People demonstrating

Is Virtue Signaling Undermining Your Advocacy Goals?

Despite its cultural significance, social media is often targeted as a space filled with rampant virtue signaling. Virtue signaling refers to the action or practice of publicly expressing opinions or sentiments intended to demonstrate one’s good character or the moral correctness of one’s position on a particular issue.

Virtue signaling plays a role in creating clear, moral boundaries in society. For instance, when everyone on Instagram is reposting the same graphic in support of an issue, leaders must recognize the power and implications of that support. Consider the shift in cultural norms and opinions surrounding gay rights over the last 50 years. If social media had existed throughout this shift, virtue signaling, properly channeled, might have dramatically accelerated that timeline. Additionally, transformative events like the Black Lives Matter movement or the overturning of Roe v. Wade, often drive a flurry of online activity. Between May 6 and June 7 of 2020, the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter was used more than 47.8 million times on Twitter. The hashtag #BansOffOurBodies (associated with the overturning of Roe v. Wade) also recently experienced a significant rise in use–demonstrating the immediate and far-reaching impact of cultural events on social media interactions.

Viewing social media advocacy (SMA) through the lens of virtue signaling presents several challenges. Virtue signaling may categorize SMA as too focused on “appearing” morally correct with little to no attention paid to legitimate issue advocacy or action. Hashtags may be viewed as merely a series of characters used, not to connect, but to incite. However, not all hashtags are empty promises. #BlackLivesMatter resulted in one of the largest protest movements in U.S. history with approximately 15 to 26 million people participating in physical, in-person demonstrations during the summer of 2020. The 2017 Women’s March on Washington was organized largely through social media and grew to be the largest single-day protest in the United States. In the early 2010s, the world saw the potential power of SMA through its role in the Arab Spring uprisings in the Middle East.

Black Lives Matter, Judith Kirkikis, CPOY Award of Excellence Winner

No matter how you look at it, social media is a vital component of social change, so embedded in our lives that it's surprising when advocacy doesn't start online. Instead of painting the online landscape with the same brush, we should strive to learn how social media can positively impact the social issues we champion. Whether that means translating hashtags into physical movement or establishing cultural norms online, social media has become one of the most impactful communication tools in our lives.

The rise of social media has also coincided with the rise of corporate social responsibility. Brands of all kinds – from Victoria’s Secret to Autism Speaks – have pivoted drastically after being accused of moral irresponsibility. It is no longer enough to have a good product or a well-respected mission. Consumers and donors are eager to connect with brands that are authentic and socially responsible.

This is true for nonprofits as well. People will stop investing in your mission if you are not socially conscious. And a huge part of being socially conscious is proper virtue signaling – but it’s a fine line between signaling your brand is aware of social issues, and appearing inauthentic and eager for social clout. There are, however, essential steps you can take to virtue signal correctly while also getting the most out of your social media presence.

First, keep it simple. There is no need to attempt to tackle every social issue at any given moment. Choose causes most related to your brand and advocate for them when appropriate. Appearing genuine is essential to successful virtue signaling – which is why it is essential to avoid posting about every social issue out there.

Second, keep it real. Strive to connect with your audience in a meaningful way and let them know that your brand is taking part in improving an issue more generally. This means staying as authentic as possible. Don’t claim to support an issue that relates to your brand if you can’t back it up.

Third, create a meaningful social media and brand strategy that reflects your true priorities. Work with trusted partners to train and support your social media team so they keep best practices on top of mind. Nothing is more painful to your friends and allies than seeing you stumble publicly on social media when conveying messages core to your charitable mission.

Fourth, don’t assume a mistake is not noticed if you delete your post or social media thread. The internet never forgets, nor will your community. Own your mistakes and correct them promptly.  

In summary, it is important to understand the role social media can and does play in effectively connecting and mobilizing legitimate political change through the power of instantaneous connectivity. How you position your nonprofit, and eventually effectuate your social media strategy, will have lasting reputational and brand implications. Signaling is a necessary part of building and maintaining support in the age of intense social awareness. However, nonprofits face just as much scrutiny (and perhaps even more) when it comes to fulfilling their mission and goals. If you don’t signal your social awareness correctly, people will question your authority as a whole. Nonprofits often assume, incorrectly, that they are immune to backlash. This is simply not the case.

If you're committed to improving your organization's social media impact in ways that effectively spotlight the issues and projects you care about, I invite you to visit or email to learn more about how our team can help take your communication strategies to a higher level.