Black Power in the Digital Age

Since the inception of America, African-American lives have suffered profoundly. Their oppression began with the atrocities of slavery and ominously continued with racial segregation via the Jim Crow laws. The Civil Rights Movement played a major turning point as intrepid leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X tenaciously fought for equality and freedom. Though no one can deny the progressive impact of social change in America, racism unfortunately continues to plague the black community — such as numerous incidents of police brutality. Unlike the past, however, today’s black American populace are equipped with social media, especially Twitter, which has proven to be an invaluable instrument for online activism.

When Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old black man, was shot and killed on August 9th, 2014, by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, the local tragedy became national news with the influence of Twitter, a social media website. It enabled political activists to frame the narrative of this appalling event and disseminate the story on their own terms, which was unfathomable in the 1960s. During that era, civil rights activists were dependent on mainstream news organizations to circulate their stories to the general public. If an individual had witnessed an act of police brutality, she would call the WATS (Wide Area Telephone Service) line and report the incident, which would then be compiled into a report and mailed out to “organization leaders, the media, the Justice Department, lawyers, and other friends of the movement across the country” (Stephen, “Social Media Helps Black Lives Matter Fight the Power”). Their means of communicating news was a cumbersome process due to the limited technology of that period. Today, however, socially conscious citizens have the priceless access to highly advanced internet technology, which in turn empowers them to mobilize and fight for justice. In this particular case, it is the African-American community by way of the Black Lives Matter movement.

The genesis of Black Lives Matter had come into existence as a result of Trayvon Martin’s death in 2012. The meaningful phrase was coined by a “black community organizer in a Facebook post following the July 2013 acquittal of George Zimmerman” (Anderson et al. “The Hashtag #BlackLivesMatter Emerges: Social Activism on Twitter”). Soon afterward, the now famous hashtag #BlackLivesMatter made its appearance on Twitter. Yet it didn’t gain traction until 2014 after the Michael Brown tragedy. This incident had thrusted the Black Lives Matter hashtag into the national spotlight, and solidified Twitter as the dominant social media platform as it pertained to the African-American community (Anderson et al. “The Hashtag #BlackLivesMatter Emerges: Social Activism on Twitter”).

Political and social activists involved in the movement were able to utilize the online social network to expose, define, and personally direct the catastrophic event in Ferguson. As a corollary, the American public understood the story through the voices of Black Lives Matter as oppose to the mainstream press. Moreover, the national debate with regard to police brutality and racism was represented fairly, providing the much-needed black perspective. Brittany Packnett, an organizer with Campaign Zero, stated that social media had enabled the African-American community to “control our own narrative instead of relinquish that power to other people — other people who don’t live in our communities, who weren’t on the ground in Ferguson” (Patterson, “Black Lives Matter is Killing It on Twitter”). Twitter’s social influence fostered the power of empathy; it provided an intimate and subjective insight into the African-American psyche concerning their fears and frustrations associated with institutionalized racism.

During the Ferguson protests, the social and political discourse that enveloped the Twittersphere amongst black people demonstrated that the African-American populace could also participate in conscientious issues on a significant level. Their short-form messages of 140 characters or less weren’t just limited to casual conversation. Although black users with regard to general use were “overrepresented on Twitter as compared to their overall numbers in the population” (Bode et al. 319), they made their presence felt in the realm of sociopolitical discourse, which in turn showed that politics weren’t exclusively reserved for white males on Twitter. Bode’s and Dalrymple’s study had found that political users on Twitter tended to be a predominantly white population comprised of males (319). The Michael Brown incident established that black people would robustly engage in socially conscious tweeting if they felt a dire need to act on pressing matters of injustice. Consequently, politicians took note of the black community’s impact on Twitter — such as Bernie Sanders.

In 2015, Bernie Sanders defended the Black Lives Matter movement as it received a backlash from critics in the form of the All Lives Matter hashtag. When Sanders was asked at a political debate whether black lives or all lives matter, he responded by asserting, “Black lives matter…we need to combat institutional racism from top to bottom and we need major, major reforms in a broken criminal justice system” (Flores, “Democratic Debate: Do Black Lives Matter”). As a result of Sanders’ political support, #BlackLivesMatter appeared on Twitter more than 127,000 times throughout the subsequent day (Anderson et al. “The Hashtag #BlackLivesMatter Emerges: Social Activism on Twitter”).

Despite the paucity of black elite politicians, ordinary citizens were able to become prominent opinion leaders via Twitter. For instance, Zellie Imani, a math teacher, was able to create a choreography of assembly, which Gerbaudo describes as “facilitating the gathering of participants in public space, and generating an emotional tension towards participation” (103-104). Imani’s Twitter clout of 50,000 followers enabled him to organize NJShutitdown, “a group protesting police brutality on college campuses in New Jersey” (McDonald et al. “They Helped Make Twitter Matter in Ferguson Protests”). Bode and Dalrymple suggest that “Twitter users are likely to influence and be influenced by their respective networks” (315). In this case, Imani’s social clout contributed greatly to the two-step flow of information, where his followers would tweet messages concerning Ferguson and those messages would be retweeted, and thereby, permeating this flow of information throughout the social network. This two-step flow process helped crystalize the Black Lives Matter voice in the Twitter universe.

Similar to the Occupy Wall Street movement, the Black Lives Matter crusade remained organic and vivacious in the Twittersphere because of its emotionally charged human connection in the physical space, an essential factor to any sociopolitical undertaking. The Occupy Wall Street hashtag became prevalent after “occupiers eventually pitched their tents in Zuccotti Park, and the police began their repression” (Gerbaudo 116). The physical action on the ground, rather than in cyberspace, ignited the spark that enabled the Occupy Wall Street hashtag to become viral. In the case of #BlackLivesMatter, Brown’s death had roused the flame, but it didn’t become renowned on Twitter until James Rogers, the white police officer that had shot and killed Michael Brown, was acquitted in court, inciting the furious protests in the streets of Ferguson. Twitter’s influence is only relevant when the social movement is tangible in a public space. Otherwise, “social media magic does not work unless it is accompanied by a resonant narration, capable of motivating people to take to the streets” (Gerbaudo 131). The unjust killing of Michael Brown galvanized the African-American community to take action, and their use of Twitter via #BlackLivesMatter voiced their indignation, anxiety, and frustrations to the world.

Oppression and inequality continue to mire black lives in America, but so long as technology continues to advance and evolve, the African-American community will be armed with a salvo of weapons to combat racism and injustice. Twitter may one day lose its political cachet in the sphere of social media as new digital platforms emerge and develop. In the present, however, Twitter has empowered the black citizenry to participate in activism against instances of police brutality, such as Michael Brown’s fatal shooting. Regardless of the political obstacles, the online and offline presence of Black Lives Matter has embedded the communal seeds of positive and productive change in America that will burgeon and manifest in profound ways.

Works Cited:

Anderson, Monica, and Hitlin, Paul. 2016. “The Hashtag #BlackLivesMatter Emerges: Social Activism on Twitter.” Pew Research Center, 15 Aug. 2016, http://www.pewinternet.org/2016/08/15/the-hashtag-blacklivesmatter-emerges-social-activism-on-twitter/

Bode, Leticia, and Dalrymple, Kajsa. 2016. Politics in 140 Characters or Less: Campaign Communication, Network Interaction, and Political Participation on Twitter, Journal of Political Marketing, 15:4, 311-332, DOI: 10.1080/15377857.2014.959686

Flores, Reena. 2015. “Democratic Debate: Do Black Lives Matter?” CBS News, 13 Oct. 2015, www.cbsnews.com/news/democratic-debate-do-black-lives-matter/.

Gerbaudo, Paolo. 2012. Tweets and the Streets: Social Media and Contemporary Activism. London, GB: Pluto Press 2012.

McDonald, Brent, et al. 2015. “They Helped Make Twitter Matter in Ferguson Protests.” The New York Times, 10 Aug. 2015, www.nytimes.com/2015/08/11/us/twitter-black-lives-matter-ferguson-protests.html.

Patterson, Brandon. 2016. “Black Lives Matter Is Killing It on Twitter.” MotherJones, 3 Mar. 2016, www.motherjones.com/politics/2016/03/study-shows-how-black-lives-matter-controls-police-narrative.

Stephen, Bijan. 2015. “Social Media Helps Black Lives Matter Fight the Power.” Wired, Nov. 2015, www.wired.com/2015/10/how-black-lives-matter-uses-social-media-to-fight-the-power/.

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