Print Project: Black Lives Matter and the Rise of Social Media Activism

On February 26, 2012, a young African American teenager by the name of Trayvon Martin was murdered in Sanford, Florida. This ignited a social movement in America to reconsider how our society discards black bodies and values black lives. A stream of high profile cases of police brutality that resulted in the deaths of unarmed black citizens fueled activists and concerned citizens to use digital media platforms to organize a call to action. Community activists protested in cities across the country in many ways. They physically marched the streets of their neighborhoods, picketed signs in front of their local municipalities, stopped traffic on bustling highways, but arguably the most impactful protest came from a placeless space, social media.

Though the statistical and historical evidence revolving police brutality, shows this is far from a novel issue, what brought the feet to the pavement and international demand for social justice? What is the difference from the era of Emmett Till, George Stinney, or Fred Hampton? What made millions care more than ever to proclaim, “Enough is enough!”. Simple, what is here now that was not around during the murders of Black Americans decades ago? Two words, social media. Twitter and Instagram, two of some of the top social media platforms in the world, played a major role in the new age of social media activism. Their platforms provided space for dialogue and organization surrounding the epidemic of murders and the disposal of black lives across the country. Scholars, activists, and the general public were able to exchange ideas, information, and historical context for real-time problems facing their communities.

It was in this space, that the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter created a network that grew into a force that demanded the attention of lawmakers to acknowledge their collective voice. This hashtag, this movement created by Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi after the acquittal of George Zimmerman in 2013, made history. It presented a new blueprint for social movements to share their message and content for the masses in real-time. Even the controversy and disapproval of the nonviolent social activist network that is shared on Twitter and Instagram creates further dialogue and attention to the matter.

Twitter and Instagram propelled the organization of the Black Lives Matter network. It will be interesting to dive deeper into the dialogue, organization, and historical context on these social media platforms during the network’s early years. For this semester’s print project, I propose analyzing the significance of the organization and dialogue surrounding the Black Lives Matter network on Twitter and Instagram. In turn, this project will connect the network’s presence on these social media platforms in the development of social media activism and datasets.

3 Replies to “Print Project: Black Lives Matter and the Rise of Social Media Activism”

  1. Sierra, I absolutely agree with you- social media has undeniably been the foundation of modern protests and activism. It is almost unfathomable to think about how protests and movements grew and progressed in an era with no immediate news outlets or advanced communicative technologies. How different do you think the dialogue surrounding a movement from the early twentieth century would be compared to a movement rooted in digital media today? Do you think taking a stance and making a difference in society is easier today because of this easy access? Why are these online media platforms becoming the site of such important, powerful features of history?
    This is such an important topic as it is an ongoing movement today. There is still active dialogue and protest happening every day…therefore I am excited to see where your project leads you and what conclusions you come to at the end!

    1. Great questions! All questions that I’m still struggling to find the solution. It is definitely difficult to fathom what activism was like without the benefit of virtual platforms to organize and amplify a network of changemakers. In scratching the surface of my research, I would say there is less risk of physical harm and backlash using social media activism today. Dialogue and sharing evidence from witnesses of fatal accounts can be shared in real-time on social media without risk of persecution. Anyone from a farmer in Montana to a dancer in New York City, a 15-year-old student to a 45-year old single mom can all engage in social media activism. Location is not as important as making your hashtag trend. Though I think social media activism is a great platform for dialogue as we can see with not just Black Lives Matter, but with the MeToo movement as well. I’m not sure if relying on digital media will harm the movements and real change over time. There are so many opinions and conversations happening, which are great but can be overwhelming. There are millions ready to vocalize their support for a movement on Instagram, yet numbers of voters every year are dropping drastically. So this will be an interesting topic to dissect and looking forward to sharing my findings with you.

  2. Exploring social media and activism in the context of Black Lives Matter is a great idea. As you’ve noted, the Black Lives Matter movement has made significant use of the affordance of social media as a means to draw attention to the brutality and violence black people and communities face in the United States.

    In this context, it would be good and important to engage with a range of research projects that have developed along some similar lines. In particular, Alicia Garza published “A Herstory of the #BlackLivesMatter Movement” in 2014

    Along with that, there are some significant pieces that have come out about #Ferguson and and some of the ongoing work on documenting the now

    So those are some initial pieces of scholarship that it would be good to connect and engage with. From there, I think there are a wide range of particular issues you could delve into.

    Again, this is a great topic to explore!

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