How platforms like Instagram are shaping protests across the country.
By Ethan | 6/28/20
Right now we are at a crossroads. In the wake of the murder of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor (just to name a few), people are calling for a change. And it is not just a call for justice for the recent victims, but a call to end the decades of discrimination towards people of color that has been systematically enforced, especially by law enforcement, throughout America’s history.
There has been a history of nationwide protests demanding rights for people of color and justice for those who have been wrongfully killed; for example, the long nationwide civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s that fought for basic civil rights to be put into law and for the enfranchisement of people of color, or in 2013, when the murder of Trayvon Martin resulted in nationwide protests, and birthed the Black Lives Matter movement. However, the current protests that are occuring nationwide are different in primarily one way: the large presence of social media.
Platforms like Instagram and Twitter are wildly popular with younger Americans, with over 90% of adults aged 18-29 being users, and more than 50% of them using those platforms daily. As such, it has become the home to most of the information and opinions about the current movement. There have been some huge benefits to having access to social media; for example, people can get information about protests quickly and easily, people can share resources like lawyers and hotlines, and anybody can see news and stories that aren’t necessarily covered in the mainstream media. The ability for social media to reach millions of people within seconds make nationwide protests, like the ones we are having now, much more likely and more organized. Additionally, many people are posting their support and opinions about the current movement.
Even though there have been many positive actions on social media, there have also been some more controversial social media trends. Black Out Tuesday was a trend where users would post a black screen with the hashtag #blackouttuesday or #blacklivesmatter in order to show solidarity for the movement. While the trend was seemingly harmless, many said that the abundance of black images took over their feeds, preventing them from seeing important information related to protests; however, even with this concern, there were more than 28 million posts on Instagram with the hashtag #blackouttuesday. The most likely reason for this abundance of posts is the mounting pressure on social media to show your support for the Black Lives Matter cause, with people expressing sentiments along the lines of “I’m taking notes of who isn’t posting.”
While support through posts like those on Black Out Tuesday may not seem like a bad thing, it is actually providing people with an easy excuse to do the least possible for a cause that is so important. People are taking only sixty seconds out of their day to post this black image, along with a hashtag, and then shut off their phone and feel like they have contributed enough.
I posted a black photo with #blackouttuesday myself, but ended up taking it down after I reflected on the main reason why I posted. Yes, I wanted to show my support for the cause, and make an impact wherever I could, but I found that my main motivation behind posting was actually selfish; I wanted to prove to everybody else on the platform that I wasn’t racist, and prove that I care about the issues at hand. But our priorities should not be ourselves and our reputation right now, especially if you are not a person of color.
Social media has largely become a liberal echo chamber, where the consequences of deviating from the liberal position and trends are social humiliation and shame. In the first couple weeks of the protest, if you didn’t support the hard line position that violence is always justified, including looters and people burning down businesses and buildings, you were widely ostracized, even if just a week later many agreed that some of these actions were not productive. There also was, and to some extent still is, a competitive atmosphere (which is inherent to social media metrics of likes, retweets, and followers) of trying to say the most radical thing, which both takes away from the information and stories that are truly terrible and really matter, and polarizes people. The black square is the perfect example of people adding their voice to a cause, even if they have nothing of meaning to say, because of the social media pressure.
While it may seem obvious that if you posted a black screen on Tuesday, that you also took other steps to help the movement, the numbers show otherwise; with 28 million #blackouttuesday posts, there were still only 12.9 signatures on the change.org petition ‘Justice for George Floyd’. Even though signing the petition requires about the same amount of time and effort as posting a black screen, the major difference is that one is a public display of your beliefs to your followers, and the other is a private action; unsurprisingly, the more popular avenue is the public display.
Additionally, a large majority of these posts were by younger audiences, who are consistently failing to show up to vote, and voted at a 23% lower rate than other age demographics during the midterms in 2018. How can you protest governmental institutions, and especially the presidency of Donald Trump, if you are not using your political voice and power? Clearly, there is a huge discrepancy in people’s “support” and people’s actions.
We shouldn't be encouraging and pressuring people to just post anything on social media to “support the cause”, but rather we should encourage people to deliberately post information, opinions, news, and stories about what is going on in the country, and take actions outside of social media to further the cause. If this is done, people will become more invested in the movement, and it will be much easier to draw others in through news and videos that explicitly show the racism occurring in our country.
It can be argued that pressuring people on social media can make them think more deeply about the issues we are facing, but I think there are other ways to accomplish this. For example, protests that disrupt people’s day to day lives force them to face the issues around them, and question what is right and wrong, as well as videos and statistics that can’t be debated. Just days after George Floyd’s murder, when the first protests began, Google searches for “am I racist” nearly tripled, indicating that people were reflecting more on themselves and their own relationship with race.
The danger with pressuring people online to post who may not actually be passionate about or truly support black rights in the U.S is that those people will not remain committed. Even now, I have watched my Instagram feed start returning to normal, as many people seem to have lost their initial motivation. People may not have bad intentions in trying to pressure their followers into posting, but a post isn’t going to keep people fighting after the initial flame has dwindled. If we want to do that, we are going to need to have discussions with one another, make the voices and stories of black Americans heard, and spread access to trustworthy news and reporting. It is okay to keep track of who is being passionate and speaking out and who isn’t so that you know whether somebody shares the same basic belief of everybody being treated equally, but keep in mind that some people may not post what they are doing on social media, and jumping to conclusions or accusing others can be detrimental.
If you see somebody who does not appear to be taking any actions, start a conversation with them, talk to them, and get the full story, and if they refuse to support this movement or accept that racism does exist in the U.S., then talk with them about it and show them statistics and stories to try to change their viewpoint. But by trying to pressure people into posting on social media, you are letting them hide behind that post of a black screen.
A couple weeks ago, right after George Floyd was murdered and protests were beginning to occur, I remember scrolling through Instagram for hours, reading opinions about controversial parts of the protest, watching video after video of cops openly and clearly abusing their power (and getting a slap on the wrist for it), and protestors, including little kids, getting tear gassed for no clear reason. Those pictures, those videos, and those words that I saw, they made me angry. They made me want to take action, to do whatever I could to help in any way possible. But on that Tuesday morning, I opened Instagram, scrolled through a swamp of black images for a few minutes, then shut my phone off.
The displays of solidarity like those on Black Out Tuesday only ended up silencing the movement and the news for a 24 hour period. Support in the form of posts and likes may feel impactful, but if we truly want to try to dismantle the racism that has run rampant in this country since its birth, then we must use our voices, our money, we must sign petitions, take to the streets, and raise awareness about what is, and has been, going on in our country.