
There is no doubt that veganism has made it to the mainstream with the rise of social media. Because of this, we’ve seen an increase in supermarkets and restaurants with more vegan options than ever before, and the barriers to becoming a vegan have been lowered. The reasons why someone chooses to become a vegan may shift away from something more ethical and purely because it’s more accessible? I wonder then if the tags influencers use to up their social status will be de-valued in some way?
Thanks again for an insightful paper!
Thank you Charlotte for your time and your comments regarding my paper.
Like you I wasn’t aware of the term “virtue signalling” but as soon as I heard it I realised what an oxymoron it is. I think of virtue as a quality one has that shouldn’t need to be promoted (or signalled) – seeking recognition of your virtue undermines the quality of the trait.
As you pointed out vegan options have exploded onto the supermarket shelves and fridges – I have particularly noticed this in the last five years or so. This accessibility fuels veganism’s growth as a mainstream lifestyle and makes it easier than ever before to eat vegan, even if it is part-time. A personal concern I have however is that sometimes the vegan choice may not be the best environmental choice (I’m looking at you almond milk!) or dietary choice (the nutritional and preservative content can be a concern).
In the future I can envisage that vegan hashtags could become a bit “so what?” as more and more people move to reducing animal consumption. The more ethical based practitioners may have to use tags that align them with particular vegan organisations to strengthen their “signal”.
In a way, I sympathise with influencers as they are still navigating their way in this relatively new type of job and social media is an ever-changing thing. It feels like its going to combust at some point!
I’ll be interested to see how virtue signalling plays out in the future as its definitely something I often see in my networks (although I didn’t have a name for it before!).
Thanks again, great paper!
I too enjoyed reading your paper and your style of writing. It flowed well, was light to read and had some very interesting explanations and examples. There was much to like about it such as: “In terms of online communities, constructing identity can be free of status markers that are unavoidable in real life, such as physical appearance or where you live.” So true.
Quite amazing that Goffman is still so relevant today. His analysis of human behaviour is pretty spot-on. The quote of Bartholomews (2015) regarding virtue was most amusing. Reminded me of one I heard as a child “Virtue is a grace” with the counteract response being: “Grace is a little girl who wouldn’t wash her face”. Which basically sums up what Bartholomew said.
In addition, same as Charlotte, I liked the way you compared “woke” to political correctness. A good analogy that immediately put your whole argument into context – people portraying themselves as what they feel is going to give them the most social/ethical brownie points.
Although taking a different approach your paper lines up with my paper’s argument (mine focuses on figure heads of philanthropic organisations) that once identity and trust is established it has to be maintained otherwise the consequences can be dire – as you exemplified.
Nothing to do with identity but the following passage is one I took from The Guardian in response to “Do carrots scream when pulled out of the ground?” and thought you’d appreciate it:
I was a vegetarian on and off growing up, and I’m now a strict vegan. I struggle daily with whether I should sacrifice the life of a plant to eat, when I can find the same nutrition from a fruit (if you research fruit nutrition many people survive more than happy healthy lives). I adore my garden and house plants and know what they need to be happy/healthy, and so when it comes to eating one I can’t help but think twice. Fruit seems to be given to us by the plants, bushes and trees they come from, they want to provide for us the best they have offer so that we will spread their seed. COHABITATION! Name another life form that WANTS to feed us?. The very fact that in the first stages of life on Earth, everything was evolving from plants (making them our original ancestors), I think should help us in giving them the respect they deserve….
AnnMichelle, Wirral uk
Thanks Katherine for the interesting paper.
Sorry not sure why that URL copied like that. 😊
Hello again Lee – nice to hear from you and thank you for you comments, particularly in regards to my writing style. It is so heartening to hear something like that from a fellow student who writes so well herself!
I agree that Goffman is still so relevant today. He had a way of explaining his theories in an everyday and easy to understand structure. I look forward to reading your paper shortly to expand on issues of establishment of identity and trust.
Thanks for the link to the vegan now struggling with the ethics of eating vegetables compared to fruit. I fear she is on a slippery mental health slope if those are her thoughts!
Great post! It definitely resonated a lot with me, as a vegan and how I come across online, as well as what I have experienced online through other vegan portrayals. It is definitely frustrating to me, for instance, when I see other blogger friends claiming online to be vegan and ranting about it, whilst I watch them devour a full meat spaghetti bolognese, fish and eggs etc in real life! How do we know what is and is not real anymore?
I liked your example about @Rawvana; identifying yourself as a vegan, or any other specific diet/lifestyle choice on social media can defiantly be a dangerous game. Unless you are fully committed, there is obviously plenty of room for backlash and failure in your social presence if caught slipping up! Out of interest, who were the other 2 instagram accounts studied by Amber De Zeeuw?
Thanks so much for reading my paper and your comments. It’s so good to hear from someone who practices veganism themselves. As a cook I realise how difficult it must be at times to be vegan when you are not catered for (although I find things are getting better in this regard). So I can’t imagine how cross you must feel when your non-vegan friends identity themselves as vegan! You have experienced first hand what I was trying to convey in my paper.
The other two accounts de Zeeuw studied were @domzthompson and @earthyandy. Her paper isn’t particularly long so I hope you get a chance to read it.
I hope that link works – it doesn’t seem to be at the moment – but was fine when I was researching my paper. Let me know if you have any trouble.
It can be quite hard sticking to the strict diet, but yes it has certainly improved tenfold over the last few years, especially in the UK there are so many amazing vegan restaurants and foods on the shelf these days!! I guess its that part which makes us vegans a tad irritated when we see people claim to be vegan online however fail to stick to it offline; when we are here sticking to a diet and lifestyle even (which honestly isn’t even that hard anymore now I am used to it haha), and the fact that there are actually so many good vegan food options available, yet they cant stick to it too! The way I see it is that you either are or you aren’t, don’t try to fool the world online, it’s simply not fair. Thanks for the link also, I’ll definitely have a read of it!
Hope you are well!
Really interesting paper, and one that I personally resonate with. Being Indigenous, I find it difficult to engage with vegan virtue signalling because vegan’s and vegetarians in the online world do a lot of work to shame Indigenous peoples for eating animals/animal products even though we have cultural and spiritual relationships with those animals and practices that have existed for thousands of years. It becomes a very violent, black and white argument and people rarely seem to see eye to eye.
I found two points particularly interesting.
“Perhaps the reason the term virtue signaling has only just become a useful term in today’s world is because before there were online communities, one had to actually perform an act of virtue in a real life community, for it to be ascribed to their identity. For instance volunteering to help the disadvantaged by working in a soup kitchen took time and commitment and compassion, and most importantly a physical presence.”
Do you really believe it was easier before online communities existed? I feel that now because people have digital footprints it’s much more easier to track down whether or not people are telling the truth whereas prior to the internet it was much harder to authenticate people’s identities (I’m thinking of shows such as Catfish as an example).
“These influencers promote veganism to their followers by documenting their daily activities and the food they eat, and in this way they give us insight into their class status or “appearance”.
I agree with this point, veganism virtue signalling is very much a classist practice. In the Pacific where I am from, it’s cheaper to eat simple foods and source your meat from the land and seas but in western economies such as Australia it is actually much more expensive and inaccessible for lower socio economic families to do so. Did you come across any examples in your research of low socio economic influencers making the switch (And advocating for it) to veganism?
Thanks so much for reading my paper and your very interesting comments. I certainly hadn’t realised the extent of shaming by hard core vegans against indigenous communities for their established cultural and spiritual relationships with animals and their consumption. It is this type of militant veganism that gives the practice as a whole, a bad name. I come from an meat farming background and am very aware of the misinformation and propaganda vegan activists push about farmers. I know hundreds of farmers and confidently can say that 99.9% care passionately about the welfare of their animals. After all caring for them is the only way they can produce a good animal for market.
I have always understood that indigenous people honor the animals they are dependent on for their survival and have upmost respect for their practices. After all the sustainability is evident after tens of thousands of years.
It was a great comment about whether virtue signalling is easier to track now online – I suppose you can build a clear picture with lots of little bits of online puzzle pieces whereas pre-internet asking about the virtue of someone was dependent probably on only a few opinions.
Your question regarding the socio-economic factors of veganism was very thought-provoking – I’m going to have a better look at this aspect now. I believe vegan eating should really be one of the cheapest way to eat delicious food but it requires commitment to preparation and cooking. Certainly non cooking vegans who turn to the often highly processed vegan options in the supermarket freezer are spending unnecessarily.
Many thanks Emele.
Emele, this is an interesting lens to bring to the discussion.
It’s very interesting regarding your remarks about internet fame as opposed to infamy. When I first started Digital Studies we were told the story of Lindsay Stone which has always stayed with me. Her infamous act, while disrespectful, was the act of silly young woman trying to impress her mates. When the photo when viral she became one of the most hated people in America at the time. She lost her job, her lease and became unemployable due to her online exposure.
Obviously Lindsay naively stumbled into internet infamy whereas many other individuals enjoy the attention whether negative or not. YouTube is full of controversial “performers” who don’t care that they sprout offensive nonsense as long as they are noticed. I feel society has always had these types of people but once again the amplification that the internet affords is what gives these people the power trip. Personally I would hate that kind of attention whether it is on or offline!
Thanks for you comments Anne-Marie!
I really liked your paper so thank you. Virtue signalling is so popular on social media. I just can’t get over how many people during COVID-19 have felt the need to portray themselves on social media with hashtags as staying at home and then pass on all sorts of allegations about what they assume other people are or are not doing outside.
Do you think virtue signalling has insidiously entered our culture through the back door of social media and is here to stay? And do you think it can ever be used for good?
Thanks for your time and comments. I think you make a really interesting point about virtue signalling during Coronavirus – you are right there certainly has been a lot on Facebook!
While I find some of it personally a little annoying due to the self praising aspect of it, I do wonder if it encourages others to conform to the new rules and behaviour we have now to adapt to. Perhaps the reinforcement of the message by social media “friends” will raise awareness among strong and weak ties.
In this regard this type of virtue signalling regarding our health has done some good but it is worth considering the consequences of an less palatable “virtue” was being signalled broadly through SNS. For instance since our international borders closed I see more patriotic posts and shares – this worries me that it could lead to “jingoism” being more acceptable on social media down the track.
All the best
This is an interesting point. However, it’s also important that we don’t dismiss online activism and the power online movements have to create real change both online and offline.
Gina Martin is a good case study for this—she’s a digital activist in the United Kingdom who successfully campaigned on Instagram to make upskirting illegal. Unlike real-world marches and protests, online activism has a low barrier of entry and is relatively safe (Simpson, 2018), so more people can join in. This is inherently good for a healthy democracy.
It’s worthwhile here to consider the relationship between culture and social norms in the offline and online realms, and how they mirror and shape each other. Movements like Black Lives Matter and #MeToo gained much of their momentum on Twitter before becoming more “mainstream” offline issues that have shaped what is now considered acceptable behaviours and representations of self both online and offline.
You have done well in articulating your voice and have backed it up successfully with relevant research. The topic you are writing about is an interesting one and the association of virtue signalling and vegan activism has caught my attention.
The idea of virtue signalling and the concept of “projection of moral character” as you have described as happening on Instagram so well has made me wonder if there were other underlying reasons. Wanting to ride the wave of popular and trendy topics of the day and make money in the process perhaps? Van Driel and Dumitrica (https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1354856520902136) content that influencers are now beholden to a “professionalisation” of sorts that ensures that their brands are trusted by the public but are also significantly influenced by advertisers. Money makes influencers tick so to speak!
Through your research did you find that both influencers and their followers favoured pseudonymous self-presentation or transparent identities? What are your thoughts on the influence of pseudonymity in online management of identity performances?
It was a very well written paper and an enjoyable read. Good luck!
Such an interesting piece and one I resonate hugely with. As a young teen I was a big fan of Bonny Rebecca and the lifestyle she portrayed. I don’t think I ever sat down and thought about her in any great detail but I always had the impression that being a vegan was the health holy grail and if you were vegan then you were happy and compassionate and cared more about animals and the planet than other people. I’m sure there are a lot of vegans out there who are genuinely all of these things but I think a problem arises when these attributes become the gold standard of being a good person and any reevaluation or change of opinion is met with horror and disgust. No one person is stagnant nor should they be. I remeber watching her ‘confession’ and the abuse she received from the ‘vegan community’ was shocking. It really portrayed how being vegan had drifted from being an ethical/dietary choice towards being a way of showing other people that you had admirable qualities, that you were a good person. The backlash was far more intense than expected I think because in an online world, we never truely know the people that we follow. We follow them because of an affinity or becasue we admire them and when they don’t meet our expectations or they fail or do something we don’t agree with , it is almost like this reflects back onto us. In the same vein as cancel culture, if we don’t agree with something or view a perspective as wrong then we want to delete all mention of them. Great piece!
Also relevant to your conference discussion is the concept of presencing discussed by Couldry (2012). I do think that presencing, the performance of identity undertaken when users sustain their personal connections in a public environment, is in fact what members of the vegan community are doing when they engage in virtue signaling on public platforms. Every time a user posts about their vegan meal, shares a recipe, likes a post under the #vegan hashtag, they are, in a sense, signaling information that they deem to be important markers of who they are (Donath, 2014)
By participating on Instagram and using even the platform’s most basic features, such as commenting, writing and uploading bio information, and posting captions, photos or videos, users are, as Boyd (2006, p. 112) describes, “writing oneself into being in a digital environment” with every single interaction and post. These actions are undertaken by people to sustain their personal connections publicly—a practice that Couldry (2012) terms presencing; the performance of identity. With every selfie, comment, hashtag, Story, and follow (or, indeed, intentional lack thereof), individual users and communities of users are sustaining a public presence (Couldry, 2012) and signaling important information about who they are (Donath, 2014).