Activism Needs More than Social Media

How We Exhausted the Promise of Online Activism

At the height of summer two years ago, the United States experienced a string of black men killed during routine encounters with police, which ignited the Black Lives Matter movement. Police departments do not report how many civilians are killed by police, but given the history of racial violence and bias that has existed since the birth of this country, the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott and others was not far outside of the norm. Thanks to the pervasiveness of cell phone videos and social media though, these isolated incidents were seen as part of a systematic trend and a powerful mass movement began. The Black Lives Matter movement saw videos, online solidarity, a viral hashtag and furious editorials from the most prestigious newspapers and magazines. It saw relentless protests and a resurgence of the direct action tactics of the 1960s, as protesters amassed by the thousands in every major city. Every night for weeks on end, protesters chained themselves to tires on freeways and essential roadways in Boston, New York, LA and Missouri. And social media helped make it happen.

Yet after the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile last week, and the greater unrest across the country, following the mass shooting targeting police in Dallas and Baton Rouge, it’s time to admit the the promise of social media to organize and facilitate an engaged citizenry has failed because it has made saying something feel like doing something, and placed too much faith in the power of public discourse and demonstration alone to solve real world problems.

This should not be a surprise. Newton was supposed to be the moment that would break the gridlock in the debate over gun control. The financial crash would end the reckless speculation of big banks. Cecil the Lion would be the end of big game hunting. Yet all of these movements were stillborn.

The tools citizens have used to hold leaders accountable have failed across the board. Social media can help people organize and coalesce into a larger movement faster and can mobilize thousands of people in the streets with the same message communicated in the same language. Indignant editorials can galvanize readers to support specific policy solutions. Direct action can create an air of urgency and immediacy and precipitate conversations about the issues at hand in communities otherwise far removed from the harsh realities. But none of those things have improved tensions between communities of color and their police departments, or prevented a mass shooting, or slow the growth of economic inequality.

There is one obvious course of action – go vote – but given the complexity of the policy issues at hand, it is a lazy and inadequate solution. Yes, informed citizens should vote, but voting alone will not make the radical impact these movements call for. Democratic elections are not to thank for any of the leaps in progress that the United States has experienced in it’s 200 plus years of self governance as a Democratic Republic. Racial integration, gay marriage and a woman’s access to legal abortion were the results of Supreme court cases. The implementation of a social safety net and financial regulation responded to economic collapse that threatened to undermine national solvency. Slavery was ended only after a civil war and then was initiated by executive action before any democratic legislation occurred. Change can occur when it is backed by enormous executive power, judicial power, or economic power — often working in conjunction.

That is why Black Lives Matter needs more from its supporters than to share the same status on Facebook or use the same words.

They need a SuperPAC. Or a progressive version of the Republican’s REDMAP strategy. Or a test case concerning police use-of-force before a sympathetic and fully-staffed Supreme Court. Or a roster of private industry titans and CEOs making specific public policy demands. Maybe even a constitutional convention or the secession of a state or city from the Union.

What is not useful is urging people to just “say something” on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. The national conversation among informed citizens is essential to the health of this country, but we cannot continue pretending that you are making significant progress towards a real change if all you are doing is repeating a strategy that has continued (and will continue) to fail. If all you demand is a social media post and showing up in the streets, you’ll get as much long term change as Pokemon Go.

It’s time for activists to get their hands on some tools that will begin to make a difference.