I SPEND far too much time on TikTok.

It’s an addictive short-form video platform where there’s always a juicy bit of social discourse for me to get my teeth into or celebrity drama to unpack. It’s also chock full of influencers who make their money by posting corporate sponsored content.

Recently a new trend has gripped the app. The Digital Guillotine.

A response to Israel’s ongoing persecution of the Palestinian people, it’s defined by members of TikTok’s community curating lists of celebrities and influencers that users are encouraged to block.

There’s hundreds of different lists with the names on them ranging from genuinely huge celebrities who have expressed violent anti-Palestinian views such as Amy Schumer all the way down to micro influencers who have shown off products on Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) lists.

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This trend can teach us a lot about the dangers of performative activism. TikTokers have every right to choose who they give their attention to – especially when many video creators have aligned themselves with Israel’s violent regime. But the trend goes beyond asking us to disengage with celebrities, it asks us to condemn those we are blocking.

When it’s the Amy Schumers of the world, I have no problem with this, but some argue that it’s going too far. One example being a Palestinian-American fashion influencer who has been vocal in her support of her homeland appearing on a block list for accepting a sponsorship deal with a brand she didn’t know had ties to Israeli apartheid. The equivalence drawn between these two contrasting figures shows how fast these movements can descend into witch hunts.

The trend went viral after the Met Gala, hosted in New York and attended by the rich and famous. The lavish fashion couldn’t have felt more out of touch with the events of that week. As guests walked the red carpet, the IDF was preparing a ground invasion of Rafah set to kill thousands more innocent civilians. It was a stark reminder of the ignorance of the West and the spectacle of celebrity. So, when I sat down to play couch fashion critic for another year, I couldn’t help but feel gross.

The stark contrast created an outcry of anger against the celebrities attending. The straw that broke the camel’s back it seems was fashion influencer Haleyy Baylee who posted a TikTok of herself at the event lip-syncing to a sound clip that features the phrase “let them eat cake”, while dressed in a Marie Antoinette inspired look. The dark irony was too much to bear – especially as Haleyy, like so many other influencers, hasn’t said a word to her 10 million followers about those starving in Palestine.

This is all in the backdrop of an online pro-Palestine movement that has struggled to gain anywhere near the engagement of influencers like Haleyy, in part because of the app’s censorship of political content.

Currency on TikTok is attention, with influencers being paid vast sums depending on viewing figures. The app’s users know this and as conversations about the gala progressed, an idea developed. Let’s hit these influencers where it hurts and stop engaging with their content en masse. Hence the Digital Guillotine trend was born. Decapitate the online bourgeoisie. Metaphorically, of course.

There’s no path to redemption for the blocked. Some who appeared on the lists have attempted to advocate for Palestine since the trend went viral. However, they’ve been branded “traitors” with suspicion that their silence was only broken due to fear of financial loss. It’s a suspicion I admit I share but I can’t help but feel I have seen this all before.

It all reminds me of Blackout Day, during the Black Lives Matter resurgence of 2020. That was a trend designed to quiet social media traffic by posting images of black squares on Instagram. It was meant to create space for conversations about state violence toward Black people. Mostly, though, it was a brilliant way to virtue signal your support for the BLM movement without needing to actually say anything.

I was a vocal critic of this at the time because I could sense hypocrisy. People who I had seen being bystanders to racism or even being racist themselves posted squares without any acknowledgement of the harm they had caused in the past. Corporations posted too, seeing the potential profit loss of alienating Black consumers. Ultimately it was hollow and didn’t translate to real change despite millions taking part. We can describe this as performative activism, where the primary motivation is the reward for being seen to be aligned with a movement.

Part of performative activism’s rise is undoubtedly social media where we are encouraged to see ourselves as main characters and perform for an online audience. However, there is also a punitive element to the Digital Guillotine and a desire not just to turn our heads away from those in the wrong, but to destroy them entirely.

My critique isn’t that movements like these are overly moralistic or unfair to influencers. The powerful do have a moral responsibility to speak up. Rather it’s that it just doesn’t work. Through my time working with anti-racist activists, it’s been an accepted evil that the more ruthless we are, the more our targets – people we need to get on side – will retreat.

Building solidarity based on guilt and fear of social scolding creates poor allies who feel compelled to perform. The real work of resisting racism, colonialism and other oppressions doesn’t happen in the limelight. And once diversity day is over or the online trend loses relevance, there aren’t enough committed allies in our movements to give them momentum.

Danger also comes in expecting celebrities to become activists themselves rather than amplifying those with lived experience. While there are successful celebrity activists speaking out about Palestine, squabbling over who is doing it right or best happens to the detriment of the wider movement. Instead of turning our faces to Gaza, to the uncomprehendingly brave civilians fighting for their lives, Western social media users become engaged in an insular battle.

It’s turning out less like a guillotine and more like the stocks. We boo and throw our tomatoes but eventually we must release our victims and live alongside them. The reality being that the block lists will not end celebrity influence and could make them less likely than ever to speak out.

What do we do then in a world where it’s easy to feel powerless? I’m no expert on international relations but I do know that building effective social movements relies on participants creating clear and easily understood demands.

To speak with a united voice demanding a ceasefire, perhaps we should focus less on celebrities and more on their fanbases, considering how to make our messages more accessible to them. In a world where literacy rates are shockingly low, we must find a way to communicate with people who find our discourse too complex to follow and embolden them to use their voices.

When the dust settles on the digital guillotine and its blade is dulled, I challenge TikTok’s users to continue to consider how we build solidarity among the many, rather than arguing over the silence of the few.