Preserving Social Media Records of Activism

On November 17th, 2015, I was part of a panel at Temple University Libraries on strategies for preserving records related to activism. My short presentation focused on the value of preserving social media records of activism. The program title was Diversity in the Archives: Preserving Ephemeral Activist Culture. I’m sharing my slides and brief notes here with some edits and links to some resources I mentioned and also some I didn’t mention.

When I say something like this, I say it fully aware of the complexities and challenges around ethics, privacy and other rights issues related to collecting records in social media spaces. But I don’t think we should let these be barriers. We should look at them as opportunities to do this work more responsibly.

We have so many good reasons to collect social media records that document current protest movements. One of them is that the protesters and activists continue to tell us how important social media platforms are to the work they do. This is a tweet from prominent activist, Deray Mckesson during the Ferguson protests in 2014, but several others have echoed this sentiment over the past 15 months.

It’s undeniable that social media has had a major impact on how information about protest activity has been consumed by the public. It has helped to influence opinions on both sides of the issues and it has also influenced how traditional media covered the issues. The other thing social media has significantly influenced is the quantity and quality of documentation around protests activity. Because people involved can now record and share their experiences, unfiltered, and in a way that’s accessible to millions of people, and because supporters and critics away from the activity can also weigh in, we have access to a rich new layer of documentation quality that did not exist before. I think this is good news for everyone interested in how the story of this current movement will be told to future audiences.

So lots of reasons to do the work but let’s focus on the quantity of documentation for the rest of the presentation. I think that’s one of the more compelling cases I can make considering my allotted time.

August of this year was the 50 anniversary of the Watts Rebellion of 1965 in Los Angeles. Most of us know it as the Watts Riots. It started on August 11th, 1965 after two white police officers attempted to arrest a black Watts resident named Marquette Frye who they suspected of drunk driving. A crowd, including the Mr. Frye’s mother, showed up to protest the arrest. The arrest ultimately led to six days of unrest that included 34 deaths, over 1000 injuries, more than 3000 arrests, and $40 million in property damage. It’s estimated that 35,000 people directly participated in the events. Because it was the 50th anniversary, several organizations in the L.A. area planned commemorative events around the history of the rebellion.

This one took place at California State University, Dominguez Hills. These screen shots are from a very nice website they put up for the events.

One thing I thought was really interesting about their site is that they wanted to involve the community in telling the story of the rebellion. They wanted community members to record oral histories and to send in written memories of the event. This made me want to search for publicly available primary source materials around the Watts Rebellion and other events like it, where there were mass uprisings in American cities after violent police encounters with African Americans. I also wanted to search for primary sources because these were major events in the history of American policing of poor communities of color and the record of how the public experienced them is extremely important.

I wanted to know how people were documenting their experiences with these events in the past? Maybe some were just talking at home about it while watching on TV or listening on radio. Maybe others were organizing at their local churches, schools and other community spaces. Maybe some people wrote in their diaries or journals about it, or did interviews with a newspaper, television or radio station. Or maybe some people participated by taking part in the rebellion by being in the streets. Did they take a camera with them to the scene? Did they take pictures or record video or audio of the activity? I highly doubt that in 1965, but it could have been possible in later events with access to smaller portable recording devices. So I searched for materials on five events between 1964 and 1992. There were obviously many more than these seven I highlight. Several urban centers erupted in rebellion during the 1960s and 1970s around issues of race and police violence.

These are the events I searched..

Harlem 1964

Watts 1965

Hough 1966

Detroit 1967

Los Angeles 1992

And I think you know where I’m going with this. I really could not find many primary source materials about these events let alone personal remembrances. [During the presentation I did find out about some oral histories at Temple University Libraries about the Philadelphia Rebellion in 1964]

People probably experienced these events in similar ways because they all happened before the wide use of the web and cell phones, and before the invention of modern social media platforms. But where is the evidence of the public’s engagement with these events? There was obviously a lot of newspaper, television and radio coverage so there are collections in those spaces. But how accessible are those materials? And whose stories do they tell? Police are interested in documenting crime and newspapers are interested in selling newspapers. There were federal, state and local government inquiries into these events that generated reports. Some of those along with images and other documentation are available at the National Archives and the Library of Congress.

I’m assuming there are also police, fire department, and military records about how the events were policed. I didn’t dig deep enough to try to find those but I’ve tried to get historical records from a police department before and it wasn’t a good experience. I found a couple of local institutions in the cities where the events took place. There’s a photograph collection at UC Berkeley and a collection at USC that includes some of the reports from the California Governor’s Commission on the Los Angeles unrest in 1992. There are also some photographs from the Watts and L.A. rebellions at the Los Angeles Public Library. I found some of these collections through Calisphere, ArchiveGrid and the Online Archive of California, but there really wasn’t that much considering the significance of the events. And there definitely seems to be a lack of digital content around them. I couldn’t find any sources with personal stories about the events though I am sure some oral histories exist.

So compare the available documentation around protests and activism before the 2000’s with available social media content documenting similar types of events today. Let’s look at Ferguson as an example. That story is still fresh in our minds from last August when an unarmed Michael Brown was killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, MO, which led to several months of protest and national outcry about how police interact with black communities. This is an event that would not have gained much attention if not for the existence of social media. Local citizens and protesters on the ground recognized early, the value of Twitter and other social media platforms, for documenting the historical moment they found themselves in, and they left an extremely rich trail of documentation in one of the most public and accessible spaces available to us today.

This is why I was excited to find out that Ed Summers was capturing tweets mentioning Ferguson a few days after the protests started in 2014. From August 10th-27th he collected over 13 million tweets, from a few thousand people that included thousands of bits of digital content and reaction to the event. Within that set of 13 million tweets were over 120,000 unique YouTube links and links to thousands of images, not to mention the thousands of personal reactions to the events.

The people sharing and re-sharing their reactions and digital content in the tweets were from all over the country and also outside the United States. For example, I remember set of tweets from Palestinians showing support for the people of Ferguson. And those 13 million tweets were only a small sample of tweets related to the Ferguson events because they only represented a two-week collecting window. As you know, the Ferguson movement has lasted for well over a year the protests and twitter activity around it saw huge spikes in activity several times over the past 15 months.

Here is a sample of over 45 million tweets Ed or myself have collected related to unrest following police encounters with African Americans in the past 15 months. It’s just an unbelievable amount of data and there are many millions more we could not get for various reasons. By the way these tweets are not publicly available because we haven’t figured out a responsible way to do that and also Twitter might sue us if we did.

I think these two images perfectly demonstrate this incredible shift in the volume of documentation around these types of events over the past 50 years. And it goes back to Deray’s statement about cell phones and twitter. On the left is an image of the Detroit Rebellion in 1967 and on the right is Ferguson in 2014. In both scenes a crowd and the police face off but the image on the right in many ways shows a group of citizens that seem to be more empowered and they are demonstrating it by holding up their cell phones and recording the police.

And I’ll end on this slide because I do think that before we can go too far with collecting social media with the goal of making this data accessible, we have to think more about developing preservation tools, access models and professional practices that respect people’s rights to express themselves so publicly. I think that’s absolutely vital. To me, this tweet demonstrates everything that is wrong with the surveillance state we currently live in but it also made me think about how we would protect people and their social media activity if we were to bring these collections into our libraries and archives.