Digital Technology Amplifies the Voices of those at the Frontlines of Oppression
“Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.” — Cesar Cruz
On an unseasonably warm March day, Brooke and Peri Kessler, clad in graphic tees that read “Walk Out. Register. Organize. Lead.” threw peace signs at the camera while their friend snapped the perfect Instagram amid a sea of people gathered on Central Park West for the 2018 March For Our Lives. The 17-year-olds attended the march with a gaggle of friends sporting handmade signs referencing policy reform to end gun violence. The twins are no accidental activists and their trendy Instagram boomerang is anything but a ploy for popularity. In the final months of their senior year, the girls tactfully built a media platform called We Are Deltas. “Because we’re the generation of change,” Brooke Kessler explains (Schwartz, 2018). Unable to vote themselves, they use Instagram to demonstrate how young people may have meaningful political efficacy without hitting the ballot box. In an age of digital activism wherein those disenfranchised from the electoral process carve a space for themselves in democracy, their work holds importance but is hardly unique. Before the Kessler twins took to the streets, Egyptians used digital media to overthrow a dictator, #BlackLivesMatter activists built communities in online spaces and the students who survived the Parkland shooting used the media to “call BS” on politicians (Gonzalez, para. 17). Media strategies in the digital age mark a departure from previous media organizing tactics like those of journalist and activist E.D. Morel who used fact-based reporting to raise awareness about slave labor in the Congo in the early 19th century by relying on outsiders to shape a narrative of liberation. For marginalized communities to craft their own narrative in the media, they rely on content creators making space for them in public discourse. Digital technology, however, presents a promise that even those whose identity makes them most disenfranchised from the political process have a way to amplify their voice to build community, engage in political action and usher change led by and for those who are at the front lines of oppression.
Over 100 years after E.D. Morel’s campaign to destroy an oppressive regime in the Congo, young people in Cairo, Egypt, used media to dismantle their own dictatorship in the Arab Spring. Just as the Congolese lacked avenues to make political change, Egyptians in 2010 had no opportunities to call for change through a democratic process (Friedman). In the context of Arab Spring, a more democratic media space wherein individuals — regardless of positionality — may craft their own narrative became essential to lead a revolution by and for the mass public. One leader, Wael Ghonim, notes, “[Social media] helped a decentralized movement arise. It made people realize that they were not alone.” (Friedman, para 7). The leaders’ ability to usher people from the internet to the streets speaks to Cultural Critic Kenneth Andrews’ observation that movements must have three distinct pathways to gain power: cultural power, disruptive potential, and coordinated organization. The Arab spring built cultural power and centralized a movement by creating a shared identity through the Facebook page “We Are All Khaled Said” referencing a 29-year-old who was killed by police (Friedman). Arab Spring failed, though, in its disruptive potential and coordinated effort. While the activists brought down political leader Hosni Mubarak, they were unable to install a new democratic system, “because as so many voices got amplified, consensus-building became impossible” (Friedman, para. 1). Even in the Egyptians’ struggle to rebuild build democracy, their organizing tactics represented a shift in the way activists use media as an organizing tool. Unlike Morel’s work in the Congo, Egyptian activists led the media organizing work from the front lines. In online spaces they “escaped [their] frustrating political realities and lived a virtual, alternative life” (Ghonim, quoted in Friedman, para. 5). This transfer of narrative power from outsiders to the affected community wherein the resistance can map a new reality for themselves in the face of oppression speaks to the power of digital media in facilitating a cultural moment.
Born in 2013 as a way to draw collective conscience to police brutality against black people, #BlackLivesMatter constructed a narrative using the power of naming — naming themselves, naming their community and naming racism — as paramount to building an online coalition with both cultural currency and disruptive power. Particularly, #BlackLivesMatter — which first appeared online in 2013 after George Zimmerman was found not guilty for fatally shooting 13-year-old Trayvon Martin — was the only hashtag activists used at the time that conveyed the issue in “explicitly racial terms” (Freelawn, McIlwain and Clark, 33). This made clear for white people that America still reckons with a race problem and it validated for the black community an oppressive system they already knew to be true. This convergence represents both cultural power and disruptive power. In the hashtag, the black community is able to connect across physical space, building a community that is consistent, but does not rely on a monolithic story. Instead, in naming the onslaught of brutality, the hashtag serves to unite the community while mapping a more complex understanding of black identities. And, while the hashtag unified a complex narrative, it also disrupted the status quo. In post-1964 Civil Rights Act America, the hashtag made explicit the notion that racism still permeates through American society. Technology that allowed people to record violence in real time and disseminate it online meant that all internet users everywhere had to confront racism. As journalist Brian Stephen explains, “All the terror and greatness we associate with that moment is right in front of our faces, as near to us as our screens.” For many black people, this reality came as no surprise. And, in their case, the hashtag served to unite their community and validate their struggle. For white people, who likely through their own privilege had never had to confront this lived reality, the hashtag disturbed their comfort. And, it’s in that convergence of community building and disruption, coupled with media tools that convened everyone in one digital space in a way that does not explicitly happen in a segregated America, that a movement was born.
Young people in Cairo built community and #BlackLivesMatter organizers challenged the status quo; their organizing chartered a new path for activists wherein online digital tools shifted the narrative-building power from outsiders to the affected community. While their movements chartered new paths, it was not until high school students who survived the Marjory Stoneman Douglas mass shooting in Parkland, Florida in the spring of 2018 launched their efforts to reform gun laws that activists converged cultural power, disruptive potential, and coordinated organization to affect meaningful change. Their social media chops meant that they not only shaped their own narrative for their peers, but they also informed mass media by advocating for their cause on Twitter where “journalists spend much of their time” (Bromwich, para. 5). Yet, simply identifying journalists would not alone separate their work from that of other movements. Their efficacy lies their air-tight messaging — which focussed on “gun violence,” not “school shootings” — and the pathway for clear legislative change that was absent in previous campaigns (Cullen, para. 85). Sure, they cannot vote. But, their supporters can. And, the Parkland students are quick to remind everyone that they intend to use the democratic process to make proposed legislative reforms. Protesters in Cairo lacked a democratic process to rebuild the country and #BlackLivesMatter activists ushered a cultural movement much more difficult to accomplish through policy reform alone. While the moment and digital tools primed them for a particular moment of political efficacy, what is most salient here is the young students’ ability to shape the narrative, fixing the social gaze squarely on their perspective and making them the de facto experts not only on their own lived experience, but also on policy reforms. They not only shaped a narrative, but they also outlined a path for legislative change while systematically excluded from the legislative process.
When the Kessler twins crafted their Instagram with a specific point of view, they did so from a moment in the world that said that they, as young women, can make meaningful change. And, they can make that change by shaping a narrative; by using the personal and making it political for the world to see. In a world where young people are not allowed to participate in the political process and women scarcely represented in mainstream media, their choice to carve their own media space said to the world: Pass me the mic. Because, I have something to say. And, while they share their own stories, they’re also acutely aware of how and why their voice has more salience than those of some of their peers. Peri explained, “[People of color] have been working on this issue for so long now and never got the media attention and celebrities didn’t donate to their activism” (Schwartz). Young people like Brooke and Peri see their job as not only amplifying their own voice, but also as passing the mic to those who scarcely get the same attention — never speaking for others and instead speaking with the world. The question is never if oppressed communities have a voice; to assume they do not serves only to validate the systems predicated on their oppression. Rather, the question is always how do we give people at the front lines of oppression a microphone and turn up the volume?