#BLM in 2020: In defense of Social Media Activism

The digital sphere offers a vast array of tools for activists (on one end of the digital divide) to affect change within their immediate communities as well as on a global level (Freelan et. al, 2020). Despite the red flags, (social media’s corporate structure and issues related to censorship) it allows changemakers and community leaders to disseminate their messages on a scale which was inconceivable not too long ago.

Whereas the real-world effects of certain previous online movements have been widely debated, the #BlackLivesMatter resurgence of 2020:

‘has evinced a scale, creativity, and endurance that challenges those skeptical of the Internet’s ability to mediate a movement’

to put it in Jane Hu’s (2020) brilliant words. In her article for the New Yorker, she attributes the online movement’s success to the behind-the-scenes co-ordination between #BLM activists via digital platforms and their commitment to establishing a common aim and streamline messaging.

Indeed, the global dissemination of video footage of the murder of George Floyd sparked an inordinate amount of offline collective action. From the largest ever protests in American history, to the arrests of police officers involved in various cases of police brutality, to budget cuts in US police departments, to the global protests which even featured in tiny Malta. Had it not been for social media, it is unlikely that crowds would have gathered outside Parliament in Valletta to demand justice for Lassana Cisse, whose murderers — Armed Forces of Malta soldiers Francesco Fenech and Lorin Scicluna, were released on bail in 2019.

The aim of this blog post however, is not to evaluate the amount of offline collective action sparked by the #BlackLivesMatter movement in 2020, which would be somewhat impossible to quantify. Rather, it is to acknowledge the ways in which the movement may have led to mass change in a more quiet way, the kind done through education and internal shifts when people are stuck indoors due to a pandemic.

Critics are quick to deem any form of online activism, which doesn’t lead to ‘tangible change’ such as an arrest or policy change, ‘slacktivism’ — a derogatory term and portmanteau of slacker and activism where sharing or liking a post may inhibit other meaningful change. Needless to say, this differs from situation to situation — some examples of slacktivism such as #BlackoutTuesday were much more performative and futile than others, such as sharing a post with information about victims of police brutality or a list of anti-racist resources to consume.

Moreover, according to Freelan et. al (2020):

Further to this, concerns have been raised about whether social media activism can be deemed ‘actual activism’ like attending a sit-in or protest would where there’s a real risk involved. A couple of countercriticisms to these concerns are worth noting:

1. There are various reasons why someone might be better off engaging with activism from home

Medium writer Raegen Chastain (2020) notes how ‘marginalized people tend to have fewer leisure hours. Black people may be unsafe at events that have a police presence.’ In-person activism events are not necessarily accessible to people with disabilities or underlying conditions making them vulnerable to Covid-19. Therefore, to say that at home activism is not a viable form of activism is inherently exclusionary.

2. Activism is not a monolith

According to the Cambridge dictionary, ‘Activism’ can be defined as ‘the use of direct and noticeable action to achieve a result, usually a political or social one.’ In line with this definition, individual action such as supporting black-owned brands or educating oneself about anti-racism and black history, is equally as valid as collective action.

While higher risk activism such as sit-ins or attending protests are vital to social progress, social media’s potential to incite individual change through efforts such as promoting an anti-racist education, is not to be discounted.

Over the summer, Instagram went from being a platform in which the majority of users shared a highlight reel of their lives, to one which increasingly integrated #BLM content and other social causes (as well as ‘#alllivesmatter’ content in response). Examples of how #BLM encouraged social media users to take individual action include:

· calls to ‘diversify your Instagram feed’ and thus escape the echo-chamber of white voices with similar experiences to one’s own

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· reading, podcast and watchlists sharing anti-racist resources and amplifying art made by black creators and about black history

· Bite-size information about specific concepts, such as ‘intersectionality, the surveillance state, structural versus individual racism, and the nuances of privilege among white and non-Black people of color. It’s a deceptively simple way to educate people on complex topics that some academics spend their entire lives studying.’ (Stuart and Ghaffari, 2020)

· #BLM protest/educational content on Tik Tok

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According to Zuckerman’s (2011) cute cat theory, activists purposely use the same platforms where one might enjoy pictures of lolcats, as its easier to engage people on a general platform where they are likely already spending their time. In the case of Tik Tok, it is interesting to note how in 2020, activism has been fused together with metaphorical ‘cute cat’ content. Examples include dance trends and makeup tutorials which incorporate educational content about the history of racism. On the flip side, it is important to note that Tik Tok faces various allegations of racial bias by Black Creators and users posting #BLM content.

· The #ShareTheMic initiative on Instagram where black women were given the platform of white women with a large followings, with the purpose of amplifying black women’s voices

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This initiative is evidence of social media users growing more aware of creative ways in order to enact social change — stepping into the shoes of someone else’s persona and switching audiences would be impossible to achieve in real life. This is especially relevant in light of concerns of racial bias in Instagram and Facebook algorithms.

One takeaway from the #BLM wave of 2020 is that social media platforms offer incredible accessibility, and increasingly hold the potential to be used as an educational tool and transform generation Z into a politically and socially engaged generation.That being said, social media activism definitely poses its downsides, such as the potential for misinformation as well as algorithms amplifying opinion polarisation resulting in media echo-chambers. According to Kertez (2019),

Read more about media polarisation in the #BLM movement in my next blogpost, which concludes this series with a critical reflection of my own engagement with Black Lives Matter over the past year.

This blog is a project for Study Unit MCS3953, University of Malta

References

Chastain, R. (2020). Activism As Self-Care: How to Energize the Most Important Work of Your Life. Medium. Retrieved 27 January 2021, from https://medium.com/better-humans/activism-as-self-care-how-to-energize-the-most-important-work-of-your-life-c1f741fb3a88.

Freelon, D., Marwick, A., & Kreiss, D. (2020). False equivalencies: Online activism from left to right. Sciencemag.Org, 369(6508). Retrieved 27 January 2021, from.

Hu, J. (2020). The Second Act of Social-Media Activism. The New Yorker. Retrieved 27 January 2021, from https://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/the-second-act-of-social-media-activism.

Stewart, E., & Ghaffary, S. (2020). It’s not just your feed. Political content has taken over Instagram.. Vox. Retrieved 27 January 2021, from https://www.vox.com/recode/2020/6/24/21300631/instagram-black-lives-matter-politics-blackout-tuesday.

Sîrbu, A., Pedreschi, D., Giannotti, F., & Kertész, J. (2019). Algorithmic bias amplifies opinion fragmentation and polarization: A bounded confidence model. PLOS ONE, 14(3), e0213246. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0213246

Zuckerman, E. (2011). Ethan Zuckerman- Cute Cats and the Arab Spring: When Social Media Meet Social Change [Image]. Retrieved 27 January 2021, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tkDFVz_VL_I.