#BlackLivesMatter and the Power and Limits of Social Media

Emily Parker
Dec 2, 2016 · 8 min read

This article was written by Emily Parker and charlton mcilwain

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We talk about #BlackLivesMatter like it’s a uniquely American movement, but agitators all over the world use similar social media tools and tactics. Why does this matter? Because their stories illustrate the power — and limits — of social media as a tool of resistance.

One of us (Emily Parker) spent over ten years interviewing Internet activists in China, Cuba and Russia. The other (charlton mcilwain) researches Black Lives Matter’s digital footprint in the United States. When we first met a year ago, we were amazed to find similar themes in our work. It may soon become less far-fetched to compare the United States to authoritarian countries. We hope that won’t be the case. But if so, the experiences of overseas activists might help us understand the prospects for #blacklivesmatter.

To write this article, we drew on our previous research and spent the past year interviewing activists at home and abroad. Here are some parallels we found:

The Internet lets ordinary citizens tell their own stories, helping to prevent “erasure.”

After Michael Brown was shot in 2014, Black Lives Matter activist Ashley Yates (BrownBlaze) explains: “We started to use Twitter and Facebook and Instagram as way to just get the word out, to contrast the stark mainstream media blackout that was occurring.” Yates says the media once relied on the police narrative, but not anymore. “Social media has given people on the ground a voice and a validation as a trusted source.”

In countries with state-controlled media, telling your own story is a transformative experience. Despite China’s strict censorship, ordinary citizens report events on social media. In Cuba, main media outlets do not reflect the economic and political frustration of people’s daily lives. The Cuban blogger Laritza Diversent once explained that she wrote a blog as a way to “show my country as I see it and feel it.” She wrote that blogs were “the place where we give life to our land, where it stops being Cuba and it becomes the Cuban people — flesh and blood people with their own existence.”

Black Lives Matter activists are fighting against a similar “erasure” that manifests itself in two ways, says the Black Lives Matter activist DeRay Mckesson. “The story is never told, or it is told by everyone but us.”

Mckesson explains, “In Ferguson we became unerased, and that was solely because of social media.” Mckesson added, “We didn’t invent resistance, we didn’t discover injustice. The only thing that is different about this movement is our ability to story tell it and to use the power of storytelling as actual power.”

Protest movements are decentralized and “leaderful”

The activist Dream Hampton calls today’s black liberation movement a “leaderful” movement. “There’s a lot of leaders in the movement, which is a very different thing than leaderless.” When you looking at starlings, she says, “and they cut a hard left or right, you can’t tell which bird in the flock made the decision.”

Years ago, the Chinese Internet activist Michael Anti echoed this sentiment: “The Internet has many opinion leaders. We watch each other. We support each other. But we don’t belong to each other. It’s a very good example of decentralized, real politics.”

Decentralization is useful for sparking large protests quickly. The challenge is what comes next. In Egypt, the “We Are all Khaled Said” Facebook page, named after a young Egyptian who was killed by police, played a key role in organizing the 2011 protests that led to the Egyptian revolution.

Wael Ghonim, administrator of that Facebook page, described what happened in Egypt as a “decentralized campaign” where everyone helped spread the word. But the demonstrators didn’t necessarily agree about the future. “It’s not like we had a plan and we agreed to execute that plan, and we can always refer to that vision,” Ghonim said.

Ghonim has also said that after the Egyptian Revolution, social media only amplified divisions. “My online world became a battleground filled with trolls, lies, hate speech.”

Black Lives Matter also faces the challenges of decentralization. There are different chapters and arguments over who represents the movement. But decentralization also helps ensure that killing the leaders won’t kill the movement. Yates describes the old style of organization as “the singular- figure model of black liberation — which was often a man in a suit, at the top, and having him be the microphone for people.” Yates explains, “we didn’t realize it didn’t work until we saw what happened, and they repeatedly killed that leader. It took the wind out from under a movement.”

Community and trust are built online

Mckesson says he met some of his closest friends through Twitter. “We trusted each other because of a digital space first and that trust manifested in physical ways, it manifested in offline work.” Mckesson believes part of his following derives from the fact that his Twitter feed tells a consistent narrative. He repeatedly tweets the exact same phrases, such as “I love my blackness. And yours” and “Sleep well, y’all. Remember to dream.”

This consistency builds trust. Mckesson comments about his friend Johnetta Elzie, another prominent activist and high-volume tweeter: “Netta doesn’t have any consistent phrases or whatever, but she listens to music all the time. So I know that on any given day I’m probably going to see a song that Netta listens to, I just know it, and in my head I can imagine her with headphones on,” McKesson says. That kind of thing “builds this understanding of who the person is, that engenders trust.”

Chinese Internet users echo this sentiment. “I spend years observing them, what they say, what they do,” the Chinese blogger He Caitou once said of his online community. “The Internet rebuilds the ability to trust other people.”

The Chinese Internet activist Michael Anti once said that thanks to the Internet, “Now I know who my comrades are.” Yates echoes this sentiment, saying that a lot of people are crafting empowering black communities online, “and that’s something they’re not necessarily able to get in their real life.”

Viral images have power (and limits)

The activist Charlene Carruthers says that seeing something is different from just reading about it. She believes that seeing images like tanks and teargas motivated more people to go down to Ferguson.

Police violence against African-Americans has also been captured on film, Videos drew attention to the brutal deaths of Eric Garner, Philando Castile, Alfred Olango, Paul O’Neal and Keith Lamont Scott, to name just a few examples. “We’ve seen more black death on video than I care to see for the rest of my life,” Hampton says. “And it has not changed. White supremacy is intractable.”

Images and videos, distributed virally via social media, have energized protests movements all over the world. One famous example was the video of the death of Neda Agha-Soltan, which became a became a powerful symbol of Iran’s 2009 antigovernment protests. But in Iran and elsewhere, the widespread circulation of disturbing footage did not ensure the protests’ success. Similarly, the graphic and easily accessible video footage coming from Syria have not been enough to end the conflict.

Social media cuts both ways

It’s no secret that in authoritarian countries, social media is a tool of surveillance. But American activists shouldn’t get too comfortable. According to this report, the US Department of Homeland Security mined social media platforms for information on Black Lives Matter. All over the world, social media platforms comply with government censorship and surveillance requests. In China, Yahoo provided authorities with user information, landing democracy activists in jail. Facebook is reportedly experimenting with a censorship tool in order to get into the Chinese market.

Twitter and Facebook are still valuable tools for building community and getting the message out, but Black Lives Matter might consider creating a platform that they control, and that was built with activists’ concerns in mind. This will not completely prevent against surveillance. But given that Twitter and Facebook are corporate entities whose policies and data collection practices can change on a whim, activists shouldn’t overly rely on these platforms. What happens, for example, when their algorithms no longer maximize the visibility of Black Lives Matter content? Or what if Facebook decides that related news or material is unappealing to advertisers?

Social media activism can shape real-world perceptions, but it takes time

Before social media, the public might have been more likely to perceive a string of police shootings as isolated events. McKesson said hashtags can serve as a kind of “paperclip” that link events together. According to the Pew Research Center, between in the period from mid-2013 through March 2016, #BlackLivesMatter appeared on Twitter nearly 11.8 million times.

Black Lives Matter’s name and racial justice message are now ubiquitous. Virtually everyone in the U.S. is familiar with Black Lives Matter. Black Lives Matter has coincided with the longest, sustained, national attention to racial issues since the early 1970s, when race fell off the list of Americans’ most important issues facing the country. The movement has shaped pop culture. In this article, alicia garza describes how Black Lives Matter influenced the work of the influential Beyoncé.

The Internet and social media helps turn relatively unknown citizens into public figures. Earlier this year, Mckesson ran for mayor of Baltimore. He didn’t win, but his deft use of Twitter helped pave the way for his attempt. In August of 2014, when Michael Brown was shot, Mckesson had fewer than 900 Twitter followers. Today, he has over 600,000. In 2013, the Russian opposition blogger and political activist Alexey Navalny ran for mayor of Moscow. He didn’t win either, but he did take nearly 30% of the vote.

Social media campaigns contribute to tangible results. In China, online outrage pushed the government to be more transparent about air pollution. In the US, tweets were not entirely responsible for the removal of the Confederate flag from the South Carolina Capitol, but they certainly influenced public perceptions. As Yates put it, “It’s a very simple, instant visual…. Put a picture of a flag up and have 140 characters saying why this is not OK.”

Social media doesn’t organize people. People organize people.

Effective protests combine online and offline actions. Social media does not cause revolutions. But it can help citizens who feel a sense of injustice to realize, perhaps for the first time, that they are not alone. The next step is to act.

Social media allows for storytelling. It can create a sense of solidarity. It can raise awareness of what’s going on the ground. But people still need to show up. As the activist Charlene Carruthers put it, “Social media doesn’t organize people. People organize people.”

Emily Parker

Written by

Author of “Now I Know Who My Comrades Are.” Former staff writer/editor at Wall Street Journal and New York Times. Former State Department policy advisor.

Emily Parker

Written by

Author of “Now I Know Who My Comrades Are.” Former staff writer/editor at Wall Street Journal and New York Times. Former State Department policy advisor.

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