Following the acquittal of George Zimmerman for fatally shooting 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in 2013, activists and members of the American black community took to the streets in protest, in addition to using #BlackLivesMatter as an outlet to air their frustration on social media. According to the Pew Research Center, the hashtag has been mentioned in public tweets nearly 30 million times (as of May’18) to start a discussion around race-related issues, especially, police brutality. In the long run, #BlackLivesMatter helped in the removal of the Confederate flag in South Carolina capitol (that was eventually removed), prompted the federal investigation of potentially unfair police practices in Ferguson, and pushed the Democratic presidential candidates to introduce policies for the betterment of black people in the country.
The rise of #BlackLivesMatter, along with #MeToo and #MAGA in recent times has sparked widespread debate on the effectiveness of using social media platforms for social activism, and political engagement.
For users belonging to a certain ethnicity and/or race, social media can be particularly helpful in developing and driving sustained movements for social change. For example, approximately half of black social media users agree that platforms like Facebook and Twitter are somewhat important, as they provide a space for the underrepresented masses to express their political views and get involved with issues that matter to them. “People who are tweeting or liking things on Facebook are also participating in marches,” she said.
“What’s so interesting and so meaningful about social media and social movements is just how quickly people can mobilize through social media,” explains Rachel Einwohner, professor of Sociology at the Purdue University, “People who are tweeting or liking things on Facebook are also participating in marches. They’re also having face to face conversations with [their] neighbors, and calling their congressmen.” In today’s society, where people of color are overlooked by the majority of our political institutions, social media encourages them to use their voice.
Cliff Lampe, a Stanford assistant professor who studies the impact of online communities and social media on our society found that social media users, who are not necessarily activists, are able to use these platforms to encounter a diverse set of opinions and beliefs on any given subject. “That is why Facebook is so important for observers,” he says, “Facebook has a heterogeneous population, which means the newsfeeds are flooded with different viewpoints.”
Additionally, social media has also made it possible for people to share ideas, learnings and theories using just a few taps. “Activists have used communication technology for a long time,” Lampe clarifies, “Before, they used to use flyers and posters. Now, with social media, the costs of space and time are less.”
In the last five years, the usage of #BlackLivesMatter has experienced periodical spike during significant events, like, the death of Eric Garner (July 2014), Michael Brown (August 2014), and Freddie Gray (2015) as a direct result of police brutality. “Hashtags very shortly summarize the community’s goals,” says Alicia Garza, one of the three African American women who created the #BlackLivesMatter movement, “It helps people to identify a cohesive group and identify their parameters.”
Overall, 69% of Americans consider social media to be a useful medium to get the attention of politicians and decision-makers, however, 77% also feel that these platforms often distract the public from issues that actually worth focussing on.
Regardless, one thing is clear: Social media has allowed people from different walks of life to come together and share information with people who are not active participants in their movements. Not only this, it is now easier for the general populace to hold their policymakers accountable and demand a better world to live in.