Technology and its acts of humanization

Activism in the digital age

Aamana Mohdin addresses the photo of the lifeless body of Aylan Kurdi, a three year old Syrian refugee, pointing out that the photo “humanized the refugee crisis”, and spawned the hashtag #refugeeswelcome, which became integral in putting pressure on governments for their response and actions concerning the Syrian Refugee Crisis.

This fledgling form of activism — also known as “hashtag activism” — has been an extremely prominent tactic within the last three years. Its popularity arises from the fact that people are strongly affected by imagery that depict the victims of any event of crises as an individual, rather than a mere statistic or one of the many faces bobbing among the hundreds or even thousands of others and, due to the sheer vastness of the crowd, are hardly distinguishable from the ones surrounding it.

In the viral photo of Aylan Kurdi, this is exactly what was portrayed: a single, lifeless body of a Syrian toddler, lying face down on a desolate Turkish shore. Viewers of this photo could then easily project the face of their own child or relative onto Aylan, giving them more incentive to take a stand. Only after this personalization occurs can citizens of developed countries feel a newfound indignance, and the motive to fight for justice.

One of the most well-known, if not the most well-known form of hashtag activism is #BlackLivesMatter. #BlackLivesMatter differentiates itself from #refugeeswelcome or other hashtags like #YesAllWomen or #BringBackOurGirls in that its images are captured and circulated predominantly by mobile phones.

The origins and basis of #BlackLivesMatter was and continues to be dependent on social media. The hashtag emerged in early 2012, soon after the murder of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of his murderer, George Zimmerman, and was revived in 2014 after the murders of Michael Brown and Freddie Gray, who were victims of police brutality.

In terms of using the most current communication technologies for activism, #BlackLivesMatter parallels the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s in many ways. For one, civil rights workers would compile information given to them from callers using the Wide Area Telephone Service (WATS) line (which enabled callers to forego mediation by the usually white and most likely racist telephone operator) into a report, then mimeograph these reports to send to supporters of the movement across the US. This approach, though infinitely more time-consuming, is akin to its more technologically-advanced counterpart that’s known today as “live-tweeting”. Likewise, live-tweeting doesn’t require a potentially biased middle party to process and distribute information. Its immediacy and directness creates a sense of “real-time”, making the reader feel as if they are amidst the action.

The Civil Rights Movement also took advantage of the fact that its images were being televised and broadcasted via television screens into the homes of Americans all across the nation. For Black Lives Matter, the publicization of activist images is instead conducted through various social media platforms, including Twitter, Snapchat, Vine, Ryot, and Instagram; all of which can easily be administered through their mobile phones.

Traditional news organizations — and by traditional, I’m referring to the major journalistic enterprises that are typically white, conservative, and more often than not, harbour racist undertones— would have attacked, or at the very least, skimmed over the actual loss of black lives, thereby effectively creating a sense of distance and helplessness in citizens.

#BlackLivesMatter, however, acts as a channel that is devoid of any political or corporate influence, through which individuals involved in the movement can give the public an unfiltered view on the realities of the events making the headlines. The personal accounts of Instagrammers and Tweeters fosters a new level of closeness and intimacy with the observant citizen like never before, because they humanize the events that had previously been flattened and distanced by the news by offering a more embodied experience.

By enabling the encapsulation of such personal and embodied accounts — whether it be in the form of tweets, six-second videos, or photos — at a lightning-fast, real-time speed, mobile phones are also enabling effective activism. Much like the demand for change spurred by the viral photo of Aylan Kurdi, mobile phones are simultaneously the channels, as well as receptors of humanized experience; which is all it takes to spark change.