We’ve looked at several different ways to build political power over the last two months, and this week we cover one of the newest ways to effect change: social media.
Mila was joined by UNC Professor and author Alice Marwick, who explained how politicians should and shouldn’t use online platforms. She discussed the ways social media has helped balloon specific social causes to the forefront of the American imagination, and highlighted how Trump harnessed his existing reputation and following on platforms like Twitter in the 2016 Presidential election.
Listen to Mila and Alice’s conversation and let us know what you think!
During our conversation, Marwick mentioned the term “hashtag activism,” which piqued our interest.
“I think Black Lives Matter is the epitome of what we would call hashtag activism in that it’s really a native social media activist movement,” she said. “The movement started trying to bring awareness to the deaths of black people and acts of police brutality that were not being covered by mainstream media. Social media became a platform to push these events into mainstream consciousness and to try to get people to pay attention to them.”
It’s true – even the movement’s name is a hashtag. #BlackLivesMatter sprang to life in the aftermath of Treyvon Martin’s killing at the hands of George Zimmerman, whose subsequent acquittal of the murder shocked the nation. Some equated the crime with a modern-day lynching.
On June 13, 2013, Alicia Garza sent out a Facebook post containing the phrase “our lives matter,” condemning the recent verdict. Her friend Patrisse Cullors commented “#BlackLivesMatter” on the post, and a movement was inadvertently born. Garza and Cullors became two of the founding members of the BlackLivesMatter organization.
The hashtag didn’t take off immediately. In fact, the Pew Research Center noted that it only appeared on Twitter 5,106 times during the second half of 2013.
Then, in 2014, Michael Brown was fatally shot by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, MO. In the three weeks after the teenager’s death, users tweeted #BlackLivesMatter roughly 58,747 times per day. When a jury acquitted Wilson in November of that year, users posted the hashtag more than 1.7 million times in a three-week timespan.
The hashtag stuck. It became synonymous with matters of racial equality and police violence against minorities. Social media, the mother-platform of the organization, kept it relevant and moving forward.
“A great deal of people who are not those core original members or the core people who marched in like 2014 or 2015 are still showing a great deal of support for Black Lives Matter on social media,” Marwick explained during the interview. “There’s these kind of low overhead actions that people can do. They can retweet a message about Black Lives Matter. They can change their profile picture on Facebook… And these might not be people who would go to a protest or who would necessarily donate money to a bail fund, but it creates the sort of sense of consensus and this idea of a very broad movement with a wide, wide social base.”
#BlackLivesMatter used their eponymous hashtag and the social following they garnered to build a long-lasting movement. In 2020, their continued efforts paid off dramatically.
In the days and weeks after Minneapolis police officers killed George Floyd during an arrest over a counterfeit $20 bill, the hashtag exploded. Between May 26 and June 7 of this year, Twitter users wrote #BlackLivesMatter more than 47.8 million times. Protesters, spurred by the hashtag, peacefully flowed into American streets, creating the largest movement in American history.
The success of the Black Lives Matter movement correlates directly with the increased use of the hashtag on social media. As the hashtag grew, so too did the number of Americans reckoning with racial injustice. As more Americans became outraged, more protests formed. Those protests are already yielding meaningful change. The most obvious example is uncharacteristically charging the police officer who knelt on Floyd’s neck with second-degree murder. Should Democrats win in November, #BlackLivesMatter is poised to exert more pressure for even more state and federal legislation changes.
All this, thanks to a Facebook post and the burgeoning use of hashtag activism.
Anderson, Monica, et al. “#BlackLivesMatter Surges on Twitter after George Floyd’s Death.” Pew Research Center, Pew Research Center, 28 Aug. 2020, www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/06/10/blacklivesmatter-surges-on-twitter-after-george-floyds-death/.
Anderson, Monica. “History of the Hashtag #BlackLivesMatter: Social Activism on Twitter.” Pew Research Center: Internet, Science & Tech, Pew Research Center, 31 Dec. 2019, www.pewresearch.org/internet/2016/08/15/the-hashtag-blacklivesmatter-emerges-social-activism-on-twitter/.
Ankel, Sophia. “30 Days That Shook America: Since the Death of George Floyd, the Black Lives Matter Movement Has Already Changed the Country.” Business Insider, Business Insider, 24 June 2020, www.businessinsider.com/13-concrete-changes-sparked-by-george-floyd-protests-so-far-2020-6.
Buchanan, Larry, et al. “Black Lives Matter May Be the Largest Movement in U.S. History.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 3 July 2020, www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/07/03/us/george-floyd-protests-crowd-size.html.
Cobb, Jelani, et al. “The Matter of Black Lives.” The New Yorker, www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/03/14/where-is-black-lives-matter-headed.
Gray, Madison. “Trayvon Martin, One Year Later: Where We Are Now.” Time, Time, 26 Feb. 2013, nation.time.com/2013/02/26/trayvon-martin-one-year-later-where-we-are-now/.
“The Hashtag #BlackLivesMatter First Appears, Sparking a Movement.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 10 July 2020, www.history.com/this-day-in-history/blacklivesmatter-hashtag-first-appears-facebook-sparking-a-movement.
“Herstory.” Black Lives Matter, 7 Sept. 2019, blacklivesmatter.com/herstory/.
“Michael Brown’s Shooting and Its Immediate Aftermath in Ferguson.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 12 Aug. 2014, www.nytimes.com/interactive/2014/08/12/us/13police-shooting-of-black-teenager-michael-brown.html.
Onesto, Li. “Trayvon Martin. A Modern American Lynching.” Global Research, 27 Mar. 2012, www.globalresearch.ca/trayvon-martin-a-modern-american-lynching/29987.
Shelbourne, Talis. “A New Report Says 93% of BLM Protests Have Been Peaceful.” Heavy.com, 4 Sept. 2020, heavy.com/news/2020/09/blm-protests/.